Why I am a heretic

Being an environmentally conscious person, I have increasingly found myself at odds with much of the “green” orthodoxy.   Which is why I call myself a heretic, because most of my ideas are very antithetical to the green movement.

Really though, it is all about priorities.  People are suffering all of the world from hunger, lack of clean water, and completely preventable diseases.  Meanwhile, many of those who should be caring are focused on solving global climate change: a problem that we do not fully understand, we do not have the political will or stomach to actually tackle, we have very little control over, we cannot prevent from happening, and is generations away.

Before you get disgusted and close that window, please let me explain my position through these 5 points.

1.  We do not fully understand climate change.

I am not going to say that the “jury is still out.”  Based on all the evidence, climate change in happening, and most people who do not think so are living a pseudo-scientific fantasy.  My point is that the effects of global warming are diverse and unpredictable.  It is not just one problem, but a set of problems: rising sea levels, depletion of water resources, decline of agricultural output, the mass extinction of plants and animals, and acidification of oceans.

What we do not understand is the severity of each of these problems, and how much it will cost to fix them.  For example, problems depleting water resources may be solved by better water management practices and advanced desalination techniques, while decreasing agricultural output likewise can be solved by breeding heat-resistant crops and having better management of food logistic and storage to minimize wastage.

Rising sea level might be a big issue, but rise maybe (in the worst case scenario) a 1.5 meters over 100 years.  In 100 years most of the buildings present today will have been torn down and rebuilt.  It is not like we will suddenly get flooded, but of course as the water gets higher we simply won’t be rebuilding in the same places.   New York City might be gradually pushed back, but it won’t be drowned.  While it is a shame for all that waterfront property to go to waste, it does not justify overhauling the economic system to effectively deal with climate change.  Of course people will be displaced, but the numbers (maybe 100 million) and pace (again, over 100 years) and distribution (all over the world’s coastal areas) are so slow as to be negligible when compared to war and other humanitarian disasters.

There is no getting around the loss of biodiversity and acidification of the world’s oceans.  Remember that C02 stays in the atmosphere for about two centuries continuing to warm the earth, so no matter what changes we make (except perhaps geoengineering) these consequences will happen.  We should stop our time pretending to avoid them, and instead start focusing on preserving the world’s remaining biodiversity hotspots.  I can’t tell you how stupid I think it is that many of the world’s forests are being chopped in the name of producing more biofuel.

2.  We do not have the will to tackle the problem.

Even if you were the greenest of greens, it is likely that your activities – direct or indirect – still have a very big carbon footprint.  Maybe your carbon footprint is low enough so that if everyone in the world copied you, we could stop climate change (in 200+ years down the road) but try selling that to the growing middle class in India and China.

There are of easy ways to be green and save lots of energy, but at the end of the day (or world) they are token actions that give us a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  They fall abysmally short of making any real impact.   I don’t want to dwell on this point – you do not have the will to throw yourself back to the stone age.  Even if you are green you still want good food, you want cars, you want comfortable houses, you want the latest gadgets – it is best to just accept your human nature and stop acting like you are doing the planet a favor.  The sooner we do that, the sooner we can drop these cotton-candy solutions and focus on what is really important.

3.  We have very little control

I am amazed how many well educated people still believe that through education and re-orientating human culture and priorities towards sustainability, that we can stop climate change.  They have enough knowledge in economics and social science, so I think this conclusion is either blind optimism or just as delusional as the climate change deniers.

It is very hard for us to accept, but individuals, and even as a human species, we have very little control in stopping climate change through our actions.

The sad fact is that it is actually quite pointless to try to decrease our carbon footprint.  It is basic human nature, when anything becomes more energy efficient, it will cost less, and we will tend to do more of that thing.  If we all get hybrids, what is stopping us from just driving them more and using the same amount of fuel as before?

Granted, this principle does not apply to everything, but it doesn’t matter, because even if we keep a low carbon footprint others wont (short of a global carbon tax, which I am less then pessimistic about).  When we use less dirty energy there becomes less demand, as a consequence coal and oil become even cheaper.  There are litterally billions of people in China, India, and fast-developing nations that are more than happy to take advantage of the lower cost to improve their quality of life.   Even worse, by making dirty energy cheaper, we slow the transition to energy efficient infrastructure.

