Sunday, August 14, 2016

Another inconvenient truth: It's hard to agree how to fight climate change

Another inconvenient truth: It's hard to agree how to fight climate change
New York Times, 11 July 2016, by John Schwartz

As realization of the importance and urgency of climate change has spread, the environmental movement has splintered, as this article details.  Being an environmentalist used to be simple: oppose pollution, support natural reserves, protect endangered species, hug trees.  Now it's complicated.  Should you be for nuclear power or against it?  On the one hand, it's carbon-neutral and non-polluting (apart from that pesky nuclear waste); on the other hand, it entails risks that are frightening and hard to quantify, and is linked to proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Similarly: is natural gas a good thing, at least as a "bridge", because it has a much lower carbon footprint than coal – or is it a bad thing, because it just puts off the necessary shift to carbon-neutral energy technologies (not to mention problems with methane leaks, aquifer pollution, and earthquakes)?  Should we attack fossil fuel companies, divest from them, and essentially try to shut them down, or should we engage with them and try to shift them toward greener, more responsible policies through actions such as shareholder activism?  Will effective action on climate change necessitate the dismantling of capitalism and a reversion of humanity to a simpler and more sustainable way of life, or is capitalism a necessary part of the solution because it provides us with price mechanisms and institutions we can manipulate to incentivize change?  The debate on these difficult questions has become sharply polarized, and name-calling has become common.  At the same time, the movement is becoming broader, with greater participation from conservatives, Republicans, religious groups, and corporations, leading to an even wider range of opinions and ideas.  There's a lot to sort out, and it's hard to know which claims are evidence-based and which are propaganda.  The article ends with quotes from Al Gore to the effect that such schisms in growing movements are typical and natural, and that perhaps these debates will soon settled by economics: the plunging cost of renewables will make debates over nuclear, natural gas, etc., irrelevant as solar and wind take over the energy market.

My take: The article makes no attempt to adjudicate these various debates – probably wise, since they are all very difficult questions with no easy answers.  But the glaring hole in the article is that it barely mentions the concept of putting a price on carbon; it comes up only as an example of the nasty infighting between different environmentalists, as a battleground between the anti-capitalists like Naomi Klein and the pro-capitalists like Bill McKibben (although I'm not sure he would embrace quite that label).  I wish I shared Al Gore's optimism that low prices for renewables will solve all our problems and make all these debates irrelevant; but I don't think it's that simple.  We will need more than solar and wind to solve climate change (as I will look at a bit in some reviews coming up soon in my queue), and we will need a price on carbon to do it, too, I think; so the article's failure to really engage with that as one of the core debates in environmentalism today is disappointing to say the least.  In the end, this is a pretty empty piece; it's not long enough to really get into the meat of any of the questions it raises, and its implicit endorsement of Gore's opinion that the debates are unimportant because solar and wind are about to solve everything is a simplistic cop-out.  In fact, these debates are crucially important; we need to get all of these questions right or we will probably fail to avoid catastrophic climate change.  The vitriol and partisanship may be unpleasant, but I'll take unpleasant, vitriolic debate any day over the past several decades of the media failing to delve any deeper into all this than "Is climate change real or not?  Let's give equal time to both sides."  The fact that we are arguing publicly now about details – science and evidence and policy and models and risk assessment and economics – that fact represents progress, and it gives me hope.

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