"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Laudato Si, Señor

The big question is this: can climate change be viewed in isolation, or is it part and parcel of a deeper problem.

People who have not taken the time to read Laudato Si', the new encyclical, seem to think it's about fixing "global warming"; but it isn't. Climate change barely has a few explicit mentions. It is about humanity's fraught relationship to the earth, in a context of the overvaluation of economic optimization. Except for a few secondary points, I find myself in full agreement with the great majority of it.

Meanwhile, though, the climate problem has a special urgency, and it's NOT hard to imagine resolving it in the current economic context. Just put a price on carbon, stand back, and let capitalism handle it.

I believe that with an adequate and globally enforced carbon tax (basically ramping up quickly until emissions are so insanely costly as to essentially cease), the problem would be solved.

(There are side effects to such a solution, one of which is its regressive nature, and another is its transfer of wealth from rural to urban areas. So I don't think the sufficiency of the tax means that a tax-only strategy is the best one. But it's enough to keep us from cooking ourselves, leaving enough space for conventional conservation to make some difference in ecological issues.)

But our whole way of thinking, our whole incentive system, America's last "bipartisan" agreement that "growth" is the goal of government and the key to the economy, bakes in problems to which the climate problem is only an instance. Without a massive cultural shift, even if emissions cease, the populaces's desperate search for surplus-driven employment in a world where capital is positioned to allocate most of the surplus, the fact is that we are profoundly motivated to eat our seed corn.

So I think that there is a crucial question of time scales. How quickly will the other boundaries to sustainability be transgressed by what we are now doing, with minor tune-ups. If we retreat from the recent unfettered capitalism to the ad hoc occasionally fettered capitalism that us older folks grew up with, if we go back to responding to environmental issues as they come up with bureaucratic constraints implemented as damages become intolerable, can we get by long enough for the cultures of the world to wake up to the constraints of a full planet?

I go back and forth on this. I don't really have a preferred strategy right now. We have to stop emitting carbon ASAP in either case. But what I don't know is whether that is all we need to do.

My problem with Naomi Klein's position is that she just thinks climate change strengthens the left. It does, more's the pity, because that increases the intransigence and attraction to counter-science of the right. She says it "changes everything" but she doesn't grapple at all with the fact that it means the left has to change too. Everything is going to change, and few people outside obscure corners of academia have been addressing it on realistic terms.

Pope Francis has changed that. It's hard to avoid thinking that this is not a moment too soon. Can we kick the can down the road, patch up our system, draw a line against CO2 emissions and leave the moral reckoning to the future? Here is what the Pope is saying about that. (Excerpts from the encyclical follow, highlighted in green.

I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences. 
Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family. Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development. Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting. Hence, “in addition to a fairer sense of intergenerational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intragenerational solidarity”.

Also he quotes the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in paragraph 8:
“For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

To that observation I have no hesitation in saying "Amen". The question is fundamentally an ethical one. There is no plausible moral system under which we have the right to behave as we do.

But societies don't change quickly, and there is the "art of the possible" to contend with.


Michael Tobis said...

See also Oreskes (in conversation with Revkin); I think she gives Andy a bit too much credit, but otherwise I have no points of disagreement with her: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSPuqq3j1mM

Dan Olner said...

"It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn."

Blimey, that's some impressive writing.

Gingerbaker said...

"... stand back, and let capitalism handle it. "

Or should we?

There are some good reasons why electric utilities are the most publicly-owned sector of the economy. Letting capitalism "handle it" destroys that.

Also, that a carbon tax, even if it is achievable, will lead to a solution via capitalism is an assumption, an assertion. Based on the record of the past thirty years, capitalism simply does not want to "handle it". And this is not surprising, considering that there is no such thing as a free market in a political system that allows corporate lobbying. And the actors in this tale of slow-motion murder have trillions of dollars at their disposal.

Frankly, national crises are not properly the bailiwick of free enterprise, or individuals (who may want to put PV panels on their roof). Building a new, parallel, 100% carbon-free energy utility system is the exactly proper function of the Federal government. The conversation we all should be having is whether that system should be 100% public, how it should be financed, how quickly it needs to be completed, and what is the most cost-effective and intelligent way to build it.

Which means, of course, that almost nobody talks or writes about those issues. It really is remarkable that after thirty years, and billions of words, virtually no one knows the most basic of these answers - what will it cost, for example. Which is exactly the way Exxon Mobil likes it.

Tom said...

