Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why I Don't Really Talk About Global Warming

"When one argues with a fool, there are two." -anonymous

Global Warming is in my opinion the single greatest threat we as a species have ever encountered and we are presently at a tipping point of no return. Having said that, I rarely discuss it with anyone, and here's why.

It's not necessary.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that you believe what the Nobel Prize winning IPCC says, what science tells us, and what experts warn, that we are causing global warming and that the only way to reverse it is to radically and quickly rethink our priorities and the way we live. If you fall into this camp, than you're already on the right road and I'm preaching to the choir. The second option is that for some reason you buy into the spin, don't believe the science, and don't think you have anything to do with the whole global warming issue. Here's what I usually tell these folks, something which the 9 minute video above explains quite well and in much more detail.

Let's look at the four scenarios of global warming, assuming that you actually believe in thermometers and agree that the world is getting warmer as we speak.

  1. Global Warming IS caused by human activity and we continue living unsustainably - Lose/Lose situation. We could have turned things around and we didn't, and we are still addicted to fossil fuels, creating political instability, and destroying the environment.
  2. Global Warming IS NOT caused by human activity and we continue living unsustainably - Lose/Lose situation. On the Global Warming front we will have to ride it out, and we've missed the opportunity to clean up our acts.
  3. Global Warming IS NOT caused by human activity and we start living sustainably - Lose/Win situation. On the Global Warming front we'll just have to wait and see, but we pollute less, wean ourselves from cheap oil, take better care of the earth and help in a whole host of other ways.
  4. Global Warming IS caused by human activity and we start living sustainably - Win/Win situation. If we have acted in time and do enough, we could avert a major climate disaster, and at the same time, we get all the benefits of working towards a cleaner way of living.
So in my opinion, whether you believe in GW or not makes very little difference. The only chance we have of making things better is living more sustainably. And on that note, while I think it's important to stay informed, if you take this seriously to begin with, stay away from all of the articles about the ice shelf melting and how bad things are getting. You don't need more proof, and they will only depress you into feeling like your actions mean nothing.

For some more info and a good overview on what's going on and what can be done, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Live Sustainably



Doug said...

That strategy won't work, in my opinion, because you're begging the question. Why bother living sustainably if how we currently live isn't a problem, isn't causing climate change we can't handle (if any), and thus IS sustainable?

Without convincing people of the reality of human-caused global warming, you cannot argue for the sacrifices that will be necessary to combat it. You have no answer to the charge that all these "science"-based scare tactics are just a Trojan horse for foisting a particular lifestyle on others.

To say nothing about the fact that the truth and reality matter.

Furthermore, there are those who don't accept that the world is getting warmer; those who accept that it is but is no big deal; those who accept that it is, is no big deal, and certainly isn't human-caused; and so on. So you're begging that question, too, but the key question begged here is that you assume someone against global warming will be for your definition of sustainability. Some small sector might, but most likely, they won't. The anti-global-warming crowd use the threat of a lifestyle change to keep people from acting.

Frankly, if global warming isn't occurring, or is but isn't human caused, and is not that big a deal, why should anyone change his or her lifestyle?

Or, to put it another way, especially given the usual retort that "we" don't know that human-caused global warming is "absolutely, completely certain":

Nothing, including systems of logic and (so I'm told) even mathematics, can be proved "completely." Literally-meant "absolute" proof, knowledge, truth, etc., is not given to mere mortals. Unless, of course, they have "faith." Outside of that, you have to deal with degrees of proof: even 99.9[bar]% is not absolute.

Who cares? When does anyone ever expect absolute proof (in this strict sense), other than when they are trying, for reasons of cognitive dissonance or propaganda, to wiggle out of a situation of >99% truth? OK, say, even >90% truth?

You cannot prove that you're not a brain in a vat dreaming all of this. No one can; it's an old and (one would think) completely worn-out and pointless sophistic question. Yes, we all love David Hume, but let's face it: sure, one must be exceedingly careful about assuming causation from even the tightest correlation -- in fact, making that jump rationally and with warrant is what science is -- but when independent lines of evidence converge in unexpected ways on a particular conclusion...well, for mere mortals, that's epistemological sanction enough for action. Especially when the correlation is quite tight; the lines of evidence many and disparate; the number, location, and cultural backgrounds of the investigators as varied as can be; and the cost of inaction gigantic. You're quite right that even in the absence of global warming, fossil fuel use should be phased out for any number of other reasons: resource wars; limited nature of resource, and the obvious economic disaster that entails, sooner or later; pollution; et al. That has never been enough for any nation to do enough to move off fossil fuels, so you risk trapping yourself in "the watermelon" category: Green on the outside, but in fact Red on the inside.

In any event, we're not talking about PR strategy here: the level of confidence among the global community of climate scientists about the human-caused global warming is, literally, unprecedented in the history of science for something of this breadth and complexity. It has a far higher truth-content than most things in which people believe; at this point, the only people continuing to deny are either in the pay of oil companies or are too ignorant, lazy, or (at best) frightened to accept the truth. Frankly, it was pretty f'in obvious twenty years ago to anyone with a high-school education and minimal curiosity about the world.

Note, finally, that Gore's follow-up to his global-warming book was called The Assault on Reason. Not an accident.

Pietro said...

