Here’s an interesting study by Lawrence Hamilton, published in Climatic Change in December: “Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects“. He finds that whereas in the past, education level strongly correlated with concern for environmental issues, this correlation has now gone away because of a new interaction effect with political beliefs. (Which is consistent with other recent research, e.g. see the work of Kahan and Braman).

From his survey of people in New Hampshire and Rural Michigan, Hamilton identified strong Democrats and Strong Republicans, and discovered that, with respect to climate change, there is a significant interaction effect between education and party support, and another between how well people believe they understand climate change and party support:

Hamilton 2010, Fig 3: Predicted probability that Upper-Peninsula Michigan residents believe that global warming will pose a serious threat vs. respondent education, for “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”

Hamilton 2010, Fig 2: Predicted probability that New Hampshire residents believe that global warming will pose a serious threat vs. self-assessed understanding of the issue, for “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”

[I can't help noticing there's no data points for "Strong Republicans" who say they don't understand global warming at all!]

Here’s what Hamilton has to say about the findings:

“The inconsistency marks a social shift away from patterns seen in older research. It reflects the efficacy of media campaigns that provide scientific-sounding arguments against taking climate change seriously, which disproportionately reach educated but ideologically receptive audiences [...]. Among many educated, conservative citizens, it appears that that such arguments have overshadowed the scientific consensus presented by the IPCC reports and other core science sources.”

Hamilton puts a significant part of the explanation for this shift on internet and cable TV as sources of information, which increasingly allow people to tune into only those sources that they find ideologically compatible, and the ability of these sources to propagate politically inspired but scientific-sounding arguments:

“The effective dissemination of contrarian arguments means that many people who have no contact with climate scientists or the primary research literature can nevertheless learn that a scientist says temperatures have risen on Mars (politically spun as evidence that global warming has solar or cosmic origins), or another scientist says it is cooling in East Antarctica (spun as evidence that our planet is not warming after all). They might consider themselves well informed about climate science even while not understanding its basic ideas.”

And he concludes that having more scientists getting involved in blogs and rapid response initiatives is crucial:

“If non-specialists want to find out what scientists really know about temperature trends of Mars and East Antarctica, or other arguments aired in today’s news or last night’s party, they are best served by a relatively small number of active-response Web sites written by climate scientists, such as Realclimate.org. Unlike journal articles, science meetings or reports, Web sites and blogs have the capability to react quickly (albeit less rigorously), reach broader audiences, and seriously confront arguments that have no scientific merit. Moreover, their online science posts can be passed on from reader to reader, which is difficult to do with journal articles or technical reports.”

[Hat tip to Sol for sending me this]

Update: It appears to also matter whether it’s called “Climate Change” or “Global Warming”, at least to Republicans, who are more likely to believe in the former rather than the latter.

I’ve been dipping into another new book this week, “Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil” by Gilbert and Perl (both Canadians!). The section on energy has a graph that caught my eye, which is attributed to Kjell Aleklett, president of ASPO International. I couldn’t find the exact same graph online, but this is similar:

Oil Supply projections from ASPO's first newsletter in 2002

It shows a prediction, made back in 2002, that oil production would peak at 87 million barrels per day in 2010, and decline thereafter, according to the Hubbert Curve. What actually happened? Here’s the data from the the US Energy Information Administration:

Oil supply 2001-2009, according to the US Energy Information Administration

Which shows that since 2005, oil production has remained roughly constant, within a 4% band of 85 million barrels per day, with a slight peak in the summer of 2008. What happened in 2008? Well, both the book by Gilbert and Perl I mentioned above, and the Post-Carbon Reader (which I mentioned in my last post on peak oil) identify 2008 as the year when everything changed. And not because that was the year of the financial crisis, but because in the summer of 2008, oil prices suddenly surged to $150 per barrel, which in hindsight now looks like a major trigger of the financial crisis. It was, therefore, the first taste of what’s to come if oil production really has peaked.

Of course, the collapse of the economy in most of the developed world led to an immediate drop in demand for oil, and hence a corresponding drop in prices. But the upwards pressure on oil prices never went away. And here we are in February 2011, and prices are back up to $110 per barrel and heading higher:

Picking out cause and effect is a little tricky here. One could conclude that current high oil prices are caused by the unrest sweeping many of the oil producing nations of North Africa and the Middle East. A more sophisticated analysis says that while the popular uprising in these countries is due to a growing discontent with corrupt dictatorships, it was specifically triggered by a spike in food prices. When governments cannot feed their people, what might have been (barely) tolerable in the past suddenly becomes completely intolerable. And the spike in food prices? It’s due to the combination of sharply rising oil prices and climate-related disasters around the world that have hit food production simultaneously in many parts of the world.

What happens next? The International Energy Agency is speculating about another oil price shock this year:

Graph on Oil Shocks from the EIA Newsletter, Jan 18, 2011

Oil prices appear to be on their way up to the level we saw in 2008. Food prices are doing the same. The big worry is that this is no longer a temporary thing. Back in early January, before the latest spike in oil prices, Lester Brown predicted 2011 will be a year of food crises. So far he’s looking spot on.

James Garvey: The Ethics of Climate Change. Continuum, 2008.