When people like me have argued that climate change needs to be viewed as part of a global picture, people like you have been relentless in your criticisms.

Climate change is one part of our relationship with the environment.

The environment is one part of our relationship with each other and the planet.

When we say we have a duty to today's poor, you condemn us for ignoring climate change and you search frantically for evidence that we are not doing our utmost (or at least more than you) to help the poor.

When we say that the other threats to the environment must be addressed or there will be no biome left for climate change to threaten, people like Bernard J and Jeff Harvey scream at us with screeds thousands of words long.

When people like the EcoModernists, Fast Mitigationists, The Breakthrough Institute and Bjorn Lomborg try to take a global view of the challenges that face us you accuse them (and me) of trying to distract the world from climate change.

Climate change is an important problem that we must begin addressing now. It is not an existential threat and we must place it into context with the other problems that are killing or immiserating people today.

Michael Tobis said...

lease Tom, please stop telling me about "people like me". I am me, and speak for nobody else. Nobody else speaks for me. respond to what I say, or to what I explicitly express support for, or respond elsewhere.

My problems with BTI and Lomborg are not that they say the things you quote. (I don't know what Fast Mitigationism is.)

Is climate change an existential threat? In the 90s, I said it wasn't, and wouldn't be unless humanity made some very stupid decisions. So far we talk smart on occasion and act consistently stupid. So it is now a very big deal indeed, and by all indications will become an existential threat soon.

Tom said...

By people like you I refer to people I see you having friendly conversations with, usually finding full agreement and usually criticizing people like me. I don't think all supporting the climate consensus are alike, any more than I think those in opposition are all alike. When I say people like you, I mean people who write like you write, say things similar to what you say, and profess many of the same principles and ideals as you. I am not lumping you in with BBD or sod. I am consciously grouping you with people you say you like and admire.

If not the problems I quote, what are your problems with BTI and Lomborg? Don't you feel any obligation to explain?

As for stupid decisions, are EPA regulations on emissions from coal powered plants stupid? Is Obama's agreement with China stupid? Is having a 76% one-year rise in US solar power stupid?

Or is 40,000 people jetting to Paris to yammer about climate change a little less than brilliant?

Tom said...

Just saw this--is it stupid? One of the 17 SDGs that replace the Millenium Goals is combatting climate change.

How much does business have to change before you quit throwing around the term 'business as usual?'

Michael Tobis said...

Holy Gish Gallop, Tom.

Normally I will refrain from responding at all to such a broad list of scattershot questions, because it's not a fair way to have a conversation. So please don't try this again. But in case you are actually interested in taking a deep breath and trying to understand what I think rather than attacking a caricature of it, here are brief answers, which you ought to have been able, in all your attention to my writing, to have figured out by now.

When I agree with you on something that doesn't mean I agree with you on everything. Same applies to whatever person or bete noire you think I approve of blindly.

It is a key ethical point that carbon emissions must stop as quickly as possible. SoI admit there are reasons not to emphasize disagreements with people who understand that. But it doesn't mean I agree with anyone who says that emissions are a problem, and I will occasionally go after prominent people who agree on that. WItness my articles against Naomi Klein and the egregious Guy McPherson.

My problems with BTI are manifold and interesting. Articles to follow as I find time and energy.

My problems with Lomborg are in two categories. He gets his facts wrong, as is documented in great detail by others. And he uses the wrong facts to discuss the wrong question, as argued here by me and in Laudato Si by HH Pope Francis. I'm not sure which is more important, but I find Lomborg boring.

"As for stupid decisions, are EPA regulations on emissions from coal powered plants stupid? Is Obama's agreement with China stupid? Is having a 76% one-year rise in US solar power stupid?"

These are okay, but they are far from enough. The important thing is the total emissions over time, and they are not coming down fast enough to stay below 2 C. Which indicates that what we say and what we do are very different.

"Or is 40,000 people jetting to Paris to yammer about climate change a little less than brilliant?"

In the grand scheme of things that's a tiny expenditure. Just like me using electricity to try to express my position. Both may be futile, but in the grand scheme of things both are at least efforts to awaken people to the enormity of the problems and we are forcing upon future generations.

Tom said...

I am not trying to caricature your position. When you defend Jim Prall, Stephan Lewandowsky and Peter Gleick as friends and people who you respect and then attack Andrew Revkin, you are painting a very precise picture of where you stand.

Stopping carbon emissions is based on physics, not ethics. Ethics is what happens when we have to decide if we're going to let people die in developing countries because we don't want coal fired power plants to give them electricity to cook without dung.