Following on Doug’s comment: what lifestyle changes are necessary to live sustainably? How much do these lifestyle changes support or challenge specific political or cultural agendas?
1. A preference for efficiency, especially the efficiency of systems, is a long-established American tradition that dates back to Puritan frugality and was strongly expressed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his attempt to make assembly-line work more productive. Taylor’s pro-production work was admired by businessmen and by Lenin. It was not party-specific.

2. As for consciousness-raising, Evangelical Christians are beginning to adopt environmentalism via the Genesis-based ‘stewards-of-creation’ theme.

3. As for individual lifestyles, the key thing is to use mechanical power less for daily movement. Hans Blumenthal pointed this out in 1983. No matter what vehicle we use, no matter how many people get on the bus, we still need to use high-grade mechanical energy to move people around cities for multiple trips adding up to more than 50 miles per day for most people. No other lifestyle change comes close to the importance of using cars (and even buses!) less, and using feet and bicycles more. But does this imply a “progressive” lifestyle? No, because this can be achieved in compact small villages such as in the Amish country in Pennsylvania or hill towns in southern Italy—two places not known for “progressive” politics. Whether in cities or rural areas, it does mean higher *local* densities, but that can take an infinite number of physical and social forms. I think the association of walkable living environments with political progressivism is unfortunate--in that it scares off conservatives--and misleading, because progressives may believe that sustainable settlement patterns will translate into a shift toward a progressive, compassionate politics. From what I have seen in radically disparate urban environments over the last two years, I have become unconvinced of any correlation here.

4. If it is a question of fearing change, that is an inertia which mobilized people of all political stripes must fight. Certainly Evangelists want change: that is a central part of their agenda. And personal salvation can happen in churches with solar panels, compact-fluorescent lights, and privileged bicycle parking just as well as anywhere else. Businesspeople want change in the form of economic growth; and that can certainly happen simultaneously with an aggregate drop in waste-heat and greenhouse-gas production. So there is an overlap, or at least a non-conflict of interests here across an extremely broad political spectrum. So long as environmentalists focus on the performance-criteria necessary for reducing resource-consumption, we can all enjoy watching the near-infinite ways this can be achieved.

5. One long-standing barrier is coming down now: I think American politicians of all stripes are about to start adopting sustainability agendas because it gets you elected. Those who care enough about the environment—liberal or conservative—are also those most likely to get out and vote. Then the classic problem is that politicians will want to appear as green as possible while demanding as little as possible from the American public. To keep politicians watering things down too much, it may be best to keep to a simple message. I think for now, that should be to do whatever is possible within the scope of their power to reduce vehicle-miles-traveled in their jurisdictions. So far as I know, everything else pales to insignificance against this.

Dave said...

I should probably clear up what i was trying to say. I know that we are causing Global Warming because the IPCC has proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. That said, as you well know, Global Warming has been politicized due to a lot of factors and it's something that is far too important to be politicized, so for those who run this argument, I just move away from it and show them other reasons why living sustainably is important.

I'm assuming that if tomorrow you found out that Global Warming wasn't real (and no I am not implying that this is a possibility) that you wouldn't suddenly be ok with our dependence on foreign oil or our destruction of eco-systems,all in the name of cheap energy? That's the route that I take with GW naysayers (and i actually run into quite a lot of them). You asked "why bother living sustainably if how we currently live isn't a problem?" While Global Warming may be the most pressing, it certainly isn't the only reason, there are many many and if you know your audience well enough, you can pretty much convince them of the rationale on logic alone.

Religious? How can you pollute gods creation to the point that we can no longer inhabit it. Worried about national security? Stop using your car. Don't like the fact that we are turning the entire Arab world against us with an unjust war? Make oil irrelevant. Want cleaner water, air, soil? Use less, buy less, waste less. Don't like big government or big business? Get off the grid. Buddhist, hippie, bleading heart liberal? How can you use more than your fair share while others are literally dying due to your impact.

Bottom line is that Global Warming, whether you like it or not, has been trivialized by spin and misinformation. I don't support this and often speak against it, but my quest is to get people to take responsibility for their lifestyles. Whatever gets them there, as long as it's honest, is in my opinion, the best route to take.

Dave said...

Thanks for your comments. In order to keep things on track in my wee noggin, I'm going to follow your numerical system.

1. I agree with your concept on American efficiency and industriousness, "build a better mouse trap" right? But where do things like Hummers and McMansions factor into this scheme?

2.I dig this. I can't see why anyone who preaches that god has created the world isn't the first and loudest on the environmental bandwagon. Nice to see some of them coming around. I'm assuming your church has been on this for a while?

3.Dead on. But i would add that it's "fossil fuel powered mechanical power" - I'm all for human powered mechanical power.

4.Fear of change, or more likely fear of discomfort? I don't think people fear a change to a larger house as much as they do to the idea that the house they are living in may be too large. But as i pointed out in my previous comment, i think hitting the problem from multiple angles is the way to go - god, business, conscience, etc.

5. Great to see this too. Look at Australia. From what i have read the deciding factor in the recent elections was global warming. Hopefully we in this country will follow suit. As you mentioned though, it can't be a bunch of talk with no consequences. The whole "it's as easy as changing a lightbulb" campaign drives me nuts because it makes people complacent once they've done "their part" when the whole thing is so much bigger.

Great to hear from ya.