One of the pleasures of teaching is that your students challenge your ideas, and push you in directions you might never have gone. In my graduate class on climate change informatics, I thought we would just focus on applications of computer science to addressing climate change. But my students insisted we spend more time understanding the rationale for action on climate change, and in particular, they wanted a seminar on climate change ethics. Which caused me to pick up James Garvey’s 2008 book, “The Ethics of Climate Change”. It’s such an eloquent statement of the moral case, that I will explore it’s contents in great detail, and quote from it at length. I hope to inspire others to pick up the book and read it. But short of that, at least I can summarize the key points.

Garvey’s thesis is that we need a clear understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change, and that philosophers (especially those who focus on ethics) need to engage with this problem. As he gets going, he points out that existing approaches to ethics are inadequate, because they haven’t previously considered problems where the consequences of action are “smeared out across space and time”: the impacts of climate change will be felt in disproportionately in different parts of the world, often by the people who have contributed least to the problem, and the impacts will span multiple generations, and affecting people not yet born.

A key point is that although science can tell us what is happening and why, it cannot tell us what to do about it. For that, we need an ethical framework for action. He constructs such a framework based on the idea that the world’s natural carbon sinks are the limiting resource, and that over-using this resource results in suffering and death for very large numbers of people over multiple generations. In the past, this resource has been used disproportionately by the developed nations to achieve prosperity. Hence, there is now a moral imperative to design an equitable way of distributing whatever is left of this resource, in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change without denying the developing world the opportunity to achieve their own prosperity.

The book begins with a short chapter on the science, in which Garvey quickly dispatches any notion that there is a debate within the mainstream scientific community about the existence and consequences of climate change. He makes short work of the argument that uncertainties in future projections can be used as an excuse for inaction, and the myth that climate change is a distant future threat. And he doesn’t mince his words:

“We can expect a future with hundreds of millions, even billions of displaced, hungry, thirsty people in it, escaping not just sea-level rises but on the move away from scorched croplands and empty wells. It doesn’t take much to imagine conflicts happening over our planet’s diminishing or shifting resources. It also doesn’t take much to see that the world’s poorest will be the ones most adversely affected, as well as the ones with the least resources for adaptation. […] There is going to be a lot of death in the future, a lot of death which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise. There will also be a lot of extra suffering, disease, thirst, hunger, violence and the like, horrors which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise.” (p28)

In chapter 2, he then explains the role of philosophers, the importance of an explicit consideration of right and wrong, the values that allow us to separate them, and the basis by which we arrive at those values. Philosophy, he points out, “…is an attempt to answer three very large questions. What exists? How do we know? What are we going to do about it?” (p34). These three questions give rise to three kinds of philosophy, respectively, metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. By way of introduction to the basics of moral philosophy, he explores the basis for our beliefs about questions such as why it is wrong to kill innocent people, and provides a starting point for answering through the notion of justice: “…unless some morally relevant considerations intervene, justice means that burdens and benefits should be distributed among people equally.” (p42).

The ability to identify a moral foundation for our actions is vital, because it is often easy to identify relevant facts that argue one way or the other for some action, and hence, such disputes cannot be settled by an appeal to facts: “Sometimes … pointing to the facts is the wrong thing to do, because the disagreement really is a moral one.” (p42) For example, if a neighbouring country has been annexed, going to war to fight the injustice might be expensive. But the cost is irrelevant if the our moral framework compels us to act: “Sometimes morality trumps the facts, and sometimes the facts are just irrelevant. (p45)”

Of course, consistency is important here. Garvey summarizes two major schools of thought as examples:

  • Utilitarianism, which says that the morality of any action should be judged solely on its consequences, and specifically on whether it brings happiness (or reduction of pain) for the greatest number of people;
  • Kantian morality, which says any principle that you apply, to determine what to do, should work as a universal law. For example, making a false promise is morally wrong, because if everyone did it, there would no longer be such a thing as a promise any more, and hence the action, when elevated to a universal law, generates an inconsistency.

Whether you apply either of these two approaches, or some other basis for morality, it’s important to test your moral framework through various thought experiments, to explore its consistency.

Unfortunately, the consistency principle can run into difficulty in environmental ethics. Most traditional approaches to moral reasoning focus on the effect of our actions on (other) humans. But as soon as we argue that animals feel pleasure and pain, it becomes hard to draw a distinct boundary, to argue that value to humans is the only thing that grounds our morality. Indeed, much of environmental ethics has focussed on expanding the boundaries that constrain our thinking about what harm our actions might cause: while in the past, some philosophers have excluded women, slaves, ethnic minorities, so today it seems wrong to exclude animals, and even entire ecosystems. Talbott points out a delicious irony here: we could argue that the human capacity for moral reasoning should not entitle us to a privileged status within the ecosystems in which we exist. But that argument is only possible precisely because of our capacity for moral reasoning. In other words, the very thing that makes humans special is used to argue that we are not special. To overcome this, some environmental ethicists argue that we need a new basis for how we think about ‘value’, one that is not anthropocentric. For example, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis places value in the biosphere as a whole, with humans as just one element.

Having reviewed these approaches to environmental ethics, Garvey concludes that we don’t, in fact, need to re-think our ideas about human values to construct a compelling moral framework for action on climate change, and indeed that climate change already challenges our thinking about morality in so many other ways that perhaps it’s best to stick to a traditional human-centred ethics to reason about what we ought to do about it.

A big part of the challenge is in how we normally think about responsibility. If someone deliberately smashed a valuable vase, it’s not hard to ascribe responsibility for the action, to identify who is harmed by it, and perhaps what compensatory action might be necessary. But each of us contributes to fossil fuel emissions just by turning on lights, having hot showers, making toast for breakfast, driving to work, and taking the occasional well-earned vacation. So who is to blame for climate change, and who should address the harm that it causes?

