Climate Change

I am told that I can save the world. The orangutans, the dolphins, the ocean, the rain forest, and even humankind. All I gave to do is buy ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair’ products. But that is a lie.

Werner Boote, The Green Lie

Over the last week, I ended up viewing three climate change-related shows: two films and one stand-up show/lecture. As far as I’m aware, I’ve never actually sat down to hash out my thought on climate change, so now seems as good a time to do so as any via my thoughts on each.


Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, a one-and-a-half hour documentary about food production featuring no spoken dialogue, has made perhaps more of an impression on me than any other film. Back in school, my Business Studies teacher would threaten to make us watch the film as punishment for unruliness. As part of my wider campaign to annoy him wherever possible, I asked to borrow the DVD, took it home, watched it and loved it. Ha, that showed him. Seven or so years later, I am still occasionally reminded of scenes from it: the slaughter of cows; the processing of chicks; and a woman eating her lunch in silence during a brief break from labour.

I mention all this because Earth—about humanity’s ability to affect the Earth itself, illustrated by various quarries, mines and nuclear waste storage facilities—is not Our Daily Bread. For one, it contains a lot of speech, from Americans yee-hawing about how much they enjoy playing in sandpits to Italians talking about the thrill of defiling virgin marble deposits. It is also longer, coming in at two hours, and I certainly would have ended it one or two vignettes earlier. There were still some impressive shots, but ultimately any impact was dulled through repetition.

The Green Lie

This documentary by Werner Boote addresses the phenomenon of greenwashing. Boothe—who comes across as something of a slapstick Herzog—teams up with anti-greenwashing campaigner Kathrin Hartmann to expose the realities behind impossibilities such as sustainable palm oil. The green consumerism movement, they argue, is a con perpetrated on consumers by corporations in order to pass on responsibility to them. You can pay extra on a plane ticket to offset your emissions, but in reality perhaps we shouldn’t have cheap air travel at all.

The film generally takes the form of Boote suggesting some minor lifestyle change he could make that would help the planet, and Hartmann shooting him down, often taking him to the places in the world affected by his choices. For example, they visit the smouldering remnants of a section of Indonesian rainforest illegally burned by a major palm oil company to make space for their crop. This is made with the blood of Indonesians, an anti-palm oil activist tells Boote, holding an M&M. In other instance, she takes him to the largest open pit mine in Germany—Hambach—where the rare earth minerals required for the batteries in his Tesla car are mined.

Whilst Hartmann’s stridency does tend to grate, the film made a compelling case for the need for large steps and corporate regulation, rather than small consumer-level changes, are required to deal with climate change. That it did so entertainingly helps matters.

Matt Winning, It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and climate change in general)

Dr Matt Winning is an unlikely combination: environmental economist by day, stand-up comedian by night. He had delivered a rather more serious lecture to Lancaster University ecology students earlier in the day, but a friend and I instead got to attend his comedy show in the evening. Winning presented the state of the climate with wit and panache, telling us that we all needed to kill dogs for the sake of the planet and really getting his money’s worth out of a bureau de change joke. I have little to say about the show itself—it was good, go see him if you can—but there were a few charts that prompted me to think about my own views on climate change.

First, Winning highlighted the fact that climate change was not a pro- or anti- matter. Rather, people’s views could be grouped into six categories, with the vast majority spread represented in the first three or four:

 This fi gure represents the audience sizes as percentages of the American public according to data from a nationally representative survey of adults fi elded in May-June 2010 (n = 1,024).

I imagine everyone here tonight falls into the first couple categories, said Winning. I’m not sure I do though. Obviously, models are inherently inaccurate in some way, but I would identify my own position as doubtful, yet cautious (perhaps even concerned).

Now, I am very aware that I am not a climate scientist. I know more about history than I do about the implications of two-degree global temperature rises. As a result, when Winning presents the statistic that 97% of climate scientists believe the climate is changing, I can’t help but feel like I’m being told that 97% of womens’ studies scholars believe in the patriarchy, or 97% of Silicon Valley techbros believe technology holds the solution to all our problems. One presumably does not become a climate scientist without believing there is something of note happening to the climate. With that level of unity of opinion, my natural instinct (as an frustratingly inveterate advocate for the Devil) is to consider heterodox views as potentially Galilean. However, as my friend pointed out, it was not always this way, so the early climatologists issuing warnings are perhaps more accurately described as the Galileos in this case. I think that sounds likely; it’s easy for me to view what is now the dissenting view as potentially revelatory, but that view has only been a minority view during my own lifetime. Conclusion: Earth’s climate does appear to be changing at an unprecedented rate.

The second point at which views diverge is in the attribution of climate change. Here, again, the consensus is overwhelming that human activity is to blame, and unprecedented temperature increases do seem very well correlated with the Industrial revolution. Fringe views include the possibility that recent temperature rises are a part of normal climatic activity or that the Earth has moved closer to the Sun. These do not appear to be likely, and funding behind many of them seems incredibly suspect. Conclusion: Recent climate change is predominantly the result of human activity.

The third point of divergence is on the likely impact of this climate change. Again, the consensus seems to be that it will be very disruptive at the most optimistic, and positively catastrophic at the least, with less-developed nations taking the brunt of the impact. Fringe views suggest that humanity will be able to adapt, but this only seems like a possibility for the wealthy in developed nations, who are better able to externalise their costs. It may be true from a nationalist perspective that climate change need not be unduly feared, but I prefer to take an internationalist view. Conclusion: Climate change will be highly disruptive or possibly destructive, and we should try to retard it if we can.

