Marketing Climate Change

Someone asked me the other day, with the quality of information the elite have access to, why don’t they feel the urgency about climate change that many climatologists do? I replied that I thought that out of sense of greed, they simply felt it was the next generation’s problem, and that they were simply out to make as much money as they can in the time that they have left in this life, as their parents did and expected them to do.

This is necessarily speculative. Even if I could crawl around inside some rich person’s head, I probably couldn’t stand to stay there very long. But it occurred to me later that the first part of my answer might be more accurate than the second.

Consider living your entire life with the notion that any sense of urgency is an opportunity for profit.

Imagine a faith that the marketplace is a fair and just arbiter of social and environmental problems. (Capitalist libertarians do actually seem to believe this.) So when a problem is urgent enough, there will be money to be made for a solution.

Conveniently, there are very few people in this world with any real power to do anything—and if you’re one of the extremely wealthy, you may not notice that this is unjust—so when people are sufficiently concerned about climate change, there’s a very good chance they’ll come to you, your family, or your friends. They will come, and you will act, out of a faith that technology can solve any problem, that technology can halt or reverse climate change.

And if that means scattering sulfur crystals in the atmosphere to to shade the earth, a little acid rain washing into already increasingly acid oceans will be an acceptable trade-off. If that means more nuclear power plants, the risk of Three Mile Island-, Chernobyl-, and Fukushima-type disasters is another acceptable trade-off.

And you will be richer than you already are. Which is how it should be.

Because you will be able to congratulate yourself for saving “modern civilization,” to tell yourself that you have done good, that if there’s a Heaven and a God, you’re in.

It’s delusional, of course. It ignores the vast profits the fabulously wealthy have accumulated in creating a problem which, through not merely inaction but resistance to action, they leave for the rest of society and our children to solve. And if the scientists Fred Pearce writes about are right about tipping points, we’re heading for serious trouble within ten years of 2007.[1] The point of tipping points is that it’s a lot harder to say, topple a book—a finger will do—that’s standing on end than it is to push the book back up—you might need both hands.

But one of the curious aspects of a positivist linear view of cause and effect is a failure to reckon with the irreversibility of time. If you believe that the whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts, that the whole can be analyzed from the parts and the parts can be analyzed from the whole, then you fail to account for emergent properties and you believe,[2] as Fritjof Capra summarizes Pierre Simon Laplace, that

all processes are strictly reversible. Both future and past are interchangeable; there is no room for history, novelty, or creativity.[3]

Capra explains that it isn’t that Newtonian physicists didn’t notice friction, for instance, but rather that they neglected it.[4] He continues:

In classical thermodynamics irreversibility, although an important feature, is always associated with energy losses and waste. [Ilya] Prigogine introduced a fundamental change of this view in his theory of dissipative structures by showing that in living systems, which operate far from equilibrium, irreversible processes play a constructive and indispensable role.[5]

Whether or not you subscribe to the Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a living system, we’re messing with the planet in ways that are already increasingly difficult to reverse, where for instance, the collapsing ice shelves and melted glaciers can’t simply be frozen again because the situation in their absence is conducive to further warming—in contradiction to the needed cooling—in a multitude of ways. And there are simply too many correlations in the data showing “the same basic features of unremarkable variability for 900 years followed by a sharp upturn in temperatures in the final decades,”[6] coincident with, to a much smaller degree, the British Industrial Revolution, and, to a much larger degree, the U.S. Industrial Revolution roughly fifty years later,[7] to seriously challenge the claim of anthropogenic global warming. We are already making a new system.

We are already creating a situation in which by the time that the capitalist libertarians’ demand and opportunity for profit materializes, it will be much harder—if not impossible—to undo the damage. No one actually knows exactly when we’ll reach that point. For me, having watched the weather since I built a weather station in the third grade, 2005—the year of Hurricane Katrina—felt to me intuitively like we had crossed a point of no return on climate change, when we will be condemned—no matter how heroic our efforts—to a radically altered world, one in which there may not be a place for humans to live. While not saying as much about 1998, Fred Pearce highlights that year as a year of astonishingly wild weather.[8]

Pearce frames the possibility of tipping points as just that—a possibility. The proof isn’t in yet.[9] But for me, and I think I fairly paraphrase Pearce’s point, the questions are not whether this will happen or whether it has already happened, but whether we can afford the risk that it will happen and whether we can afford to let the diminishing opportunities to save ourselves slip by. As Pearce put it,

Those who do not believe that global warming is a real and dangerous threat should visit places like Choluteca [in Honduras] and talk to people like Lidia [Rosa Paz, who lost her home in flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998]. It may not convince them that climate change is making superhurricanes and megafloods. But it will show them the forces of nature untamed and the human havoc caused when weather breaks its normal shackles. For hundreds of millions of people, these issues are no longer a matter for computer modeling or debate in the corridors of Congress or future forecasts. They are about real lives and deaths. The question is not: Can we prove that events like Mitch are caused by climate change? It is: Can we afford to take the chance that they are?[10]

And can we afford an ideology that money is the measure of all things and of all values, that the market is rational, and that it can solve even those problems we have skeptically allowed to become increasingly and irreversibly devastating?

  1. [1]Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change (Boston: Beacon, 2007).
  2. [2]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996)
  3. [3]Capra, The Web of Life, 184.
  4. [4]Capra, The Web of Life.
  5. [5]Capra, The Web of Life, 184.
  6. [6]Pearce, With Speed and Violence, 207.
  7. [7]David Krogh, Biology: A Guide to the Natural World, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005).
  8. [8]Pearce, With Speed and Violence.
  9. [9]Pearce, With Speed and Violence.
  10. [10]Pearce, With Speed and Violence, 19.

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