“Our values grew up in a low-tech, disconnected world, of plenty. Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears. Further, the effects of actions, as well as the actions themselves, are smeared out in space and time in confusing ways.” (p59)

Worse, the global and inter-generational nature of the problems are entangled:

“There is a sense in which my actions and the actions of my present fellows join with the past actions of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and the effects resulting from our actions will still be felt hundreds, even thousands of years in the future. It is also true that we are, in a way, stuck with the present we have because of our past. The little actions I undertake which keep me warm and dry and fed are what they are partly because of choices made by people long dead. Even if I didn’t want to burn fossil fuels, I’m embedded in a culture set up to do so.” (p60)

Couple this, then with our ineptitude at theoretical reasoning, and the result is a global moral failing, and a global self-deception, akin to the denialism of the alcoholic and drug addict:

“We’re not much good at thinking about our long-term future, non-human animals and nature, the value of persons who might never exist, spatially and temporally smeared actions and so on. We have been able to get about our business without worrying much about any of this, so now that it matters, we lack both the wisdom and the theory to cope with it.” (p61)

So what is the central problem in thinking about climate change? Garvey likens the problems to a tragedy of the commons (where is is each person’s interest individually to over-exploit a common resource, but collectively a disaster), or a prisoner’s dilemma problem (where cooperating with the police by ratting on your accomplice might get you the best individual outcome, but the best joint action is for all members of the gang to stay silent). Nations considering whether to stick to the commitments they made in the Kyoto treaty face this type of dilemma, whereby

“polluting and enjoying the benefits of untrammelled energy use, can seem like the individually rational thing to do – particularly if, so far as you know, that’s what the other guy is going to do. Exploiting a common resource, like the carbon-absorbing properties of the planet, can seem like a good idea too. Everyone shares in the loss of the common resource, but only the polluter enjoys the benefits.” (p64)

Thankfully, Garvey is quick to dismiss the cost-benefit approaches to this problem that are frequently advocated by economists. He does this succinctly by pointing out that

“a few economists have tried to calculate some of the “non-market impacts” of climate change, by assigning a value to human life in proportion to national per capita gross domestic product: You get solid and objective answers to your questions through this assignation, but you also have to think about a Chinese person as worth about one tenth of a European.” (p65)

So while economics matters, it cannot matter if we don’t first work out what we value, and that consideration of value has to happen long before we apply economics to the problem.

The core of Garvey’s approach then is that the world’s carbon sinks are a limited resource, and furthermore they are a necessary resource: for many people, burning fossil fuels is an essential part of getting food. Hence, using up someone else’s share of the carbon sink is as wrong as using up their share of food or clean water. Garvey presents the numbers that show we’re a long way from an equitable distribution of this resource. He also considers, and then dismisses arguments that there might be a moral justification for such an unequal distribution – for example, the argument  that an unequal distribution of a resource can result in benefits for everyone. The origin of this argument is often attributed to Locke, who, in the 17th century, compared the lack of property ownership among Native Americans with the unequal land ownership in England, and concluded that, since the poorest persons in England had more material goods than the Native Americans, that the inequality of ownership in England benefitted everyone. Although this particular comparison is rather dubious, similar arguments are common across many writers since, from Adam Smith who argued that the operation of markets guaranteed an optimal allocation of resources to those who could exploit them (hence benefiting everyone), through to the “trickle down” ideology of Reagan and Thatcher. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the exploitation of global carbon sinks by developed nations has benefited the poorer nations of the world in any way, as they cannot afford most of the products of our high energy  economy, and those that they can afford, they have paid for many times over in the flow of money and raw materials from the poor to the rich. Furthermore, as we face dwindling supplies of fossil fuel energy (due to peak oil and peak coal), and dwindling agricultural yield due to climate change, this lack of access to the benefits will likely get steadily worse:

“Burning fossil fuels, using the planet’s sinks, has partly made developed countries what they are – it has been a large part of securing the standard of life enjoyed by those in wealthy countries. The resource which helped the developed world to do this is now effectively used up. In using the atmosphere as we have, we have not just consumed a little more than the poor. We’ve taken a possible future from them and replaced it with something much worse.” (p73)

This might be enough to provide a compelling case that the developed world bears the responsibility for climate change, and hence ought to take on the bulk of the work of mitigating further damage, and the responsibility to help the rest of the world to cope with the impacts, all while still allowing the developing world access to whatever is left of the world’s carbon sinks, lest they be denied their own chance of development. But Garvey adds one more argument, of compelling simplicity, which he introduces as “You broke it, you bought it”. The developed world has broken our climate system, and therefore bears the responsibility for paying for the damage – a principle that’s enshrined in many countries’ legal systems as “the polluter pays”.

Garvey then considers a number of counter-arguments:

  • The argument that a causal responsibility doesn’t necessarily entail a moral responsibility, if an actor was unaware of the damage, and did not intend to cause it. The problem is with this argument is that in simpler cases, we still ascribe a clear moral responsibility. If, for example, I cause a car accident, even though I did not intend to, it would be immoral to drive away without stopping to check everyone was okay, help anyone who was injured, and pay for at least part of the damage. And there’s a problem with arguing that the developed world was unaware. A clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change dates back at least until 1990, with the publication of the first IPCC report, and yet emissions have grown unabated in the 21 years since then. The developed world certainly cannot claim ignorance for this period.
  • The argument that individuals in the developed world cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents and grandparents. Garvey notes that this argument requires a shift in focus from the responsibility of nations to the responsibility of individuals. But even more importantly, we cannot argue that the activities of our grandparents have nothing to do with us, while enjoying the prosperity that is a direct result of those activities.

