[This is an edited transcript of a talk given to the Senior Fellows Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, March 27, 2008.]
Environmentalism and climate science
A lot of people come to the climate change issue as environmentalists. Environmentalism is diverse, but I would say that a common denominator for environmentalists is that they are concerned with the negative impact of human activity on the ecosystems that sustain life on the planet and want to make changes that reduce that negative impact — or have no impact or positive impact. But having agreed on this, there are many different views within environmentalism. Some environmentalists want to protect nature from humans, some want to protect nature for humans. Some think technology is to blame, others think technology could be the solution.
Environmentalists sometimes talk about a “triple bottom line”. That’s ‘social, economic, and environmental’. The ‘social’ part is ‘social justice’, it’s a concern for people. People concerned about social justice usually believe that equality is a value society should strive for, especially in the economy. They are critical, skeptical, of the claims of those in power or authority.
I am also concerned about climate change as a scientist. The scientists who have developed our understanding of climate change are mostly atmospheric physicists. I studied atmospheric physics as an undergraduate, but now I work in forestry, and like most scientists, I work in a fairly specialized area. My work is not about how climate change occurs in the atmosphere, but on the impact of that change on forests, specifically on forest fires in the Canadian province of Ontario. I will elaborate on climate science below, but I want to say that working in this field, I have had the experience of most scientists. We use the established models from our field of application (in my case, models about how fast fires spread in different forest types and under different weather conditions). We feed these models some possible, and likely scenarios for what the weather will be like if things continue along present trends. We look at the results and are shocked by how much worse things are than we could have predicted. That’s the experience of modelers like me. The scientists who gather the data, who are watching the polar ice or the temperature trends, are similarly shocked every time they look at the new data.
I think that having all three of these lenses: an environmentalist one, a ‘social’ one, and a scientific one, is very useful in looking at the climate problem and possible solutions. It takes a bit of work to bring these views together, but in the end you get a good picture of the situation and what has to be done about it.
Science and environmentalism
Let me start by talking a little more about the science. I thought Al Gore’s film was a good and straightforward presentation of the science. Some of the best books on solutions to the problem — George Monbiot’s Heat, for example — don’t get into the science very much. They assume it, or they accept the authority of the scientific consensus. Should we? There are legitimate questions about this. Leftists raise legitimate questions about this. Even though not all questions about the science of climate change are legitimate or well-meaning or raised by people with decent values, it is worth spending some time taking them on.
A lot of the controversies about climate science are artificial. They are manufactured by petroleum-industry funded lobbyists who have gotten visibility and equal time in the media despite not having scientific credibility. Monbiot, who is a journalist and an expert at the kind of investigation that exposes these links, exposes these ‘denialists’ in his book, Heat. Here is a problem though, for someone who is concerned about social justice and critical of the media. We might believe there is an establishment that uses mechanisms like editorial review, self-censorship, and social sanction, to exercise a subtle control over what information gets out and what information gets emphasized in the public conversation. Is the scientific establishment any different, a socially critical person could ask? And is the current media interest in climate change not a sign that climate change isn’t really a problem, since we know the system tells lies? This is the argument made by a pair of (frequently very perceptive) social critics from my part of the world, in Canada, and by Alexander Cockburn here in the US. To answer this argument requires some quick discussion on what science is.
To repeat the problem: we are all told that we face a very serious threat to human civilization in the form of global warming caused by our emission of CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels. We have to act against this threat, and we have to act quickly. We are told this by ‘science’. But why should we believe ‘science’? Who is behind it? Is it a network of university-trained elite professionals, funded by government and private sector grants, a gentlemen’s club that protects its interests and promotes ideas that will further those interests?