Someone please punch me in the face, but it would actually be more productive for all of us greens to start driving hummers, eating beef every day, turning our aircon down to 60 Degrees in the summer.  Then atleast energy cost would spike, gas would shoot up to $5 a gallon, developing countries would start to take being green seriously, and clean energy investments would abound.

A short term boost in greenhouse gases is a small price to pay for creating the stimulus to lay the foundations of green infrastructure and technology that can actually make a difference fighting climate change in the generations to come.

4.  We cannot prevent global climate change from happening.

As much as I like the phrase, “We have exactly enough time, starting now,” there necessarily does come a point when we run out of time.  We have already run out of time to prevent major disruptive climate change, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, continuing to warm the planet.   In other words, even if we were to reduce our carbon emissions to zero, we would still face the devastating effects of climate change.

Of course, we can control how much the earth warms according to how much greenhouse gasses we emit, however there is a delay of a few hundred years until we can actually bring the climate back to normal.   We cannnot prevent global climate change from happening, but we can control how bad it will eventually get.  This gets even more interesting when we add in tipping points, because due to positive feedback loops eventually climate change could take on its own momentum, and then it does not matter much at all what we do.

Mother Nature will have her way with us.

Actually, tipping points have served as one of the strongest calls that we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases now, and at whatever the cost.  I would disagree.

The problem has to do with population.  Until renewable energy scales to compete with dirty energy, developing countries still need to burn fossil fuels to compete economically.   If we overhaul the economic system now in order to prevent climate change, we will stunt their growth and they will remain economically insecure.  It is just these economically insecure places where population grows out of control, and each additional person is an added burden on the planet.  Not only that, but these people will be too insecure to care about climate change.  They will use whatever energy is the cheapest and most convenient, which means it will also be dirty.

Unless we are able to stop and reverse population growth and provide security so that everyone can have a stake in the future, we will only have a half-assed green revolution.

We still need to stop emitting greenhouse gasses, but our strategy needs to be much different.  First comes economic security, then comes the planet.   Providing this security will be even harder, because climate change will happen, and will have a disproportionate impact of those who are the poorest.   It is well past the time for preventative action.  Instead of focusing so much on changing our lights to prevent climate change, we need to focus on dealing with the consequences of climate change that WILL happen, and only then as a world can we move forward to seriously deal with curtailing greenhouse emission to the level needed.

There is a useful analogy when dealing with climate change:  it is like we are in a speeding car, and we know there is a cliff up ahead.  We cannot see the cliff, and we know it takes some distance for the car to stop, and so we need to put on the brakes now.  The problem is, we (the relatively rich people of the world) are not the only one in the car, and unless we can convince the other to take its foot off the accelerator, we had better have a parachute.

Perhaps we do have a parachute in that we can prevent global climate change through geoengineering, however due to possible unintended consequences, it would be stupid to rely on this.

5.  The real problems are generations away.

People need clean water and food today.  We worry about the CO2 emissions from cars which might cause global climate change in the future, but today we are chopping down pristine forests to make way for biofuel.

We are dealing with climate change like it is a short term problem, but actually it is not out problem but something that maybe our grandchildren will have to deal with.   Why should someone who is living today care about something when they will long be dead, or have more important things to worry about.   Because of this, I believe that action on climate change will fail if we continue to deal with it on primarily an irrational emotional basis.   We need to see this as a long-term economic, political, and cultural problem, not just about creating laundry lists of way to go green.   This approach will not work, because it requires everyone to buy in to this emotional response, and it is not going to happen when most of us will be dead by the time the real problems actually start.

What I am saying is that tackling climate change head on is a folly – we wont get enough people on board in enough time.  Instead, we have to appeal to peoples real priorities instead of trying to re-orient them to be green.   Most of the effort to education people and change their thinking to be more green is huge waste of time and resources.   We need to get things done by starting to be more realistic, political, manipulative, Machiavellian, and morally ambiguous.   Yes, we will have to get our hand dirty by dealing with people we do not like or agree with, but such is the nature of the problem that we might not be able to solve it and at the same time maintain our pristine moral high ground.

If the current methods of fighting global warming are so futile, what is the way forward?