And even if we do develop some of these arguments further, and perhaps accept that we must ignore history, we can still construct an argument that the developed world bears the responsibility based just on the following observations:

  • Current per capita emissions. China may have overtaken the US in total annual emissions in the last few of years, but given it has nearly five times the population (and that it been more proactive than any other nation in containing population growth), as soon as you look at per capita emissions, it’s obvious that the developed countries still burn dramatically more than their fair share.
  • Room for reduction. Many of the emissions in the developing world are subsistence emissions – cutting them will remove some of the basic requirements for survival:

“Suppose that 50% of the emissions of the US Virgin Islands are luxury emissions and all of the emissions of Rwanda are subsistence emissions. It’s clear who has room for reduction and who doesn’t. Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can recharge their mobile phones.” (p81)

  • Ability to pay. However you look at it, reducing fossil fuel emissions and adapting to climate change will cost money. Because the developed nations can afford it, they should pay more, not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms as well. Say it costs a few percent of the world’s wealth to pay for a massive switch to clean energy. For poorer nations, a few percent on their meagre resources will have a disproportionately high impact on their wellbeing, while to a rich country, the impact might be negligible.
  • Technological capacity. The argument here is that those who are best placed to do what is right have the greatest obligation to do so. If you fail to act to save a drowning child as you stroll along the riverbank, you might have some explaining to do. If you’re a physically fit and well-trained lifeguard you’ll have even more explaining to do.

A particularly interesting aspect of Garvey’s framework is that it doesn’t rely on being able to come up with an adequate definition of environmental sustainability, nor of any idea of ‘stewardship of the earth’. When he does discuss sustainability, at the end of chapter 3, Garvey points out that most definitions of sustainability rely on us reasoning about a balance of the rights of the current generation with the rights of those yet unborn, and however you look at it, it’s hard to figure out an equitable division of resources with an unknown number of future earthlings. To argue that we must act to reduce avoidable suffering because of the impacts of climate change is one thing. But to argue that future generations must have equal access to resources as us is much harder. By way of example, he questions whether the people of developing nations, where life might only just be becoming tolerable, should pause to consider making sacrifices now for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Garvey spends chapter 4 demolishing the usual arguments put forward for doing nothing, or for delaying action. It’s eloquently argued, and makes a compelling case that those who spend time discussing uncertainties and costs are doing little more than self-interested vacillation. On uncertainty:

“The many things we still don’t understand all that well, the IPCC and others stress in various ways make us unsure of the timing and the magnitude and the regional patterns of climate change. What is not in doubt is the fact of climate change and the human role in it. […] The uncertainty, really, concerns only the timing and extent of the required cuts and preparations. We do not know how swift the changes to our societies need to be or how large they need to be. We don’t know how much longer we can get away with the high energy lives we’ve got. Maybe putting it that way makes our to-ing and fro-ing about action on climate change sound self-interested. Maybe that’s just what it is.”  (p95-6)

On costs:

“If you think a little about the causes and effects of climate change – our easy high-energy lives as compared to the suffering which greenhouse-gas emissions cause and will continue to cause – you can come to the conclusion that avoiding action on climate change just because it might be expensive amounts to harming people for money.” (p98)

On hoping for technological rescue:

“There’s no harm in wishful thinking, unless it stops you doing something effective when something effective needs to be done. When wishful thinking takes the place of recognizing moral responsibilities […] the harm becomes a moral mistake. The damage that might have been avoided becomes the wishful thinker’s fault. […] Opting for wishful thinking instead of action when there is so much at stake is something more like moral recklessness.” (p103)

On waiting for others to act:

“Ethical demands are placed upon the users of a scarce and valuable resource just because the scarce and valuable resource is being used. It does not matter whether a country signs a treaty, whether a country meant to deprive others, or whether other countries are pitching in too. The moral demand is there no matter what others do.” (p109)

And in summary:

“Not one of the reasons for delaying meaningful action on climate change is based on a principle. Certainly there are no moral principles to be found in the arguments. There is not much talk of justice or equity or fairness or the value of human life. This fact might give you pause, might make you suspicious, might make you wonder what the real motivation for delay might be. […] It is hard to escape the conclusion that selfishness is at the bottom of the arguments against action” (p110-111)

Having sketched out the rationale for this moral framework, Garvey then considers what action on climate change is needed. He suggests four moral requirements for judging any proposed international agreement:

  1. Historical responsibilities – any agreement must take account of how much of our shared carbon sinks each country has used up already;
  2. Present capacities – taking into account both inequality in current emissions (e.g. by comparing per capita emissions) and availability in each country of the capital needed to undertake emissions reduction.
  3. Sustainability – however we divide up the remaining shares of the carbon sinks it must be set up in a way that is sustainable over the long term.
  4. Procedural fairness – the process of arriving at and implementing an agreement must be open and transparent, as must be the measurement of compliance.

