Things I thought

Monday 9 November 2009

Yes, it's about politics

This morning, after one of my frustratingly common sleepless nights, I decided to go for a little walk and watch the sunrise.

I watched it from under a statue of a large copper horse. actually, thinking about it, it wasn't a large statue of a copper horse, it was a large copper statue of a horse. The original animal probably wasn’t made of metal. I’m guessing it was made of horse.
But I digress.
As I looked out at the lights of Windsor, the gently twinkling snake of cars on the M25, and the low key visual hum of London to the East I thought: we like this place, don’t we? I mean, Earth?

Overall, life on Earth seems pretty sweet. We have fine art, good music, great literature. We have friendships, and love, beauty. I hear series 3 of “Mad Men” is very good, and I just got an iPhone. So, on average, I would declare myself a broad supporter of civilization on Earth. As, I’m guessing, would most of you.

But scientists have been telling us, for a good while now, that Earth is ill. Very ill, in fact. If a doctor was delivering the prognosis, he would almost certainly start by saying “I don’t quite know how to tell you this” before breaking an egg of bad news all over the Gaia's pretty little face. It's not that the diagnosis is terminal, of course. if we would just start taking the medicine, we'd be fine.

Two years ago, at a Climate Summit in Bali, the powers that be postponed coming up with a final, legally binding deal on climate change until December of this year. Why December of this year? I’m guessing because, at the time, it was one of those dates that seemed so far away it might as well be never. Yet, with the monotonous predictability of linear time, the new summit is upon us. To nobody's great surprise negotiations have stalled, and a deal now looks unlikely for another year at best. If a week is a lifetime in politics, the Ministers at Copenhagen are gearing up to put off saving the world for another fifty two lifetimes.

So what’s wrong? If we’re all pretty fond of life on Earth, why are we having so much trouble saving it? One of the reasons, of course, is the cost. The stern report reckoned that effectively combating global warming could cost half a trillion dollars. Put into context, that’s about 1% of global GDP, or about half as much as the world spent on the banking bailout.

So it's actually pretty cheap. A bargain, in fact, when compared to the alternatives (which Stern estimated would cost between 5-20% of GDP a year, every year, forever). But the real problem is nobody can decide who will pick up the tab. Again and again, the debate about Carbon emissions refers back to the emerging economies of India and China, whose 2.5 billion people pollute nearly as much as we 700 million Westerners. It would, of course, be obscenely unfair if the developed world bore the economic brunt of reducing atmospheric carbon levels, simply because we gained all of the economic benefits from driving those levels up in the first place. But surely, as preposterously unfair as this is, doesn’t it make sense for the West, the rich people with the most to lose, to just buckle down and fix it ourselves? After all, when one of your housemates is late on the rent, the rest of you muck in, rather than risk getting chucked out, and settle the bill later.

So, why can’t we get a deal on climate signed? The world is on fire, and we’re idling around the garden centre, stroking our chins at the price of hoses. Why?

Perhaps because the earth is not ablaze. The earth isn’t sick. The earth is healthy. Or, if it the earth is sick, there is no cure. The world isn’t getting hotter. Or, if it is, it's not our fault. And even if it was our fault, how could you possibly know? What, really, do any of us know?

Just because the overwhelming majority of scientists agree on something doesn't make it true. It might be a ploy by climate scientists aimed at getting more money for their niche profession. After all, why does anyone go into academia if not for the Benjamins? And without ‘Climate Change’, how could Climate scientists possibly get paid? It’s not like there’s any money in predicting droughts, floods and hurricanes. Use your imaginations. Is it really that unlikely that a vast conspiracy involving hundreds of thousands of doctors, professors, researchers and other academics has spent the last 30 years conducting worthless research and falsifying the results as part of a nefarious plan to line their own pockets?
Of course, there is a little niggle with this theory. If you wanted to make money as a climate scientist, the quickest and most sure fire way of doing so would be to go and work for an energy company. Better yet, you could go and work for one of the countless think tanks who exist primarily to poke holes in the theory of anthropogenic climate change.
These think tanks, and others, have made the world of climate science a rather murky one for the layman to explore. I don’t know what to think when I hear that a volcanic eruptions produces more CO2 than all of the human beings on earth combined. Or when I hear that simple water vapour is a far more powerful Greenhouse Gas than CO2. I don’t have the time or understanding to research each and every one of the assertions thrown out b y those who doubt Climate Change is both real and manmade. And, in a highly contested environment, one in which both sides accuse the other of systematically falsifying research, how can I possibly know which side to believe.
The only method I have found, and one which reliable tells me that climate change is real, and we are doing it, is the method used by detectives the world over: follow the money. When two sides in an argument have broadly comparable views – say that Pepsi is better than Coke, or vice versa – the side with the most money tends to win. That’s why we have an advertising industry. Yet, in the controversy over climate change, in a fight between energy companies and environmentalists, the environmentalists are winning the battle for the minds of scientists. Why, if not because the science is right? Don’t get me wrong, It’s not that environmentalists don’t have money - Greenpeace has a revenue of $23 million. But the energy companies have more - ExxonMobil’s revenue is $477 Billion.
Yet there is a split, a split in the public’s view of the situation. People are deeply divided on climate change, not just what to do about it, but on whether it’s real at all. The public is split on what is fundamentally an issue of science, and when we understand why, I think we will understand why we have yet to fix the problem.
The division over whether anthropogenic global warming is real splits along political lines – the left believes in it, and the right doesn’t. The reason for this is pretty obvious. There is not a right wing solution to climate change. Even the most capitalist solutions – such as Cap and Trade – require the Government to step in and impose an artificial level on CO2 emissions, in effect to regulate the problem, before businesses can set a price for Carbon.

When an issue has a ‘market solution’ which requires direct Government interference with the Market, the right has a serious problem. Climate Change is not just an annoying, wishy-washy, lefty distraction for them. It is an existential threat to the foundations of right wing thinking. Of course, it doesn’t help that their ‘market solution’ doesn’t actually work. Governments are so given up to corruption that every instance of cap and trade that has been tried has resulted in huge cash giveaways, deals which have allowed the biggest polluters to line their pockets without reducing their emissions one jot.
The problem deepens when you realise the left are either unwilling or unable to put forward real, non-market solutions to Climate Change. Such solutions, to be effective, would require some new form of legally binding, responsive international law – “one world government” to quote the far right. Additionally, massive taxes, subsidies and takeovers of industry, particularly the energy industry, would also be necessary – “communism” to quote our lexically challenged friends once more. While I would love to see a workable solution to climate change come from the centre, or even from the right, it hasn't done so far, and time is seriously running out. We have to do something.

When a problem is fundamentally insoluble within our current political framework, when a collective problem arises in a world of ruthless individualism, and when that problem provides an existential threat not merely to our ideology, but to our existence itself, it is time to abandon the lofty, tarnished principles and do whatever works. It is time to stop worrying so much about economic growth and the absolute freedom of the wealthy. I believe we have thus far failed to solve climate change because it requires a paradigm shift in the way of the world – away from an atomised planet of isolated individuals, and towards a community. To save the world, we must first change the way it works.

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