Of course it is. Some of the better known philosophy of science, like Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, shows how most scientists in most times work within a set of assumptions — what he calls a paradigm — and that science advances when one or more of these assumptions is shown not to hold. Those scientists who work within a paradigm are doing what Kuhn calls “normal science”, and there is certainly lots of “normal science” going on in climate research. It’s humble stuff. Kuhn shows how “normal science” defends itself by excluding new ideas and that new ideas only advance when old generations die off. But it gets worse even than that. Physicist Jeff Schmidt wrote a book, Disciplined Minds, that gives just such an analysis. In that book he shows how graduate and professional school, even in the most “disinterested” of sciences like physics, train people to think creatively, but inside a box. And still worse, consider how much of research activity is ultimately intended for military ends. Or how much pharmaceutical research and medical research has been corrupted by the interests of drug companies. And this doesn’t even get into the social sciences, like economics, which produce arguments in favor of inequality and barbarism and present them with scientific authority. So yes, science is an establishment.
But it is also something else. In Einstein’s words, science is the refinement of everyday thinking. To me, science is applying certain human capacities — combining consistent logic and reasoning, creative leaps and then systematic testing, attention to evidence — to the world. It is something everyone can do and it is cumulative, maybe the most cumulative of our activities because it is intrinsically based on building on what others have done. The promise of science is that we can, if we pay attention, discipline ourselves to think clearly, and work and think with others, and give ourselves time and make the effort, come to some understanding about the world. It will be tentative, it will be subject to change, but we will be able to have some mental understanding, some mental model, that corresponds to reality. What I like about science, in other words, is that it doesn’t depend on authority. It is about not accepting things on authority. It’s actually when we don’t use our scientific capacities that we are left with nothing but some external authority to tell us how to understand the world.
Of course, ‘science’ itself is presented as just such an authority. Psychologists, doctors, government- and university-employed scientists constantly make public claims invoking the authority of science. What they do not do enough is actually open the process up: talk about the evidence behind the claims, the methods they use, the assumptions they make. They don’t present science as the refinement of everyday thinking and help people refine their thinking because that would actually reduce their authority. If you reject their claims, you can be accused of being ‘unscientific’. Who wants to be ‘unscientific’? Outrageous claims made by people with an air of authority can be used to make something seem ‘controversial’. If the process were more open, people could be invited to look at the methods, the evidence, the assumptions, and decide how credible a claim is. Because some things, some fields, are better understood than others.
Atmospheric science involves mostly physics and chemistry. Fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and spectroscopy are well-developed, well-understood fields with experimental backing and very credible theory. The atmosphere is complex, but it is a much more narrow field of inquiry than the ecosystems it interacts with, because adding life to the mix introduces something qualitatively different. Add human society and economy into this and you get another qualitative change. And in general, the more narrow the field of inquiry, the deeper the understanding. Social sciences like economics are intrinsically incredibly broad, and the results are therefore shallow if they’re valid. Economists try to narrow their inquiries by making assumptions, but this often abstracts out very important elements of the real world and makes their results useless for the real world.
I am arguing that atmospheric science, the science that tells us the climate is changing, is a field where more precise and accurate claims can be made than in economics. But the public discussion is presented as if the opposite were true. As if our society had to weigh the ‘certain’ costs of dealing with climate change against the ‘uncertain’ threats from it.
It’s true that climate science is uncertain. But all science is uncertain, and climate science claims are less uncertain than economics claims. It has a much better record of prediction. And uncertainty cuts both ways: the ‘uncertainty’ about the impacts of climate change mean that things could be much worse than we think. A Danish statistician named Bjorn Lomborg wrote a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. He sometimes shows some interesting ‘skepticism’ about environmentalist claims, but he doesn’t show skepticism about claims about economic activity, or cost, or growth, or markets. These assumptions are accepted so completely that we don’t even know they are assumptions. But this is the opposite of a skeptical attitude or a scientific attitude. Science advances when people discover assumptions they didn’t know they held.