Garvey applies these criteria to assess the Kyoto protocol, and finds it seriously wanting:

“The individual targets set for countries in Kyoto are based on self-interest, not moral principle, certainly not in the recognition of past injustices or present inequalities.” (p122)

And of course, given the bullying that went on in the Kyoto process by certain powerful countries, it certainly wasn’t procedurally fair:

“A process certainly cannot be called ‘just’ if those landed with large burdens have little say in the process. There is a sense in which the poor and the weak, those least able to adapt to climate change, were landed with the worst of the burdens: rising tides, drought, failing crops, more disease, water shortages, and on and on. That fact should have secured certain countries a much larger role in negotiations. It didn’t.” (p123)

And he makes short work of the argument that we might forgive the moral failings of the Kyoto agreement on the basis that at least it was a first step, on which we can build:

“To buy into this sort of view of Kyoto, […] at the very least you have to think that the desired end is now on the cards. You have to think that future rounds of deeper cuts with more industrialized countries taking part now stands a good chance of being a reality because of Kyoto. Further you have to have good reasons for this thought; it can’t just be wishful thinking. […] It has to be true that Kyoto was the only way to secure the future good end of a meaningful treaty with substantial and binding emissions cuts. There is at least one other way to get such a treaty, and that’s to start with it.”

Which then brings us to the question of what ought to be done. Garvey draws on the paper by Bodansky et. al., which surveys more than 40 different proposals. Using his criteria, he throws out many on the basis that they only tackle part of the problem, and boils the remainder down to two basic approaches:

  • Equal per capita shares, of which the best known example is contraction and convergence. Such proposals satisfy the criteria of moral adequacy, but might not be directly implementable, because, if we take past emissions into account, the developed countries, in effect, have already used up their per capita shares entirely (plus a whole lot more). Pushed to the extreme, this is then an argument that the developed nations aren’t even entitled to subsistence allowances from this point onwards. This could be addressed by some sort of monetary compensation for past emissions, instead of deducting them from future allocations. But then there are other wrinkles to sort out: the problem that people in some parts of the world (e.g. cold climates) could justifiably insist they need a bigger share than some others. And of course, the scheme might be seen to encourage population growth, and if you try and deal with this by pegging the per capita shares to population at some fixed date, you then penalize countries with younger populations who can’t immediately avoid significant population growth.
  • Comparable burdens, in which the countries of the world agree to share out equally the burden of action on climate change. While this is clearly not morally adequate, according to Garvey’s criteria, he considers a number of reasons to take such proposals seriously, the chief of which is that the developed world is far more likely to sign up to an agreement that forgives them for past emissions, and perhaps also a sustainability question: each nation is less likely to defect if it can see that everyone is shouldering an equal burden. As he puts it:

“Suppose, instead, that we say that the right thing to do is to hold on to principle, even if it means that we end up with no agreement for meaningful action on climate change. Maybe this stand is admirable, until you think a little about the people who are going to suffer for it […] You can die for your own principles, if you like, but can you really insist that others die for them, too?” (p133)

In the end, Garvey doesn’t advocate for one or other of these approaches, but he does offer a clear yardstick by which to judge them. I think he’s saying, in effect, that equal per capita shares is what we ought to strive for (on the basis of moral adequacy), but that comparable burdens is the best we’re likely to achieve (in the basis of political acceptability). Of course, right now we have nothing, so there’s a lot of work to do.

Garvey’s final chapter is on individual action. He points out that what we do as individuals (e.g. worrying about how to reduce our own personal carbon footprints) is important, but isn’t going to save the planet. However, he addresses some hard truths about our personal moral failings. For example, he describes the moral outrage many people feel towards America: this is the nation that historically has done the most damage to the climate: with only 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 24% of global emissions, and yet America has done so little about climate change. And moral outrage because, as the world’s only superpower, America can most afford to take serious action, but does not. And more moral outrage because it’s a country where the vast majority of emissions are for luxuries rather than necessities. And even more moral outrage because other countries are taking stronger action on climate change, incurring immediate costs, while America acts as a freeloader, pursuing its short-term interests without caring about the consequences to the rest of the world.

And yet, if we’re capable of such moral outrage against America, we should, for moral consistency, also direct it against ourselves as individuals. For we, as the beneficiaries of a high-carbon lifestyle in the rich developed nations, are just as much to blame as any nation or government:

“If you find America’s failings morally outrageous, maybe you should find your own failings in the same connection morally outrageous too.” (p140)

And all the same arguments apply. If America is best placed to take action on climate change (because of its riches), then we as individuals in developed countries are too: we each have vastly more wealth, and vastly more choice than anyone in poorest half of the world. We should each be smart enough to figure out what we should do. We might reason that the effect is tiny when we take long hot showers, when we fail to insulate our houses, when we eat strawberries flown in from abroad, when we fly to exotic locations for vacations. But morally, the only difference between our individual actions and those of America or Exxon is one of scale. It’s still morally wrong.

