The politically correct—and useless—approach to climate change

Robert Henson has summarized the problems and conveyed the urgency of climate change magnificently in Rough Guide to Climate Change.[1] But his solutions—to say the least—are problematic.

As the story of climate change has developed in the mainstream media over the course of decades, I have already shifted from a position of climate skeptic—accepting however that by the time sufficient proof was accumulated, it might be too late, and therefore that it was prudent to act as if the theory were correct—to what some might consider an alarmist, hearing whispers from multiple sources that human extinction may be the consequence within 100 years, whispers recently publicly voiced by an aging Australian scientist.[2] But mainstream media accounts offer a hodgepodge of accounts that do not feel systematic, that one suspects may reflect gatekeeping and other editorial bias. Moreover, the project of collecting the sheer number of stories is overwhelming—it would have to be a primary project.

Henson has provided a book that gathers up all the stories, including many I had overlooked, and backs them up with scientific findings. He also reveals how in some celebrated cases, the role of climate change is less than clear, such as at Mount Kilimanjaro, and how apparent counter-evidence, such as increased snowfall on some glaciers fits into a larger picture. It’s a book plainly intended for a lay audience, an audience which at least in the United States seems unlikely to pay attention; but given the failure of elites to address climate change and the low likelihood that humans will abandon a hierarchical ordering of their societies that both supports those elites and evinces certain attitudes towards the earth and the environment, Henson can at least claim to have done his part in providing a warning.

Indeed, humans will likely wait until it is too late—if it is not, as I fear, already too late—before responding to this threat. And as Henson illustrates, the damage we are doing to the biosphere will affect other species as well, species who had no say in human decisions to exploit the earth—and even to exploit them—and to destroy our own nest. It is along this latter line that I do find one disagreement with Henson, who expresses sympathy for subsistence whale and seal hunters who rely on ice to reach their prey. I share no such sympathy; just as we no longer tolerate cannibalism by any culture, the practice of consuming and exploiting animals reflects an attitude that the earth and its species exist for our use, that Alice Outwater characterized when she summed up European attitudes, writing,

Wilderness was seen as mysterious and frightening. . . . Standing in aggregate, trees seemed to serve no useful purpose and a pleasing vista was one that was cleared of trees, plowed, and planted.[3]

The failure to address the societal side of addressing climate change becomes particularly apparent when Henson moves to a discussion of solutions. First, in the time since Henson wrote this book (2008), it has become clear that politicians are unwilling to—and possibly incapable of—coming to grips with the large scale cuts needed to ameliorate climate change.[4] Henson acknowledges that the Kyoto accords were inadequate, but it appears the 2-degree Celsius temperature rise he cites as acceptable according to a consensus view may itself prove insufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change effects,[5] and the agreement—such as it was—reached in Copenhagen which was to set even this goal is “likely to doom Earth to warming of three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.”[6]

Henson’s specific policy recommendations are also often problematic. For example, hybrid and electric vehicles rely on large batteries that remain toxic. Ethanol production currently displaces food production, a problem he does not acknowledge until he gets to the as yet unrealized possibility of cellulosic ethanol—and food prices are rising again.[7] In fact, the most promising policy recommendation he has on offer is an economic recession—which in fact began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009[8]—and has left millions unable to support themselves over a long term. He suggests “demolishing about 14% of current houses”[9] without offering any ideas as to what the people who live in those homes—perhaps because they cannot afford more efficient homes—will do. He recommends organic and locally-grown food with no consideration for how much more retailers charge for these products. Indeed, while it is the poor who often suffer most from pollution[10] and climate change and who most need and can least afford energy efficient options, Henson offers little that they can do and little that will alleviate their plight—so it will be the privileged who can feel righteous that they are doing their part, while they continue to sustain a political and economic status quo that makes climate change intractable. Henson appears to endorse corporate initiatives to address climate change, but fails to consider greenwashing, in which marketers do little more than slap a green label on the same old products to mislead environmentally-conscious shoppers.

In the end, Henson has done an admirable job of showing us that there is a climate change problem and that it is extremely urgent. But he implausibly relies on existing social systems to resolve this problem with absolutely no consideration for the social impacts of the changes he calls for.

  1. [1]Robert Henson, Rough Guide to Climate Change (London: Rough Guides, 2008).
  2. [2]Niall Firth, “Human race ‘will be extinct within 100 years’, claims leading scientist,” Daily Mail, June 19, 2010
  3. [3]Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic, 1996), 36.
  4. [4]Damian Carrington, “WikiLeaks cables reveal how US manipulated climate accord,” Guardian, December 3, 2010; Joss Garman, “Green activist’s searing despatch from Denmark,” Independent, May 15, 2010—historic-failure-that-will-live-in-infamy-1845907.html; Mark Lynas, “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room,” Guardian, December 22, 2009
  5. [5]Matthew McDermott, “2°C Temperature Rise Target ‘Not Safe’ – More Evidence From Geological Record,” Treehugger, October 4, 2010
  6. [6]Agence-France Presse, “Climate: Copenhagen pledges set Earth for +3 C warming – study,” Independent, April 24, 2010—study-1953350.html
  7. [7]Willian Neuman, “U.N. Data Notes Sharp Rise in World Food Prices,” New York Times, January 5, 2011
  8. [8]National Bureau of Economic Research, September 20, 2010
  9. [9]Henson, 329.
  10. [10]Regina Austin and Michael Schill, “Black, Brown, Red, and Poisoned,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 440-448; Robert D. Bullard, “Environmental Justice for All,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 418-430; Charles Lee, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 431-440.

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