Science is work, it takes time, and because it is cumulative, there are many pieces that build on others. What the denialists do is take one piece out of context and present some (usually dubious) counter-evidence or simple argument. They are usually wrong about the pieces they take on, but they also try to use some small piece to discredit the entire building. In a short time, it’s impossible to present all of climate science. If I had a full hour I could not do better than Al Gore did in his film. But let me just present some elements of the science as it was taught to me. You can, and should, look into it further if you are interested. If you do, I think you will be able to convince yourself of its validity.
The climate story
The basic argument is this. The energy to warm the earth comes from the sun’s radiation. Some of that is reflected straight back into space by clouds or ice (the reflectivity of the earth is called its albedo). Some of it reaches the earth’s surface, raises the earth’s temperature, and radiates out as heat. Some of that heat is, in turn, trapped by the atmosphere and returned again to the earth’s surface. How much heat is trapped by the atmosphere depends on the composition of the atmosphere — different chemicals have different characteristic frequencies that they emit at. CO2 emits heat. So does CH4 (methane) and some other important gases. The atmosphere has increasing amounts of these gases because we keep burning fossil fuels. The gases eventually cycle out of the atmosphere and back to the surface of the earth, when plants grow for example, but we are emitting into the atmosphere much more and much faster than the carbon is returned to the earth’s surface. The result is more heat in the atmosphere and higher temperatures, which, because the atmosphere and the climate are complex systems, have effects on everything else.
There is a carbon cycle. Carbon travels in a kind of equilibrium between the ocean and the earth’s surface, plants and animals on that surface, into the atmosphere, and back. The processes that drive the carbon cycle have a lot to do with life. Plants take carbon from the atmosphere as they use energy from the sun to grow. Animals release carbon into the atmosphere when they breathe. When organisms die, a lot of the carbon in their bodies is released. But it can also be stored. Coal is ancient plant matter that has been stored. Oil is ancient plankton, from the ocean. These fossil fuels can be thought of as dead, trapped, concentrated solar energy.
Flannery quotes a scientist named Jeffrey Dukes at the University of Utah who concluded that 100 tonnes of ancient plant life is required to create four litres of petrol (about 1 gallon). Growing that much plant life takes a lot of years of sunlight. The equivalent of about 1 year’s fossil fuel use (1997) globally is 422 years of sunlight.
It takes a remarkable process to make oil, a really remarkable sequence of events over thousands of years. It is such a chance event that I want to describe it in detail. This is Flannery (pg. 76):
The geological process for making oil is as precise as a recipe for making soufflé. First the sediments containing the phytoplankton must be buried and compressed by other rocks. Then, the absolute right conditions are needed to squeeze the organic matter out of the source rocks and to transfer it, through cracks and crevices, into a suitable storage stratum. This stratum must be porous, but above it must lie a layer of fine-grained, impervious rock, strong enough to withstand the pressures that [would shoot] the oil and gas into the air… and thick enough to forbid escape. In addition, the waxes and fats that are the source of oil need to be ‘cooked’ at between 100-135 degrees Celsius [water boils at 100 C] for millions of years. If the temperature ever exceeds these limits, all that will result is gas, or else the hydrocarbons will be lost entirely. As there is no cook tending the great subterranean ovens wherein oil is forged, the creation of oil reserves is the result of pure chance — the right rocks being cooked in the right way for the correct time, usually in a dome-shaped structure where a ‘crust’ overlies a porous oil-rich level that prevents the oil’s escape.
It can’t be replicated, which means our economy, based on it, is inherently unsustainable. But even if it could, our economy is also based on taking carbon that has been out of circulation, stored in the ground, for millions of years, and putting it into the atmosphere.
This changes the carbon cycle. To have an ecological world-view is to understand that everything is connected to everything else. So changing the carbon cycle changes the atmospheric temperature. It changes the hydrological cycle. It changes habitats for wildlife. It changes agricultural potentials and the amount and type of life different ecosystems can support. It combines with all the other kinds of toxins we release into the atmosphere, water, and land in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways. These changes are making parts of the earth, which are habitat for diverse life forms, unlivable. They are making parts of the world where millions of people live, unlivable. Let me not make the case for how serious the problem is, here. I refer you to Gore, or Flannery, or just the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s very conservative estimates. This presentation assumes you think the problem is very serious and must be solved quickly. The solution has an easy and a hard part.