To explain why so few people take a strong moral stance on individual choices, Garvey points out the psychological tricks we play on ourselves:

“When you hunker down over a drink and actually talk through climate change with real live people, when you follow debates in the media, and elsewhere, what you find are not arguments. What you bump into, again and again, are not reasons advanced for carefully articulated positions, but something closer to psychological defence mechanisms. What you find is denial.” (p143)

Garvey runs through Hillman’s list of ten defence mechanisms that people use for failing to take individual action, and points out that many of them were evident in the study of attitudes conducted by Stoll-Kleeman et al. They are all forms of denial, commonly found in dealing with addiction and anti-social behaviour:

  1. “I don’t believe in climate change”, which is straight denial of the facts;
  2. Technology will be able to halt climate change”, which is a kind of reckless wishful thinking;
  3. “I blame the government, or the Americans, or the Chinese”, which is a kind of psychological projection, used to avoid facing up to personal responsibility;
  4. Various ad hominems directed at people calling for action, which is just an attempt to kill the messenger;
  5. “It’s not my problem”, which might just be straightforward dissociation, given that the evidence is all around us that it is (and will be) everyone’s problem;
  6. “There’s nothing I can do about it”, which is patently false, given that the way we choose to live our lives is the cause of the problem;
  7. “How I run my life is my own business”, except that it isn’t when what we do causes tangible harm to others;
  8. “There are more important and urgent tasks to tackle”, which might be true, but is hard to argue. It’s therefore likely to be another form of misdirection;
  9. “At least I’m doing something”, which again is a form of denial when the “something” consists of easy, cosmetic changes that don’t address the real, substantive changes that are needed;
  10. “We are already making a lot of progress on climate change” which sounds to me like the alcoholic insisting he is cutting down.

Garvey ends the book with a compelling argument that what we do as individuals matters a great deal, and that reflecting on climate change, and the moral choices it demands of us, should make us more reflective, driving us to a kind of living deliberatively:

“Reflection on climate change, and what to do about it in your on life can feel like something in between a moral problem or question and a crisis – better, it can seem to have some of the properties of both.” (p148)

His final section is on civil disobedience, and the inevitable conclusion that if you take a moral stance on climate change, and bear witness to the failure of governments over the last two decades to do what’s right, it leaves little option but that radical action is in order. Of course, by the logic of his arguments about individual action, if we protest, to some extent we’re protesting against our own lifestyles:

“In more than a token sense, a campaign of civil disobedience undertaken for meaningful action on climate change is nothing other than a campaign by us, against us. Civil disobedience certainly has a history of individuals standing up for their own lives or the improvement of the lives of others, but has anyone anywhere insisted that she be given less? Will we chain ourselves to airplanes and demand more expensive airport taxes?” (p152)

Luckily there is something positive here too:

“Collective action on climate change might be the demand for less stuff, but it is also the demand for more of something else: maybe justice, or goodness or whatever it is about us which is best. There is nothing irrational about insisting on a more humane world” (p153)

I was talking with my students about Passive Houses last week, which are designed to be so well insulated that they require no heating system – just the body heat from a few people will do (think of it as the principle of a four-season sleeping bag, applied to the whole house).

But I hadn’t realised that they’re starting to catch on in North America, and even that they’ll work in places like Minnesota…

I’ve been reading up a lot this week about peak oil. I’ve been dipping into my copy of “The Post-Carbon Reader“, which really ought to be required reading for everyone involved in discussions about climate change. It’s a collection of short essays by a large number of forward thinkers, put together by the Post-Carbon Institute. They take as their premise the evidence that we’re now reaching the limits to growth on a number of major planetary indicators (climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, agricultural sustainability, the nitrogen cascade, etc).

The existence of these planetary limits was first popularized by the Club of Rome, in the Limits to Growth study. Although many people criticized the original Limits to Growth study, most such criticisms focussed on the details. The central message still stands: long term sustained growth, based on ever growing exploitation of the resources of a finite planet, is simply not possible. So far we’ve manage to avoid such limits through the principle of substitutability: human inventiveness comes up with new technologies that allow us to keep on growing (e.g. in terms of population and in terms of economic activity). For example, the original Limits to Growth study worried extensively about imminent food crises. But in the event these were avoided through the green revolution, whereby farming yields were dramatically increased through new agricultural practices. But these practices are incredibly energy-intensive, and are only possible because of cheap fossil fuels. The challenge now is that now we’re hitting limits in a whole set of areas at once, but most notably in the supplies of cheap energy. The principle of substitutability doesn’t work if all the systems that might drive it are also under stress.

So energy is central to all these issues. The introduction to the Post Carbon Reader points out that the abundance of cheap energy that humanity has enjoyed for the last 150 years is an anomaly in human history, and we’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to recognize how anomalous it it. Peak Oil is the first sign that the anomaly might be ending, and that our access to cheap energy is effectively over.

Last time I wrote about peak oil, I did some back of the envelope calculations to figure out whether peak oil might save us from the climate crisis. My numbers showed that about half of the remaining fossil fuel reserves need to stay buried in the ground if we are to stand a chance of staying below the +2ºC of warming advocated by most commentators. The message was that peak oil won’t save us from serious climate disruption, largely because there are enough coal deposits that a switch to coal (using coal to replace natural gas and oil) will spell disaster. But there’s a worse problem. Once we hit peak oil (which might have already happened), production starts to decline while demand still grows. The result is that oil prices shoot up, making it ever more profitable to drill for every last drop. So, not only will peak oil not save us from climate change, it will exacerbate the problem by ensuring greater profits for those who extract those last remaining drops. The same argument applies to peak coal, which is probably only a few decades away. What would induce people to leave such valuable commodities unexploited?

There is, of course, growing evidence that we’ve already hit peak oil. The spike in oil prices in the summer of 2008 were a taste of what’s to come, and we’ve seen evidence in the last month that oil prices are on their way back up to those levels. The reasons for this are gradually becoming clear: the oil industry has apparently been telling pleasant lies to governments for the last few decades, greatly exaggerating their estimates of remaining oil reserves. The extent of this exaggeration was recently revealed by wikileaks. And the essay by David Hughes in the Post-Carbon Reader explains the context, by exploring how unrealistic US government projections have been.

