Tuesday, September 08, 2015

To Save the World: "There is, suddenly, hope"

Jonathan Chiat, who I tend to quote alot around here, has an impressive piece online and in the current issue of New York Magazine.  It's called The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You've Ever Read: This is the year humans finally got serious about saving themselves from themselves.  The title is maybe a bit too cute, but the subtitle is accurate: it's the premise of the piece.

"Here on planet Earth, things could be going better," Chiat begins. "The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest."

While the comparison in terms of cost etc. may be arguable, it is a potent metaphor:

 "And the problem has turned out to be much harder to solve. It’s not the money. The cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, measured as a share of the economy, may amount to a fraction of the cost of defeating the Axis powers. Rather, it is the politics that have proved so fiendish. Fighting a war is relatively straightforward: You spend all the money you can to build a giant military and send it off to do battle. Climate change is a problem that politics is almost designed not to solve. Its costs lie mostly in the distant future, whereas politics is built to respond to immediate conditions. (And of the wonders the internet has brought us, a lengthening of mental time horizons is not among them.) "

The nature of the emergency is different.  Fictions about efforts to meet global catastrophes typically include a huge galvanizing event that changes everything, as Pearl Harbor did in vanquishing US isolationism.  Perhaps the nature of this emergency--being in the present widely dispersed, or being familiar phenomena with other causes, etc. In his climate crisis trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson invented a perfect storm that flooded Washington and ended political denialism-- in this fiction the storm was even called Sandy.  When an actual storm Sandy hit the East Coast and flooded Manhattan in 2012, it demonstrably did not end political denialism.

But in any case, as Chiat points out: "There has not yet been a galvanizing Pearl Harbor moment, when the urgency of action becomes instantly clear and isolationists melt away. Instead, it breeds counterproductive mental reactions: denial, fatalism, and depression."

Nevertheless, Chiat writes--and illustrates convincingly in the rest of this brilliantly reported and written piece--things have changed dramatically for the better in the last few years--and the prospects of a meaningful climate agreement in December are consequently pretty damn good:

The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win.

The basic reason has also been mentioned here, though not with the force of the numbers that Chiat presents: the rapid and extensive rise of clean energy technologies and their adoption, together with the rapid decline of coal.  The price of solar is falling rapidly, he writes, far faster than even its most optimistic promoters predicted.

In the US, this was driven by the stealth revolution President Obama created by insisting on substantial seed money for clean energy tech in the Recovery Act.  It's starting to really pay off, and Chiat has the numbers.

But it's not just a US phenomenon--Chiat is particularly interesting on China, which is the world's leading carbon polluter (twice that of the second place US) but which is currently getting off the coal standard and onto the sun:

 But in the past year, something amazing has taken place. In 2014, China’s coal production and its consumption both fell, and the drop appears to be continuing, or even accelerating, this year. Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who had previously believed Chinese coal use would rebound, conceded his error and called the shocking reversal “an economic and social sea change.” ...

China has made colossal investments in green energy. It plans to increase its solar-energy capacity this year alone by 18 gigawatts — as much solar-energy capacity as exists in the U.S. right now."

What about the rest of the world?  Chiat has the numbers, all in one place, and they are encouraging.  He sees in the combination of pledges already made to cut carbon plus the real commitments to clean energy expansion, the outlines of a doable global climate crisis deal in December.

And while there is some opposition and certainly footdragging in various countries, Chiat is succinct on how backward the US is on this, principally because of the propaganda machine called the Republican Party--which is essentially unique in the entire world:

 Eileen Claussen, former president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told National Journal that, while some individuals in other countries question climate science, there is “no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of.”

"Of course, it is unfortunate for the future of mankind that climate-change denialism has surfaced as a regional quirk in the most powerful country on Earth," Chiat writes with appropriate tragic understatement.  He writes perceptively about why denialism has set itself in concrete in the Republican party--all the major and minor R presidential candidates and so-called leaders, as well as an apparent majority of its rank and file--with such emotional ferocity that, he notes: "An alarming social study from June found that climate skeptics who read reports about natural disasters were less likely to favor helping the victims if the story connected the disaster to climate change."

(This could be then another reason why they aren't like to respond to the current refugee crisis in Europe, which is--as recent articles suggested --also a climate refugee crisis.)

But it could simply be a matter of time, Chiat suggests, for once the clean energy economy reaches critical mass in the not distant future, the denialism will lose its force.  The greatest danger he says is a Republican winning the White House in 2016.  (Something--he's written previously--that he does not expect to happen.)

The last part of his piece ushers us into the aspects of the future that perhaps I've anticipated too much here: the realities of dealing with the now inevitable effects at the same time as we address the causes of global heating.  He, too, faults leaders for approaching climate change as a win or lose, all or nothing battle. (although this works with his war metaphor, it's not how it's usually said--the word that Al Gore used and even President Obama slipped into his Alaska speech is "solve" the crisis.)

He points out especially that the goals of the international push for action--keeping the temperature rise below 2 degrees C--is approximate: A rise of 1.9 degrees does not mean salvation, and 2.1 degrees does not mean doom. It is a problem of gradations of suffering and expense — but remaining on the lowest possible point on that terrifying, unknowable scale is a question literally of life or death.

 He notes the psychological and political effects of discourse driven by this either/or:

"The danger of black-and-white moralism is that it can be paralyzing. Ironically, the despair of the left has one quality in common with the denial of the right: They are both coping mechanisms. Denial is conservatism’s way of avoiding the collision between its belief that governmental power over the economy must not be extended and the likely truth that climate change is a problem that can only be solved through more government. Despair is a means of coping with the contradiction between the awesome scale of the climate crisis and the paucity of political tools to solve it. Both render us passive bystanders to history and, by hiding our agency, distort our vision of the world. An inability to parse degrees of too little and too late can blind you to something revolutionary and historic taking place."

He ends with a summary evaluation, and with the word that above all, matters right now:

"The limits agreed to at Paris will not be enough to spare the world mass devastation. But they are the beginning of a framework upon which progressively stronger requirements can be built over time. The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope."

Monday, September 07, 2015

Labor Day 2015

The Sunday Doonesbury, even more appropriate for Labor Day.  Not much of an exaggeration in academia, but it pertains even more broadly.  Like writers, for instance.