I am thoroughly mystified--almost to the point of ATTP's infamous 'struggling to understand' how you can give a pass to the mindless waste of 40,000 people going to COP 21 and yet you rag on the real work the Obama administration has done to reduce emissions.

As for Lomborg and the BTI bunch, don't bother on my account. I've read the attacks and lies often enough I could probably write it for you.

Michael Tobis said...

When did I "rag on the Obama administration"? I'm a great and consistent admirer of Obama's. But he can only achieve so much in the present political environment.

Tom said...

"These are okay, but they are far from enough."

No pleasing some folks.

Michael Tobis said...

That's what I said, but it's not Obama's fault. It's ours - those of us who try and fail to communicate the real urgency, and even more, those who try to communicate the false idea that things are under control.

The atmosphere cares nothing about positive gestures. The atmosphere cares only about the total emissions over time, and these are still looking MUCH too high for a 2 C target, which is risky in itself.

Tom said...

The atmosphere has cares and worries of its own. We should be looking at impacts--changes in drought index, flood frequency, storm surge, heatwaves. We should be looking at mortality rates, morbidity indices, poleward migrations of flora and fauna.

Keep your head on straight. We do not have the same worries as the atmosphere.

Michael Tobis said...

"Current national commitments to cut greenhouse gases would likely allow average global temperatures to rise by 3.55°C by 2100, suggest new modeling results released today."


Tom said...

Key word in there is 'modeling'. 4 parameters, elephant, RCP 8.5, yada yada.

Michael Tobis said...

There's no sign that we will stop at the trillionth ton, which is roughly the 2 C line. That is not complex system modeling in the sense that there's much complexity or doubt,

Tom said...

We don't know whether or not we will emit 1 trillion tons. I certainly hope we do not, but I fear that we will.

We don't know what 1 trillion tons will actually do. The models really don't help with this. I do not think you are measuring the right thing.

We don't know what the sensitivity of the atmosphere is to a doubling of concentrations of CO2.

We don't know.

My perception after the past 8 years of reading about it is that my initial guess of about 2.1C in temperature rises might turn out to be a lucky one. Your mileage may vary.

I don't know. I think 2.1C is high enough to justify considerable expenditure of time and money in mitigation efforts. But WG2 and WG3 have not done a good job on impacts. Stern has done a horrible job on economic consequences.

So I use 'lower math' indices to inform my thinking. That keeps first order findings to the fore.

Emissions of CO2 soared while the temperature rises stalled. The global drought index hasn't changed over the past century. Storm intensity is down of late. Flood numbers are tough to disambiguate from population effects and uncivil engineering.

Vegetative cover is up around 10% over the past 30 years globally. Areas affected by malaria have shrunk in a time of warming, not grown. Food production continues to rise at a faster rate than population. Mortality and morbidity continue to decline. Access to clean water continues to improve. None of these show any sign of slowing or stopping.

I am very concerned about what will happen as energy consumption rises dramatically through the course of this century. But I have seen zero sign to date that the very real consequences will be something we cannot adapt to.

I think the consequences of human consumption of fossil fuels will be messy and expensive to deal with. I think we will wish we had done more at the beginning of the current warming period.

But that's about it.

Michael Tobis said...

“No one doubts that coming out of Paris, there’s going to be an ambition gap on the table,” said Alden Meyer, who follows climate negotiations for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Washington. “The question is going to be, what prospect do we have to shrink it, and how quickly?”


"no one" is obviously something of an overstatement, but the case is indeed entirely clear.

Maribo looks at the Canadian case in particular. http://blogs.ubc.ca/maribo/2015/09/28/the-canadian-emissions-quandary-has-this-ship-sailed/

The situation is similar in lots of countries.

There really is no sign of sufficient commitment, The low hanging fruit, the painless transition, it's too late for that already. The optimistic idea that we'll up our commitment later is hopefully more than wishful thinking, but I'm unconvinced.

See http://www.mediaite.com/online/limbaugh-what-if-nasa-made-up-water-on-mars-to-help-push-liberal-agenda/ for some counter-evidence.

Tom said...

If President Obama 'The Denier In Chief' can get regulations passed with a Republican Congress, I somehow suspect that Xi Jinping will be able to do so as well. Considering that all of China wants pollution to stop, he'll be a hero instead of being vilified by village idiots like McKibben.

We'll get there. Just have to work on India.