climate change · climate science · Framework · Paris

Demand for Bold Action Has Prevented Action on Climate Change. Focus on Likely Scenarios Will Bring a Measured Response

In my previous post, I provided my projection that a bold and binding climate agreement will not be reached in Paris this year. All it really takes to see that the chances of my projection coming true is to look at the first day of the climate conference in Bonn, Germany.  The purpose of this conference is to hammer out details to be agreed upon in Paris at the end of November/beginning of December.

Just Twiddling Thumbs
Just Twiddling Thumbs

To say it went poorly is an understatement.  Said UN President Ban Ki-moon, the talks were held back by “narrow national perspectives.” These are national envoys sent to negotiate a deal.  It is as if this should be a surprise, when there is nothing to be surprised about. Why should this be any different than the grand failure at Copenhagen?  The issues are the same, the interests are the same, and the proposed danger is the same.

So what happened?  Cataclysmic predictions led to a demand for bold action.  These two concepts worked in favor of each other in preventing some form of agreement to be made.  Why?  Because an early emphasis on measured action and response is not feasible for the existential threat that global warming was made out to be.  In the meantime, those nations that were alleged to be the most threatened, acting in their own self-interest, gladly accepted that the developed world was threatening their existence, and sought remedies for it from the developed world.

The stage was set.

Cataclysmic Predictions are Unlikely to Come About in Our Lifetimes

Last week, science writer Eric Holthaus wrote an article on Slate.

In this article, he made some points about what he called “apocalyptic headlines” over the last year and how climate journalists focus on worst-case scenarios. He then discussed that many of these scenarios are by and large unreasonable for anyone to expect any time within ours or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.  He even linked a story he did on “Paralyzing Despair,” where thoughts of cataclysm lead people to think nothing can be done and accept the fate.

To his credit, Holthaus is pointing out the problems with the worst-case scenarios. “He is imploring the climate reporting community to keep it real because it is causing problems.

What he does not go into is, “What is the reason for these worst-case scenarios?”

Existential Threat as a Policy Driver has Become Cliche

Anthropogenic Global Warming has been at the forefront of collective consciousness for more that 25 years.  It reached its zenith in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the popular culture phenomenon that was “An Inconvenient Truth.” As far as reaching any form of bold US policy, there was a near syzygy of factors needed for bold climate action.  The economy was doing great, there was a public consciousness that the environment needed protection, and recent tragedy to reinforce the idea that the everybody’s lives are at risk.  And, make no mistake, there was a glut of people willing to tell everyone about how much worse it would get.

But there were other factors that operated against action.  The first was the presence of a Republican President.  Another factor was that this President was focused on another claimed existential threat – terrorism. By the time a President could come in who would be viewed as more friendly to action on climate change, the economic woes of the nation and the world became a much larger issue.

This did not, however, put any brakes on predictions of doom from what was now being called climate change.  The people of the US were dealing with more pressing issues than the threat of hurricanes or rising oceans.  Coincidentally, the US experienced a lengthy period of time where no hurricanes were making landfall.  And after twenty years of hearing about how bad things were going to get, in many people’s minds it just didn’t seem that much different, if at all.

Unfortunately, the calls of climate doom have become cliche.  It has become expected that any form of severe weather event will be attributed to the effects of climate change.

This has led to a polarization of sorts in the US.  It has also led to rampant politicization of the issue.  The fighting continues as the stakes increase.  The stakes increase as time goes on.  Agreement becomes more difficult because the stakes have increased.

Inaction is Guaranteed When Notional Threats Affect the Status Quo

Over the past two decades, people have become desensitized to the issue of climate change.  It just isn’t as important to as many people as it was a decade ago.  Part of it may be the threat paralysis.  Part of it may also be the dog by man issue. Nevertheless, to a large extent, climate change just hasn’t affected people in ways they can perceive.  The California drought? Most remember the late 80s and early 90s.  Sandy?  Despite its size, most also remember the “Perfect Storm.”  Polar vortex? Most can more easily cope with the idea that they handled it, so they will handle the next one.

In many ways, it may be a variation of the normalization of deviance.  We’ve been doing this stuff, we’ve taken what nature threw at us, and we made it.  So we will make it again.

This acts as a powerful disincentive to act.  Society has been set up a certain way.  In order to attain some change in the way society does things a `major event that is a perceived threat to everybody is required for a change in the status quo.  If America is to go to war, it must be for a reason that most Americans will support.  Of course, over time this support changes and fades as the costs become apparent and the benefit from it becomes less and less evident.

A Lesser Threat Enables Measured Approach.

What are realistic scenarios for climate change?  Can we expect for Georgia to have a thriving citrus industry by 2050 is the status quo is maintained?  Is this something that is per se a bad thing?  What are the actual threats to the people of the US, for example, in 2100?  What is the cost-benefit of this?

Let us compare it to the threat of earthquakes in California.  California could have building codes that would require, for instance, that all buildings in San Francisco be retrofitted to withstand an 8.3 earthquake on the San Andreas fault.  To do this, however, would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  Thus, the codes are set up not to avoid problems with a catastrophic earthquake, but to minimize the death and damage from the frequent moderate to strong shaker.

The same can work with climate change agreements.  Only what we do is that instead of working to prevent the notional catastrophe, we work to minimize the frequent nuisance.  As the changes are made, there becomes the opportunity for more change.

Had Policy Makers Taken a Measured Approach 25 Years Ago, We Would be Much Further Along

One issue that I take with Holhaus’ article is that his article, which indicated that worst-case scenarios were not likely any time soon, made the jump to call, yet again, for bold action.

With bold action on climate change, it’s still possible to prevent the worst-case scenario.”

Calling for bold action in this context means much disappointment. It is the same failed tactic that has been used repeatedly. Bold action is attempted, it fails, and years later bold action is again attempted.  And again fails.  We were told that we must act now in 1992.  We didn’t act on Kyoto because it called for bold action.

A Measured Response Now Means Less Need for Bold Response in Future

The calls and demands for bold action meant that time is lost.  The past 25 years have been lost because bold action has been demanded.  This means pretty much no action has occurred.

So here’s what I hope the do in Paris: set the sights low.  Meet expectations.  Exceed the low expectations, if possible.  Call for a very modest goal. Something that is a bit of a challenge but can be accomplished.  Revisit the progress in ten years and increase the standard.

Try something simple.  Like limit CO2 concentrations to 430 ppm by 2040.  There.  A clearly defined target.  Something that requires action to meet.  But at the same time, it is something that is doable without a lot of pain.

And by all means, shout down those who demand bold action.  It has not worked.  Measured action is “needed.” Measured action is doable.

In the words of John Wooden, “Do not let what you can’t do interfere with what you can.”


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