The easy part of the solution
Two scientists from Princeton, Pacala and Socolow, published a paper in Science 2004 called “stabilization wedges”. The abstract of the paper is worth reading in full.
Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century. A portfolio of technologies now exists to meet the world’s energy needs over the next 50 years and limit atmospheric CO2 to a trajectory that avoids a doubling of the preindustrial concentration. Every element in this portfolio has passed beyond the laboratory bench and demonstration project; many are already implemented somewhere at full industrial scale. Although no element is a credible candidate for doing the entire job (or even half the job) by itself, the portfolio as a whole is large enough that not every element has to be used.
The elements that Pacala and Socolow present include what I call non-solutions like ethanol fuel and nuclear power as well as things that have to happen like reducing reliance on cars and stopping deforestation. Ethanol is already contributing to rising food prices and hunger in Latin America. By taking agricultural land out of circulation to produce corn for ethanol that then goes in a car, we’re still emitting CO2. But we’re also feeding cars instead of people. And the energetics of ethanol are scandalous. Filling an SUV’s tank takes enough corn to feed a person for a year. The food system and farming is dysfunctional as it is, distorted because of energy inputs and ecological destructiveness, actually. But we are hoping to stabilize the climate in time to prevent millions from dying and being displaced because of floods and drought. We don’t want to do it in a way that threatens millions with mass starvation. Nuclear power has other problems. If there is no safe way of disposing of it, if there are small risks of unthinkably catastrophic events, it is irrational to keep incrementing these risks with new plants.
Another non-solution is carbon offsets. The idea here is that if you are going to emit CO2, you can purchase “offsets” somewhere else so that you can end up with a net carbon balance of zero — your money is taking up as much carbon as it is putting out. Most of these “offsets” have to do with planting trees. But trees need to be planted anyway, and there are a whole number of reasons why a tree should or shouldn’t be planted in a certain place. Is that agricultural land? Is it well-watered enough for growing trees? Is the tree useful habitat for wildlife, or would some other land use in that area make better habitat? Even more than this, forests have an equilibrium role in the carbon cycle. When they grow, they take carbon out of the atmosphere. When they die, they release it. Burning fossil fuels is not an equilibrium activity — we are taking carbon that’s been buried for millions of years, out of circulation for millions of years, and putting it into the atmosphere. Forests cannot be used as a substitute for reducing emissions.
George Monbiot’s book, Heat, goes much deeper than Pacala and Socolow do in their paper, and he also rejects biofuels. He starts by saying, if it is technologically impossible to have an advanced, comfortable civilization and a stable climate, then we are probably doomed, because it will be impossible to generate the kind of social movement necessary to stabilize the climate if people have to mobilize to ruin their own lives. But then he does a very careful evaluation of the technologies and some evaluation of political feasibility, and shows that it is technologically possible to have pretty much all of the comforts and conveniences we are used to and still have a stable climate — all the conveniences except mass commercial flight. Which, obviously, since I’m convinced by Monbiot, makes me feel somewhat silly for flying here from Toronto to do this talk. Perhaps next time I’ll visit by videoconference?
I should say that, think that, Pacala and Socolow are basically right: the scientific, technological, and industrial knowledge exists to solve this problem. But every solution that is proposed needs to be evaluated for its ecological, social, and ethical implications. The test for any technology, any institution, any idea, any action, ought to be — what will this do to people, what will it do to nature, does it protect or destroy life?