The new way forward is based on getting the correct focus and priorities.  By now you should have gathered a few principles that we can follow:

– Prioritize things that need to be solved now, such as fighting poverty, disease, access to clean water, and deforestations.

– Instead of trying to make everyone green, find common interests and exploit them – there is not one kind of green, but a different kind to sell for each audience.  For business oriented people that might be convincing them that green tech is the one of the best investments for the future, for conservatives it is the idea of energy security and keeping ahead of other competing nations, and religious people it is that the earth is gods creation and we do not have the right to be exploiting it.

– Most of the consequences of climate change will be happening regardless of what we do, and so we need to start focusing on how to deal with the disasters of the future.   Some of these consequences we can live with, but only if we innovate, plan, and prepare properly.

– Do not focus on energy efficiency or saving energy, but instead on making dirty energy more costly (most likely through legislation) and increasing  investment in clean renewable energy.

– Instead of rushing to stop all greenhouse emissions, realize that first we need to provide security and education, and only then we can move forward as a world to effectively fight climate change.

Time is the most valuable resource we have, and so I thank you for giving me some of your time to read this.  If you agree with my views I know you might have a hard time expressing them publicly for fear of being seen as a green heretic by friends and colleagues.  For now this is ok, you can keep your true sentiments to yourself, but I would encourage you to do something – start your own blog, join this blog to contribute , or start to promote the above principles in your own way – and some day we will not be seen as heretics but as leaders.

we cannot prevent from happening

2 Responses to “Why I am a heretic”

  1. colinc March 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    A short time ago I read your comment to the Nick Stern piece (11-Mar-11) on Climate Progress. I found it interesting enough to click to your site and see what you are about. After reading all of your 5 points above as well as the supporting text, I find myself quite perplexed and am entirely uncertain if I should be posting this comment.

    First, I have to say there is a fair amount of what I read above with which I completely concur despite having to contend with more “typos” (misspellings/grammatical errors/etc.) than I usually tolerate. To be specific, your bold-text points numbering 1 through 4 have also been my view for at least a few years. Alas, in the supporting text for those points I noticed at least a handful of incongruities if not outright contradictions.

    For example, under point 3, “It is basic human nature, when anything becomes more energy efficient, it will cost less, and we will tend to do more of that thing.” This is part of what is known as Jevon’s Paradox and is, at least to some degree, an argument against energy efficiency. However, at the end of the very next paragraph you state “Even worse, by making dirty energy cheaper, we slow the transition to energy efficient infrastructure.” This seems to be advocating for energy efficiency and an apparent disagreement with the earlier statement. Finally, in your “summary” statements, “Do not focus on energy efficiency or saving energy…,” it appears you revert(?) back to being against it. Please do not take this as being “critical” except in a constructive sense. I think your general tack has some potential but mixed-messaging will not help.

    Finally, I am guessing you are young, i.e. under 30 years of age, and as such still a bit naive. Your fifth point could not be more erroneous and in potential conflict with the preceeding 4. This comment is already too long so suffice it to say, to an astute and “seasoned” observer it is merely obvious that natural processes occur in fits and starts. Japan, and indeed the world, has just experienced a horrific example of that. Moreover, while great numbers of the humans on this rock believe we are “above” nature, as individuals or groups, we “behave” in much the same way, e.g. the adolescent growth spurt. If you wish to know more, or for any ulterior motivation, you know how to contact me. Please, be advised if you choose to do so, I’ll expect more cogent and coherent writing.

    • greenheretic March 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

      Hi Colinc, thank you for the comment!

      First of all, my apologies for any errors.

      The point about energy efficiency really one of focus. Of course energy efficiency is a good thing, but on its own it has very little potential to make a difference in mitigating climate change.

      I do support increasing energy efficiency, but not at the cost of other resources that could be used to develop cheap clean energy.

      As for the other point, I assume you are talking about this one?

      “Instead of rushing to stop all greenhouse emissions, realize that first we need to provide security and education, and only then we can move forward as a world to effectively fight climate change.”

      Yikes…reading that again it does sound bad. I should have qualified that I am mainly here talking about our approach to developing countries – which will in the future be a huge market for dirty fuels, especially if most of the developed ones move to clean energy. I am not saying that we should stop reducing our greenhouse emissions and wait until the whole world has fixed most of its problems.

      Anyways, thanks again for the insightful comment!

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