Much has been made in discussions about climate denialism about the oil industries funding concerted attempts to discredit climate science. But within the oil companies themselves, there does seem to be a recognition that the party is over. Take, for example, this report produced by Shell earlier this month: Shell Energy Scenarios to 2050. The Shell report takes the climate science very seriously, and quotes from the Rockström et. al. paper on on planetary boundaries, along with the the work by Allen et. al. and Meinhausen et. al. on limits to cumulative emissions. There’s no mention from the Shell scenarios team of any doubt about climate change and peak oil – in fact they clearly state that “the longer the delay in climate policy action, the more likely shocks become” (p17).

What’s interesting about this report from Shell is the two different alternative scenarios they explore, which they call Blueprint and Scramble. The blueprint scenario represents serious climate policies that switch to clean energies more rapidly than any current political discussions would achieve. The alternative, Scramble, makes depressing reading. It posits a world in which nations focus more on their own energy security than on the long-term goals of reducing demand and switching to renewables. It’s a scramble for the dwindling fossil fuel supplies that puts supplier nations firmly in the driving seat (at which point we can forget any worries about human rights and equity), and in which we’ll see increasing international conflict:

Scramble in the west could also result in increasing anti-globalisation, more protectionism and political radicalism. [...] As global order fragments, governments in developed countries will be pressured to protect the living standards of their populations”.

If oil companies understand this, why don’t politicians?

Jono sent me a fascinating article in the NY Times about the new zero-carbon office building at the National Renewable Energy Lab, in Golden, Colorado. We visited NREL with the kids back in November, as it has a small, but fascinating visitors centre (but we didn’t get to see the new building, unfortunately).

The part in the article that got Jono’s attention is the 65-watt budget allocated to each workspace, including lighting and computing. Meeting that is certainly possible, but requires some careful choices about which computers to use, and how they are configured. Which then creates interesting new dependencies between the computers we use and the buildings in which we work. I’d love to see more details from NREL about how they handled the social dynamics involved in these design decisions.

In pulling together my thoughts for a workshop last week on systems thinking, I’ve realised how much systems thinking has affected my approach to climate change, and how systems thinking is an essential tool for understanding the different responses people have to climate change. For systems thinking offers not just a way to think about and understand the interactions that occur in very complex systems, but also a way of understanding how people relate to systems, and how our conceptions of systems affect our interactions with them.

A simple introduction to systems thinking usually starts by pointing out how familiar we are with the idea of “a system” – for example we use the word as a suffix in many different ways: an ecosystem, the transport system, the education system, a weather system, the political system, a computer system, and so on. [Note: The use of the definite article, "the ... system", is a little unfortunate here, as we shall see].

Most people are used to the idea of identifying different aspects of a system they wish to describe: inputs and outputs, a control (or management) mechanism, a boundary that separates the system from its environment, a possible purpose or function of the system, different elements or subsystems, different states that the system can be in, and so on.

This then leads to insights about the dynamic behaviour of a system, especially in terms of stocks and flows, and positive and negative feedback loops. For example, John Sterman has a simple demonstration of stocks and flows in an atmospheric system, with his bathtub model of greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations.

But where systems thinking really gets interesting is when we include ourselves as part of the system we’re describing. For example, for the climate system, we should include ourselves as elements of the system, as the many of our actions affect the release of greenhouse gases. But we’re also the agents that give some aspects of the system their meaning or purpose – the fossil fuel extraction and production system exists to provide us with energy, and one could even argue that the climate system exists to provide us with suitable conditions to live in, and that ecosystems exist to provide us with food, resources, and even a sense of wonder and belonging. The interesting part of this is that different people will ascribe different meanings and/or purposes to these systems, and some would argue that to ascribe such purposes is inappropriate.

Which leads us to the next level of insight, which is that these descriptions of systems are really just ways of looking at the world, and different people will see and describe different systems, even when observing the same parts of the world. As Reynolds points out, systems thinking starts when we begin to see the world through other people’s eyes, and the idea of multiple perspectives is a central concept. In this sense, systems don’t really exist in the world at all, they only exist as convenient descriptions of the world. Moreover, when we choose to describe some part of the world as a system, we make explicit choices about where to draw boundaries, and which things to ignore, and these choices themselves are important, because they reveal our biases and interests, and certain choices may help or hinder our attempts to analyze a system.

Taking this even further, we can then conceive of the system that consists of a group of people and their descriptions of the systems they are interested in, and we can study the dynamics of this system: how people affect one another’s perceptions of the systems, and how those perceptions shape their interactions with those systems. For example, we could describe climate change primarily in terms of the physical processes: carbon emissions, the radiative balance of the atmosphere, average temperatures, and impacts on human life and ecosystems. The leads to a view the problem of climate change as primarily about reducing emissions (and many people who write about climate change take this view). Alternatively, we could describe climate change as one aspect of a system of human growth (in population, energy use, resource use, economic activity, etc) and the many ways in which that growth is constrained on a finite planet. Which then leads to a very different characterization of the problem in which carbon emissions are really just a by-product of a cheap energy consumerist society, and the problem isn’t to reduce emissions, it is to restructure our entire societies (and our conceptions of them) so that we no longer depend on growth in resource consumption as our definition of human progress.