The bit where I tend to waver is on just what to do about climate change, which is quite handy as it appears this is the part that’s generally considered a valid topic for debate. It seems like proposals generally fall into three camps: acceleration; restraint; or contraction.

I’ll start with contraction. This line of thought states that maintaining current levels of everything—population size, energy demand, renewable usage growth—will not be enough, and that we must actively seek to contract the size and scale of civilisation to a more sustainable level. It is often commented on, most recently in regard to Extinction Rebellion, that many environmental activists have explicitly anti-capitalist views and primitivist views, and seem to have simply rebranded their activism under the guise of environmentalism—greenwashing of a different kind. Worries about the need to reduce the population to such a level that the Earth can support it has been going on since Malthus in 1798, since the Erlichs in 1968 and since the Club of Rome in 1972. Every time, alarmist predictions have not come to pass.

Groups like Extinction Rebellion call for a massive, hugely disruptive overhaul of the global order and drastic reduction in the Earth’s population. This article lists eleven responses that are needed, including [a]cknowledgement that, as long as we remain in overshoot — exploiting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate — sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption and [a] global population strategy to enable a smooth descent to the two to three billion that could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.

I mentioned my interest in history before, I think it is worth noting that top-down attempts at societal transformation tend to go very very badly, and that attempts that involve food production tend to go even even even even even worse. As Norman Borlaug, who we’ll get to in a moment, said:

…some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Thankfully, that author of the eleven-point manifesto concludes that it is clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species, and that a deliberate contraction is unlikely to happen. Conclusion: An enforced contraction in population and consumption would, based on a mountain of historical precedent, lead to widespread hardship and mass deaths. Even if this would avoid climate change, and future generations would thank us for our sacrifice, it is not a price I am willing to pay.

On to acceleration. This is the view that the degree of societal change needed to avert disastrous climate change is not going to happen, and that our only salvation lies in the continual refinement of existing technologies and the development of as-yet-unimagined ones. This does have some quite convincing historical precedent, however. I mentioned Malthus, the Erlichs and the Club of Rome earlier, all of whom’s apocalyptic predictions failed to come to pass due to technological advances allowing for larger and larger populations to be supported. For example, the Green Revolution in agriculture—spearheaded by Borlaug, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work—hugely increased crop yields in the 1960s, saving millions from starvation. An example of this view is Nobel Prize in Economics-winner Peter Nordhaus, who apparently believes that we should [f]ocus on GDP growth now even if it means locking in future climate catastrophe…because future generations will then be much richer than we are and therefore better able to manage the problem, and that that from the standpoint of economic rationality it is optimal to keep warming the planet to about 3.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.

The issues with the accelerationist view are twofold. First, as any stock broker will tell you, past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Just because we have discovered technological solutions in the past, does not guarantee that we will find one this time. It may be that we make things worse in the pursuit of a solution that does not exist, and then are left with our dicks in our hands and water halfway up Big Ben. Secondly, it again takes a nationalist and economically-blinkered rather than an internationalist and ecologically-aware view:

…the Nordhaus model tells us that even the worst catastrophes will not really hurt the global economy all that much…[b]ecause if climate breakdown ends up starving and displacing a few hundred million impoverished Africans and Asians, that will register as only a tiny blip in GDP. After all, poor people don’t add much value to the global economy. The same goes for things like insects and birds and wildlife, so it doesn’t matter if global warming continues to accelerate mass extinction. From the perspective of capital, what most of us see as tremendous ethical and even existential problems literally don’t count.

Jason Hickel, The Nobel Prize for Climate Catastrophe

I think we must be careful to balance any attempts to retard growth (which I’ll get to in a moment) with the risk of impeding technological progress that may hold a solution. That said, the precautionary principle requires that we not attempt to pursue unfettered growth in the hopes of it providing a solution, as this will cause irreversible damage if we are found to be wrong. Conclusion: Technological advancement may hold the solution, but we can’t guarantee this in advance.

So, finally, restraint. Echoing The Green Lie, Winning suggested a few lifestyle changes that everyone would have to take if we wanted to reverse course: having fewer children; not having pets (hence the bit about killing dogs for the planet); only flying once per year; etc. Luckily, these are all things I was doing anyway—how convenient! I do try to pay attention to my lifestyle choices and their potential impact, but (again echoing a point my friend made) on balance I believe I am already doing better than many others in the developed world: I generally buy things with the intention of making them last; I generally only travel by foot, bike or public transport; and I endeavour to buy as much food as possible from my local markets. However, these were not conscious choices made for the benefit of the environment. I make things last because I am too lazy to replace them, I don’t drive because a car seems prohibitively expensive for my current needs and I buy locally out of a political preference for localism.

To conclude, then: I suspect I am fairly indicative of a lot of people when it comes to climat change. I’m not sure quite what to believe, yet I’m not capable of interpreting the raw facts themselves so have to rely on others; I’m aware of the overwhelming consensus in support of certain ideas, yet paradoxically somewhat put off by it; but I am nonetheless trying to do what I can to minimise my impact, yet not quite willing to tear down capitalism and drastically reduce the world population even if that is the only way. Again, I subscribe to the precautionary principle here: one should take the least irreversible path in situations where the correct choice is not obvious. If we make changes to my lifestyle and it turns out the threat was overblown, we can all start flying and firing out babies again. If we don’t make changes, though, and it turns out the warnings were correct, then it’s a bit late.


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