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A Rational Response to Climate Change?

by Nic Darling on December 2, 2010 · 6 comments

in Philosophy

Those in a position to fully understand and appreciate the looming consequences of our planet abuse have reached the point where politically motivated equivocation is waning. The tempered suggestions of carbon caps and higher efficiency standards are giving way to more drastic and likely more honest suggestions. The fact that those suggestions can and will be used to make these experts look “extreme”, “out of touch” and “crazy” is overridden by a kind of growing desperation. This is illustrated nicely by a recent call for countries to consider a WWII style rationing in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The mere fact that this “wacky” idea was shared with the ever skeptical and judgmental public should suggest a reason to start devoting even more time and energy to your backyard climate shelter.

Home Sweet Post-Apocolyptic Home

The rationing idea, put forth by Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, is essentially part of a larger plan to halt the economic expansion of developed nations. According to the professor, this is the only way to reduce global emissions while still giving the undeveloped world a chance to catch up. This could mean restrictions on electricity use, flights, gasoline and other high impact products. It is, of course, total lunacy.

Now, by calling his idea lunacy, I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. This man knows more about our planet’s climate than nearly anyone. The odds are that he is right, or at least near the mark. No, this idea is crazy because it will never actually happen. The populations of every developed country in the world are unlikely to agree to such a sacrifice. I would be shocked to see it considered in Europe, and I would likely pass out if it was even mentioned in the USA (in anything other than a mocking tone of voice). After all, our country does have a less than stellar track record with the acceptance  of climate change science.

China Hasn't Caught Us Yet In This One

We are second only to China in carbon emissions (that’s a title we weren’t sorry to lose), and we have a significant portion of our population who won’t believe global warming is even happening until they are wading through Manhattan or stranded in the new Midwestern desert. Even then, most of them won’t believe that mankind had a thing to do with it unless God Himself (or Herself) descends from the heavens, puts His hands on His hips and says “Dear Me, look what you guys have done to this place.”  And, even if you could somehow convince the masses that the people who have spent their lives studying the climate might know a bit more than those who have spent an equivalent amount of time in a pre-show makeup chair, you would still have to contend with the fact that, contrary to our background check, the people aren’t the only voice to which our government listens. Optimistically, they are a voice, but as we learned from that classic Charlie Sheen vehicle, money talks. Such is the power of our corporations in the election and continued prosperity of our government officials that even a hint of a bill like this is something that would only be found on the desk of a lame duck senator with a terminal medical condition, and that would be buried under a pile of other stuff out of fear that someone might see it.

I’m sure versions of this resistance to climate science exist in other countries. China is certainly hesitant to  accept any explanation that might slow their economic growth. But, I am not much of an expert in other countries. Hell, I’m not much of an expert in this one, but the obvious doesn’t always require expertise. This country is not likely to agree to any limitation of emissions, let alone a rationing system that might impinge on our binge. It is difficult to self-inflict painful choices even when it’s good for you, and the US seems to have grown worse and worse at that kind of decisive governance. No one wants to be the bad guy.

Of course, Professer Anderson knows this. He isn’t an idiot. I am certain he knew how such a suggestion would be perceived, and that is why I find his suggestion so disturbing. Rather than hedge and try for something that might actually gain acceptance, he has placed on the table an obvious impossibility. Why? I think it is because he honestly believes the situation cannot be fixed without such a drastic move and that the time to work through incremental steps is past. Worse, I think he probably feels that being dismissed as crazy will have the same long term results as being accepted with a tamer, more comfortable idea. This, I think, is cause for concern.

So, where does that leave us? Are we in a position where the only hope of halting and reversing our walk down the plank is something that no one will ever accept? Are we too far gone to recover with anything less than an overwhelming response? And if so, what kind of scenario would allow people to accept this kind of painful suggestion? What sort of tactic could circumvent the short sighted interest of the powerful?

I know this post has been outside of our usual set of topics, but I appreciate you bearing with me. I also realize that I have just taken one small soundbite from a huge discussion, but I hoped it could generate an interesting conversation. To that end . . .  If you have something to say about my little tangent, do it in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam December 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I don’t want to get too deeply in the weeds of a very complicated topic, but it seems worth pointing that energy efficiency — getting the same amount of work out of less energy — provides a trifecta of political viability, meaningful emissions reduction, and economic benefit.

To pick an example completely at random: say you’re able to build a LEED-certified, PassiveHaus-compliant home for no more than the cost of a traditional new house. You’re now wealthier, more comfortable, and much more green than you otherwise would be. No rationing or economic deprivation involved.

We shouldn’t be too pollyanna about this — reducing emissions won’t all be a giant freebie. But this is the type of place to start.

2 Brendan O'Brien December 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I offer another possible motivation of Professor Anderson that follows the path of logic he seems to already be on.
That path of logic: Humanity’s future will not improve without serious personal sacrifices taken now that the vast majority of wealthy humans are not willing to make.
His Motivation: Being written off as a lunatic now is his personal sacrifice to humanity’s future.
In all likely hood he will be dead before he is capable of saying “I told you so” and have the majority agree. But perhaps someone who takes up the legacy he has just created will get to smirk publicly.
“Are we in a position where the only hope of halting and reversing our walk down the plank is something that no one will ever accept?” People would accept it, but not enough people would.

3 December 3, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Get on with building your little, efficient homes in urban places. Start throwing in a Nissan Leaf for free. If you can bury the cost of the car in there, your buyer can get a 30 yr loan at 4%, and the gasoline savings should be enough for the car payment.*

If the idea catches on quickly, you’ll have done a great service. We can use the surplus exurban Mcmansions to store our stuff (unheated) until we can figure out what to do with them.

People CAN cut back when they are convinced. In the drought of 2001-2002 in Denver, we cut back water usage by over 40%. Many lawns never recovered and now look ugly, but we’re working on that

A really gnarly eco-disaster in the US might be what it takes to convince everyone. Katrina wasn’t it.

*I realize that’s illegal and unethical, but laws can be changed.

4 Tyler Hartanov December 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Can you provide a link to the graph shown on the post. It looks really interesting. Thanks

5 Nic Darling December 6, 2010 at 10:22 am

Adam: I am with you on efficiency, but my fear is that simply building better buildings and engineering better cars will no longer be enough to head of the disaster.

Brendan: I agree completely with your other motivation for Anderson. I was thinking much the same thing.

greenbuildingingindenver: No one wants a disaster, but it is hard to shake the feeling that we will never learn without one.

Tyler: Sorry, forgot the link to that graph. Not sure this is the best place to see it, but it is where I found it.

6 Fred December 17, 2010 at 5:47 pm

I don’t think you can build or buy your way out of this looming environmental disaster if the driving factors are as predicted by scientists. You may be slowing down growth with more efficient buildings but you’re still aiding in growth.

James Lovelock, the man who came up with the concept of Gaia, or Earth as a whole unified organism, believes that 90% of the human population will be wiped out within the next hundred or so years. Now THAT sounds crazy but unfortunately he’s not crazy and has a pretty track record. You can get a short history of him at

Pretty fatalistic, sure but look on the bright side. If you add some rainwater harvesting, someone living in house that requires little or no fossil fuels, might be one of the lucky 10% who make it through. How’s that for marketing?

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