Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Inaction On Climate Change

Consider a situation where a whole group of farmers have access to the same shared land in which to graze their cattle[1]. But there's a problem, there are too many cattle for the resources that the land provides. Because of overgrazing, the land is heading towards a state where soon no-one will be able to graze.

If any individual cuts back, then all they are doing is disadvantaging themselves - and not even one person making a sacrifice will be enough to stop the land. And if a system such as a set reduction or proportional reduction is imposed, there will still be those who find it unfair. The people who had few cattle are being punished because of the overuse of others, and those who are overusing it are being hit the hardest.

So the situation goes on and on until the paddock is destroyed because that's the only finality available. Any egalitarian option to try and allocate resources appropriately is lost because it is being imposed on an existing situation instead of planning for a new one.

So much of the climate change political debate revolves around this sort of reasoning. It's perfectly understandable that it would, but lamentable nonetheless. Australian emissions only account for about 1% of the global total, even if we chose to do anything all it would do is diminish the quality of life. Or that no deal that doesn't include the developing nations is worth doing. Or it's up to large polluters like the US and China to cut back.

In other words, the position many in Australia take can be surmised as follows: it's not our responsibility, we need everyone in agreement, and even if we did anything it wouldn't matter anyway. No matter what our objection, it fits into that situation of unfairness or futility.

In all this wrangling it's easy to forget just why there is such wrangling in the first place. Climate change is a real scientific issue. There's a reason why this destructive inevitability is being so hotly debated while the the end of the Mayan calendar is relegated to bad disaster movies. We can decry the unscientific society all we want, but at the core there is the understanding among most that right or wrong science is something to take seriously.

The kind of action that climate change requires makes it really easy not to do anything. It makes it easy to fall into climate change denial, it would almost seem obligatory to serve at the rationalisation of the inability to do anything about it. The self-justification of taking a stand against a discipline that really they know ought to be taken seriously is evidenced by the futility of an almost no-win situation.

No wonder so much of this debate is split along political lines. Instead of separating the science from the political consequences, the science has been associated so deeply with left-wing politics that it's no wonder that so many on the political right reject it. So many times I have been accused of being a tree-hugger for taking sides on what I thought was a scientific issue. I don't care if the left or right support it, I want to know what climatologists think!

Along the same lines, it's again easy to see why skeptic libertarians are more eager to reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change. What's needed to fix the problem goes against the political ideals they hold, so why would we expect them to give up their cherished political beliefs in favour of problems? No, it must be their rejection of climate change is because climate change is wrong[2]...

If a large asteroid was looking like it could collide with the earth, that fact would stand independently of any political action. If certain groups were opposed to this concept it wouldn't change that fact. Accusing astronomers of engaging in scaremongering, stating that NASA is just trying to monopolise funding, alleging that those dissenting against "collision theory" are being silenced in academia, saying that it would cost too much to do anything about it, making it clear it would destroy our frail economy, or even going so far as to accuse physicists of rigging the software that projects such a collision... making any of these accusations would look ridiculous and for good reason too! They are ridiculous, and they are equally as ridiculous when comparable accusations are being made against climate scientists.

The political action to be taken doesn't change the underlying facts. Climate change is not a left wing or right wing issue, it's an issue that evidentially needs to be dealt with. That it is championed by much of the left doesn't change the science underneath, that there are those who use the science to push their ideology isn't a reason to reject both[3].

How to deal with the problem is the political issue. As game theory and history[4] would suggest, actually coming to a solution that will address the underlying facts is not easy task. That people won't even recognise that there's a problem to begin with makes dealing with the problem even harder.

[1] - Taken from the documentary Nice Guys Finish First (available here)
[2] - The same way that a child dying from whooping cough isn't the fault of low vaccination rates against it
[3] - The IS / OUGHT distinction.
[4] - Deforestation on Easter Island for example


Anonymous said...

"Australian emissions only account for about 1% of the global total, even if we chose to do anything all it would do is diminish the quality of life."

Only 1% of the global human total. Remember, the earth produces 33 times more CO2 every year than all of humanity combined. So Australia's emissions are really 1% of 3% or about 3/100th of 1% of the global total. Aint much.

Kel said...

Obviously what I don't get about comments like that is they simply don't sound like they fit what the evidence is saying. The amount of Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere has remained steady until about 200 years ago when there's been a sharp increase that has continued to climb in the subsequent years. If the amount that humans are putting in really is minuscule, then why is human activity correlating with an increase?

In other words, what could be causing the sudden increase in C02 if its not human activity?

Stephen said...

I don't care if the left or right support it, I want to know what climatologists think!

As with all things science, there are people working on that too. This is the most recent one I've seen.

F said...

I dig your angle.

As to "If the amount that humans are putting in really is minuscule, then why is human activity correlating with an increase?", well, all those millions of tons of ancient sequestered carbon have to go somewhere when we dig them up and burn or convert them, right? I've always had the urge to think about it this way 'round, for whatever reason. Given the amount of carbon reintroduced by man into the cycle, how could one not expect climate change? To me, climate science is just about quantifying and modeling what is happening. It shouldn't have to be about needing to prove that the climate is changing to people who won't ever accept the evidence anyway. Er, [3].