One technology that I think does pass this test is a type of idea environmentalists are always raising. I’m presenting it as a technology following George Monbiot. The simple “technology” is called leaving the fossil fuels in the ground. It sounds crazy, but it would be very good for the atmosphere. It would also be good for society — if we could learn that not everything has to be viewed as a resource and not every resource has to be harvested, that would be positive. Since most people are not getting the benefits anyway, and since most people are being harmed, this technology isn’t one that harms the poor more than the rich. So, instead of society mobilizing its people, its brains, its institutions, to take resources and burn them, we could redirect our efforts to figuring out how not to do this. And how to do what we really want without doing this.
The hard part of the solution
It would seem, then, that the path is reasonably clear. We live in a democracy, after all. So we convince enough people that the climate problem is serious. We demonstrate that the technology is available to solve it without sacrificing most comforts and conveniences. Then we convince our leaders to make the necessary technological and policy changes, and if they don’t, then we elect leaders who do. Some who make decisions for the economy, through businesses they own or manage aren’t elected, it’s true. But they, too, can be convinced by rational arguments. Business leaders meet with environmentalists regularly. British Petroleum is getting ‘beyond petroleum’, they just call themselves BP now so you can wonder whether they’re British or Beyond and whether Petroleum really has anything to do with it any more. If parts of the planet become uninhabitable and there are a series of catastrophes for nature and people, that would be bad for business, right? So they will come along with the right arguments and proposals?
I wish it was true, but I don’t think that’s how things work. The basic nature of the system we live in isn’t democratic. We are ruled by a system that takes the elements of life – nature, land, water, energy, cultures and peoples — and destroys them to turn them into money and power. The system has its own logic. If you are a player in it, you have to follow that logic. You have to take what you can grab — for most people it’s their own lives — and turn it into money. If you’re excluded from it, you’re excluded from the very means of survival. If you’re excluded and you try to get the means of survival for yourself or your loved ones outside of the system, you will be met with violence. If you’re in this system you cannot think about whether it is killing the planet, whether the whole system is basically leading us to suicide. Even if you know that’s true, so long as it would make you more money to ignore it, you will never be able to compete with someone who does ignore it unless you do. And so much of our world is based on competition: between individuals, between businesses, and between countries. Economic competition, political competition, military competition.
You have probably figured out that I am talking about capitalism. It is a system based on profits, accumulation, competition, private property, class hierarchy, the destruction of nature, backed up by force. It coexists with a culture that has what environmentalist writer Derrick Jensen calls a ‘death urge’ — a culture that hates life, that hates women, that hates indigenous peoples and encourages hatred of anyone below on the rungs of a hierarchical society.
It is leading us to a disastrous future. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine is about what she calls ‘disaster capitalism’. Those in power can use disasters to reconfigure the institutions of a country to make it easier to make profits. When they don’t have a disaster to hand, they can create one. One of her chapters is about Iraq. Another is about New Orleans. The book could be a picture of a nightmare future, except that it is the present. But a future along these lines can only get uglier.
Neither the climate problem nor running out of fossil fuels can be ignored. They will be dealt with. But they will be dealt with according to the principles of disaster capitalism. Yes, parts of the world will become uninhabitable. Other parts of the world will be habitable. These will be reserved for elites. Those who live there now will be displaced, by force. Yes, there will be a scarcity of energy, food, water, land. There will be some of these resources, and they will be reserved for elites. They will be used by elites to keep themselves secure from the rest. Before petroleum runs out, it will probably be reserved for exclusive use by the military. This will happen until the resources are run down and the basis for life is destroyed. Warning elites of this collapse won’t help — they know they are the only ones who have a chance of surviving it.
We know this will happen. It has happened. It is happening. And despite the ultimately suicidal nature of the system, it will defend itself against attempts to change it. That is why, as destructive as competition is, I don’t think we can completely discard it. For a stabilized atmosphere, we are going to have to defeat some people and some institutions. Success in that competition will require all the tools of social change: organization, communication, demonstration, and actions of all kinds, at least some of which will be new and correspond to the time and place. Everybody has to join that, and we have to win it.