I realise why I have been so quiet lately. I am clearly going through a meek and non-confrontational phase. The prospect of unpacking my thoughts on climate change makes me feel all twitchy.
So I should start in a roundabout way by saying that I have finished Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. Like ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, you all ought to read it, so I won’t say too much about it here until the rest of you catch up. It is a lot like Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’ but with real examples. The Lorax always made me really sad, but I have grown used to reading really sad things so that the sadness has siuffused my being, so I can’t say I became any more depressed through reading it. The irreversibility of deforestation in some environments struck me- on Iceland, Easter Island, and Northern Arizona. Some environments are robust enough that the forests come back in a few generations and seethe over the ruins of lost civilisations, and some just aren’t. I went out immediately and went for a walk around my own piece of land, once open forest, cleared ninety years ago and not grazed or (except for a few feeble attempts at firebreaks) mown for the past 18 months since we’ve had it. There are several large established native trees, but there were absolutely no new ones coming up anywhere. Maybe all of our native trees are the sort that need fire to germinate? We have cool, wet summers and long winters, so I would expect the unmodified landscape to have been more of a mosaic of pro-fire and anti-fire trees, like in northwestern Tasmania. If they are all ‘pro-fire’ trees, I assume it is a product of aboriginal land management practices and the ‘anti-fire’ trees are lurking in the gorges thirty km to the east. I might be wrong since my botanical ignorance is near total. It could just be that it will take a long time for the soil to recover from all those decades of being walked on by sheepses. Along one side there is a line of old pine trees planted as a windbreak, and under these a few new little pine trees were coming up, but nowhere near as many were springing up under the same kind of trees on along the road. Where we have transplanted these to outline the windbreak of the future along another side fence, they are doing very nicely. It sunk in that the lovely view outside is one of those irreversibly-changed environments: if humans left tomorrow, whatever final forest cover does manage to colonise it would be dominated by introduced trees and would have a depleted flora and fauna compared to neighbouring areas of uncleared bush for thousands of year.
Jared Diamond never says much about the subtitle of his book: ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. Or, I guess he does, but he never addresses the more interesting quiestion, ‘Why societies choose to fail or survive.’ He says that the response of societies to changes is sometimes good and sometimes bad, and in the case of the Pacific islands fits this to a deterministic model: things tended to reach a stable and not completely disasterous equilibrium on tiny islands where everyone’s actions obviously affected everyone else, and on large flattish ones where a single government could be established. But on ones geographically condemned to be divided between numerous groups, Tribe A had no incentive to conserve resources if it meant that they would be snaffled by the evil Tribe B: it was better to get in and snaffle them first. You will read this yourselves, of course.
I think the why to failure is simply putting personal, short-term interests ahead of long-term interests. Often, what is globally good will be locally bad, and vice versa.
Two examples from a society that is supposedly concerned about achieving a sustainable use of energy:
The Victorian (non) wind farm. Canned because of the orange-bellied parrot. Is it a good thing for the parrot? Probably. Is it remotely credible that a network of wind and solar energy remotely capable of meeting our energy needs could be established without impacting negatively on a lot of endangered species? I don’t think so.
The evils of smoke. The council in the big city (population 16,000) is banning wood heaters because it is in a valley and fills with smoke every winter. This will be nice for the local asthmatics, but it also means that houses currently heated with non-fossil carbon will be shifted to fossil carbon.
Here’s another example, which I don’t get at all, about another scare resource. Devil Bunny City was under the despotic rule of a supposedly ‘green’ premier. It lets all its stormwater and almost all of its wastewater run off into the ocean. Instead of attempting to convince us of the merits of recycling, he decided to build a desalination plant which makes no environmental or economic sense. On second thought, I have no idea what this is an example of, since it seems both locally and globally insane.
The evils of smoke brings me to the important lesson of September 12th. What happens if you ground all the planes for a few days and reduce the amount of particulates in the upper atmosphere? The temperature shoots up a couple of degrees. What would happen if we instantly stopped using fossil fuels (say, if it is discovered an over-zealous Pentagon once added a few zeroes to a proposal and there are enough submarine-sized nuclear reactors in a cavern in Texas for every small town in the world to have one)? If we cut our emissions to zero, the temperature will spike up everywhere by some unspecified amount. And it is the speed of climate change that is a bad thing: life can cope with very big changes if they aren’t too quick. Carbon sequestration technologies are absolutely essential if we want to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because natural processes are too slow. When these are cost-effective to implement they will be impemented. I don’t know what the ideological conservationist position is on carbon sequestration and I suspect it will make me twitchy to find out. My worry is that the orthodox wisdom conflates a whole bunch of questions into one:
Is global warming occurring?
Is it caused primarily by humans?
Should we try to stop it, or just mitigate its effects?
If we should try to stop it, what are the best ways?
How do we get societies to adopt these best ways?
It seems to me that the ideological conservationist leaps directly from the beginning of this to the end without thinking too much about the middle. I am not so sure as I was a year ago that we should do nothing to try and stop global warming: I think we should probably spend a reasonable amount of money on investigating biological and technological methods of carbon sequestration. I think Kyoto-type agrreements are a very bad idea. The transition to a post-fossil fuel economy will happen anyway, driven by economics. We won’t even have to stop driving our cars, because once our power generation is nuclear we will have immense reservs of natural gas to reform into clean-burning motor fuel at no more than two or three times its current cost in real terms. (By ‘we’ I mean Russia and the Greater Iranian Islamic Republic).
I haven’t read the Sceptical Environmentalist, but I think the Copenhagen Consensus project is a good idea. We need to prioritise things. It is silly to go around saying everything is equally important and we need to everything now, because we either end up paralysed and do nothing, or make a choice on where to devote our energies on sentimental reasons and become tireless advocates for baby Harp Seals.