Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Climate change is a moral issue. Ergo, it is a bigger problem than it would otherwise be.

There is that wonderful scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, when Paul Newman's character traces with his shoe the symbol π on the dirt.  I am trusting my memory on this and refuse to Google for confirmation ;)

Oddly enough it was that movie scene that I was reminded when I came across the following image in yet another wonderful essay in the New Yorker by the Pulitzer-winning Elizabeth Kolbert:
Unlike Iron Curtain, Kolbert's essay is no spy thriller.  It is a rather depressing thriller in its own way--about the world's failure "to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”"  Kolbert explains in plain English those words in quotes:
In plain English, it means global collapse.
I suspect that Kolbert intentionally used the word collapse--in discussions on climate change, collapse might remind us about Jared Diamond's book that was titled Collapse.  Anyway, Kolbert's essay is about the upcoming global meet in Paris, later in December, to arrive at a path that will be a lot more constructive than the environmental path that we are currently on.  The meeting will determine "the fate of the planet."

The person whose responsibility is to coordinate all these is profiled in Kolbert's essay--"a Costa Rican named Christiana Figueres."
Of all the jobs in the world, Figueres’s may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none). The role entails convincing a hundred and ninety-five countries—many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy—that giving up such fuels is a good idea.  
We could have been doing something already by now.  But, remember how the politics in DC began after the contested Bush v. Gore?
It was the United States that helped rescue the protocol—Vice-President Al Gore flew to Kyoto when the talks appeared to be foundering—and it was also the U.S. that very nearly killed it. The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House, in 2001, he announced that his Administration would not abide by its terms.
“Kyoto is dead” is how Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, put it. In fact, the treaty survived, but in a zombielike state. The U.S. ignored it. The Canadians blew past their target and, midway through the period covered by Kyoto, withdrew from the agreement. Only the Europeans really took their goal seriously, not only meeting it but exceeding it.
Since then, the US got itself in quite some mess in Iraq and Afghanistan and seemingly everywhere, while China puffed out quite some smoke as the world's factory.
In the mid-nineties, China was emitting nearly a billion metric tons of carbon a year. By the mid-aughts, its output was twice that amount. In 2005, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter on an annual basis. (The U.S. still holds first place in terms of cumulative emissions.) Nowadays, China’s per-capita emissions are as high as Western Europe’s (though not nearly as high as those in the U.S.).
The net result?
During the last ice age, when much of North America was covered in glaciers a mile thick, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere were around a hundred and eighty parts per million. For the ten thousand years leading up to the industrial revolution, they hovered around two hundred and eighty parts per million. By 1992, when the Framework Convention was drafted, they had reached three hundred and fifty parts per million. As MOP followed COP, carbon-dioxide levels kept rising. This spring, they topped four hundred parts per million.
China and India and all the developing countries want economic growth.  The world wants economic growth.  That is the straight line going up in that graphic.  The downward sloping arc?
The straight line was supposed to represent economic growth, past and future, the curved line the rise and fall of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“That’s where we are,” she said, drawing a dot right at the point where the two lines were about to diverge.
If Figueres is correct that we are about to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, then our future looks good.  But, I think Figueres is being optimistic.  Overly optimistic.  But, hey, the world needs such optimists.

However, what if the December meeting fails, like how all the previous ones did not bring about real and significant changes?
“Ask all the islands,” she said finally. “Ask Bangladesh. We just can’t let that happen. Do we have the right to deprive people of their homes just because I want to own three S.U.V.s? It just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s not how we think of ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as being egotistical, immoral individuals. And we’re not. Fundamentally, we all have a morality bedrock. Every single human being has that.”
Actions in response to climate change are moral decisions, indeed.  I have been arguing along those lines forever, it seems.  I searched through my emails because I remembered having argued that point with a colleague, well before he launched his divestment campaign on campus.  In that email back in February 2008, I wrote:
 As long as we folks in the rich countries are not willing to change our ways, we have absolutely no moral ground from which we can preach the right thing to the billions who are slowly clawing their way out of dark economic conditions.
Will the seven-billion-plus "egotistical, immoral individuals" work out a way to prevent a collapse?  I suppose I will find out, in the remaining twenty-four years that I have.