A key term here is second-order cybernetics. Cybernetics (of the first order) studies the ways in which processes can be controlled, and the engineering of process control systems. Second order cybernetics studies how our perceptions of systems affects our ability to design ways of controlling them. In other words, there are interesting dynamics in the interplay between our understanding of systems, and our attempts to design controllers for them. Much of the problem in understanding and responding to climate change is due to a failure by most writers to appreciate the dynamics in second order cybernetic systems.

I’ll write more about the application of systems thinking to climate change in the next few weeks. In the meantime, here’s some recommended reading – two excellent introductory books, which I think might appeal to different audiences:

If you’re not sure, read both. It will be worth it.

This is brilliant:

There’s a whole series. Each video is less than three minutes, but manages to pack in some of the clearest, most informative account of climate change I’ve ever seen:

(I’m not sure what happened to #1)

I’ve been invited to speak at a workshop next week run by the Leadership Program at the office of Student Life, as part of their sustainability leadership series. The workshop is on “Activist Burnout and Systems Thinking“. I’m responsible for the systems thinking part (although I’m hoping to come up with some creative ways of linking both themes together). The workshop is open to anyone at U of T – come along and join in the fun.

While preparing for my class this morning, I was looking for graphs that show model projections for likely warming over the coming century, and I ended up putting these two graphs side by side:

What’s interesting is that they are both based on the same dataset (namely, from the model runs for projections for the coming century from the CMIP3 dataset used in the IPCC AR4). But they present the information in radically different ways. Some of the differences are obvious, and some are subtle:
  • The second graph puts the projections into the context of the last 1500 years or relatively stable climate, while the first graph only goes back to the beginning of the 20th Century, so you don’t see the contrast with the pre-industrial context;
  • The first graph gives some projections longer than the 21st century – for selected scenarios, the temperature response is shown out to three centuries.
  • The two graphs show different selections of scenarios: A1B, A2, and B1 in the first graph, and A1FI, A2 and B1 in the second.
  • The baseline for temperature anomalies is different. The first graph uses the IPCC standard of the average global temperature from 1961-1990 as the zero point; the second graph uses the 18th century average as the zero point. As best I can tell, the difference is a little over 0.5°C, so the first graph shows a temperature anomaly for the end of the 20th Century as less than +0.5°C, while the second graph has this anomaly closer to +1°C.

These choices are interesting for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the second graph is much scarier. The extra context from the pre-industrial era emphasizes how unusual the warming is, and the compressed timescale emphasizes the rapidity of the warming. The pre-industrial baseline shifts the Y axis slightly, so the warming from the shared scenarios, A2 and B1, looks a little worse. And by cutting the graph off at 2100, you don’t see the eventual stabilization for the B1 scenario.

The selection of which scenarios to show is important too. The SRES scenarios are projections for future emissions of greenhouse gases, based on different assumptions about economic development, globalization, and how quickly we switch to cleaner energy sources. The A scenarios represent worlds in which economic growth is emphasized over environmental protection, while the B scenarios represent a future world in which environmental measures are prioritized over economic growth. These scenarios define the emissions profiles used as input to the models, which then calculate the temperature response (because the models can only compute the earth systems’ responses to emissions levels; they can’t predict what humans will actually do!).

The choice to include A1FI in the second graph is important:

  • A1FI represents strong economic growth, a strong globalization trend, and aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels (the FI stands for “fossil fuel intensive”). That’s basically the world preferred by the oil industry and the US Republican party, i.e. “Drill, baby, drill”.
  • In contrast, A1B represents similar economic trends, but more of a balance of energy sources – i.e. something closer to what Obama was advocating in his state-of-the union address.
  • A2 is an intermediate scenario, with less globalization, and less technological development, and slower growth in the developing world.
  • B1 is what we might get if the world gets its act together and agrees tough new targets to reduce global emissions, and then actually follows through and implements them – i.e. something dramatically different to the Kyoto experience.

The data comes directly from the science (i.e. from the models for future projections, and from observations for the years prior to 2000). But the choices of how to present the information are not scientific choices, they are value choices. The choices made in the first graph all tend to play down the seriousness of climate change, while the choices in the second graph all tend to emphasize it. In particular, the choice not to include A1FI, the business-as-usual path in the first graph could be argued as a very serious omission – a failure to warn the world how bad it could get on our current path. Similarly, the decision to extend only the lower scenarios into future centuries conveys an overall message that we get to choose between two paths, one that stabilizes around +2°C and one that stabilizes around the +3°C level. This is not a fair representation of today’s policy choices.

Okay, now I should say where I got the two graphs from. The first might be very familiar – it’s from the IPCC 2007 assessment. The second is from the Copenhagen Diagnosis in 2009, a document put together by a respectable group of scientists (many of them are IPCC lead authors), intended as an update on the last IPCC report, taking on board developments in the science, and in particular, a growing body of evidence that the IPCC projections have tended to underestimate the trends.

The question of which graph better represents the prognosis is clearly a value judgment. Having compared the two, I now feel that the IPCC graph is missing a major part of the story, and hence is misleading. I think there are weaknesses in the second graph too, as the compressed timescale for the 21st century makes it really hard to discern the three trends. But it certainly seems a lot more appropriate to include more of the pre-industrial context, and to choose a pre-industrial temperature baseline. These graphs have the potential to take on an iconic status, and to directly affect people’s thinking about climate change. We really ought to examine more closely the choices that were made in presenting them.

Update, Feb 3 2011: Bart does a similar comparison with a third graph, which does a better job of the pre-industrial reconstruction, but still suffers from all the other problems of the IPCC graph.