Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cool It

I recently commented on the documentary Cool It, based on the book of the same name, written by Bjorn Lomborg. Few readers are likely to be familiar with the man, though he has been described as one of the 50 most influential people in the world. I thought I might read the book as well.

Lomborg's basic working premise is, that our fears of a global catastrophe, due to the rate as which we burn fossil fuels, i.e. climate change, is scientifically unfounded; and, that our attempts to limit CO2 emissions through Kyoto and Kyoto-like protocols are absurdly expensive, futile and misguided. He believes a fraction of that money could otherwise be used to address clean drinking water, healthy food, good housing, basic education and basic health care for all the world's people, with far more effective results.

For this he has been compared to Hitler. Some have called for Nuremberg-like tribunals for climate change deniers. His suggestion that climate catastrophe is not imminent or even likely has been compared to holocaust denial.

You can be sure, when a perspective has become so ingrained and orthodox that there are threats of violence against those who question it, it has lost its way.

That said, there are serious problems with Lomborg's outlook. First and foremost, he thinks like an economist. Most economists look at the world from a defunct Newtonian/Cartesian perspective, which is to say, he thinks of the Earth, the Universe, the great Market and humanity as if it were all a perfectly ordered, perfectly mechanical, perfectly predictable machine - a common delusion which is often exacerbated by an infatuation with technological progress.

The weakness of this attitude is on display in the one and only tangible option Lomborg offers to deal with rising temperatures: paint the cities white. His economist mind says, great! White reflects sunlight. The city will be less hot. Never mind the poverty of the imagination soon engendered, among the people in such a perfectly white city, or the damaged eyesight. Nor, that such a scheme would do nothing to reduce temperatures across the globe. His economist mind cannot conceive of, say, gardens on roofs, as a more attractive, more ecologically sound option.

The Earth nor the Market are machines, perfectly ordered. If that were the case, weather would be predictable. Bankers would not implode economies. There would be no housing bubbles. People are not machines. Contrary to the orthodoxy of economists, we rarely act - especially these days - in our truest best interest.

Secondly, his reliance on data leads him into the same trap that befalls most climate change models, which is, no model can come close to approximating a dynamic Earth in relationship with the Sun. He makes decisive statements meant to sound irrefutable, about what the temperature will be in the year 2100, when the fact is, no one knows what will happen if we burn most of the Earth's fossil fuel, which took a few hundred million years to create, in two centuries. The most we can know for certain, based on the rate at which we are killing the Earth and each other, it can't be good. Add in the uncertainty of solar output, and the reality that the Earth is perfectly capable of cooling itself, radically, in a period of a few years, it begins to seem like a very foolish path indeed.

Lomborg's data has the effect of making it seem there is no threat at all.

Which leads to the third flaw in Lomborg's perspective and his book, and that of most economists and books on economics, that he assumes fossil fuels are infinite. As if we will be using the same amount of fossil fuels, adjusted for economic growth, etc, in the year 2410 as we are using now. The Earth is going to reduce the rate at which we emit CO2 a lot more dramatically than any reduction scheme agreed to by Governments, in considerably less time, by the simple reality that demand will soon exceed supply, and that supply is declining.

The fear some have of Lomborg, is that his work will be an excuse for Governments to do effectively nothing about climate change. Governments are not likely to do anything about climate change, anyway. I agree with him, climate change policy as prescribed by Kyoto et al is fundamentally flawed. Not because it is "expensive", but because such policies do not really address the issue of consumption, or rather, the right of a few people to consume massive amounts of fossil fuels while an estimated 1.5 billion people live without access to any fossil fuels at all. Such protocols will not reduce the rate at which we are consuming fossil fuels, they would at best redistribute them, not to all people but among the richest countries, more evenly.

There is not any point in "fixing" climate change if there are a few more billion people without access to fresh water, clean housing, good food and basic education and health care, after you've "fixed" it. Which goes directly to the dirty little secret of the "developed", 'that the world's poor are poor because they choose to be, so they aren't really deserving of these things and if they had them, they would just make more babies, as mindlessly as they do now.'

This of course is uncharitable and mean, when we have the money and the technology to make it happen, and we have ample evidence that the more wealthy a people are, the less babies they have. True wealth being good water, food, housing, education, health care and companionship. Which leads to another dark secret of the West, and increasingly the East, that it is far easier to control and extract the resources of a nation that is poor, than the resources of a nation whose people are wealthy. The resources the most powerful nations require, to feed an ever greater affluence for a comparatively small number of people.

So really, Lomborg isn't totally wrong. His mind is simply suffering from an economic newtonian cartesianism (which may prove to be a more difficult thing to dispel than poverty.) And he's right, that we could be devoting ourselves to providing wealth for all. We would be a better people for it. The Earth would be healthier. To do that though, were going to have to dispel the notion that either the Market or Governments will do it for us. And we are going to have to address our own notions about wealth, here in America, which are peculiarly povertous.

I'll do what I can to help with that in the next several posts.

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