Ramesh said...

I don't live in a rich country, and I contribute far less to global warming than you lot - I don't eat meat, I don't drive a SUV and my home is neither heated nor cooled. Nowadays I don't even fly all around the world. So, I am a good boy.

If you insist that you are an "egotistical, immoral individual", I won't object, but you dare not insinuate that the good lady who regularly comments on your posts is in your tribe :)

Sriram Khé said...

"I don't live in a rich country, and I contribute far less to global warming than you lot - I don't eat meat, I don't drive a SUV and my home is neither heated nor cooled. Nowadays I don't even fly all around the world. So, I am a good boy."

Your stand is like how the rich countries of today claim that they are off the hook because they are not the big time emitters any more. You used to live in rich countries. You used to live in the largest emitting country. You lived and worked in cooled and heated buildings. You traveled a whole lot all over the world. So, you had your good time contributing to global emissions ;)

That past of yours and of the rich countries is why scientists look at the accumulation up there--the cumulative emissions.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a moral issue. A moral issue in which we are all in the wrong and who can't afford to point fingers and blame others. Well, ok, there are those hundreds of millions who barely exist and barely consume who are the only ones who can point fingers and those fingers will be pointed at you, me, and about five billion others, including "the good lady who regularly comments"

Anne in Salem said...

Much of what you say is true - Americans cause much of the deterioration but won't do much about it, developing countries have difficult decisions, this is a complicated issue. Is "I'm just one person, what good would it do to eat local when no one else is?" a strictly American sentiment? When we see statistics that airplanes pollute more than all the cars on the road (making it up purely as an example of similar statistics I have seen), it is hard to convince anyone to change habits, no matter how necessary.

I take exception to the blame placed on actions taken before we knew the consequences. Just as you can't blame farmers for using DDT before they knew the damage it did, only if they continued using it after the consequences were known, I don't think we can blame ourselves for our ignorant actions. No one thought about damage to the atmosphere and the planet when I was a kid. We drove our gas-guzzling leaded fuel cars all over the place because we didn't know better. Did we know that our beef generated more methane than it does beef and that it requires significantly more water to produce than any plant protein? No. In this case, ignorance is a defense.

For many people, the moral issue is more of a financial issue. Better gas mileage cars cost more. Local food costs more. Locally-produced goods, in general, cost more. Morals are a luxury for some.

The moral issue lies in what you choose to do after you have the information. Do you continue as is, or do you change? But changing is not always so simple. Families no longer live in the same city, so flights are inevitable. Is it even possible to buy shoes that aren't shipped across an ocean? Is it possible to buy a car made entirely in the US? Is it possible to consume a nutritious diet composed entirely of ingredients sourced within 200 miles? I guess you'd have to give up your coffee and chocolate. And when push comes to shove, the planet can die when my choice is fly to see Grandma before she passes or save the planet. Absolutely egotistical.

Perhaps we should have been thinking about possible damage to our planet all along. I'm not sure even you were thinking about your carbon footprint thirty years ago.

Sriram Khé said...

"Perhaps we should have been thinking about possible damage to our planet all along. I'm not sure even you were thinking about your carbon footprint thirty years ago."

True. Most of us didn't think much about the destruction to the natural environment. Though, even in the industrial town where Ramesh and I grew up, there were a few worries that people expressed even back then. One, in particular, was about sea water intrusion because groundwater was being pumped out big time in the mining process.

Interesting that you mention DDT--maybe you were intentional. That DDT issue and Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring were instrumental in catalyzing our collective environmental awareness.

What is, therefore, tragic is this: even when we now know better, we seem to want to continue along the same path that we have been traveling for decades. And the esteemed leaders of your favored political party even believe that the problems are all nothing but figments of the liberal imaginations. It is beyond my abilities to comprehend how politicians who have tremendous influence over our lives can be such vehement deniers. It is easy to imagine such behaviors among the politburo in the old USSR or in contemporary China. But, in a democratic United States? Awful :(

As for consuming locally-produced foods and goods, well, studies have shown that those are only feel-good approaches that do not help the environment. I have blogged in plenty about that: http://sriramkhe.blogspot.com/search?q=locavore