19 May 2006

Call for Unity, part 1 - Belief Systems

Once you accept that climate change is going to exact a heavy price on civilisation in the near future, the next question is always ‘What can we do about it?’ Answers, and the passionate and committed people that promote them, can be categorised into four broad camps.

1.1 Reverlutionaries*

Reverlutionaries want to change the way people live at a fundamental level to use less energy and consume less. To a greater or lesser degree they advocate reversing a hundred years or more of environmental exploitation.
While it is sensible to use fewer resources to achieve the same aims, I find the suggestion that we should aim to achieve less of great concern. It is not simply naïve; it is dangerous. If we move away from the technologies and industries that sustain us, our capacity to apply economic solutions, or to come up with technological solutions, is drastically impaired.
Say we stop emitting CO2 completely tomorrow (clearly impossible, but that is the most any reverlutionary can hope for). The level of CO2 in the atmosphere today is enough to melt the icecaps and trigger significant climate change. It may be enough to trigger accelerant effects such as melting permafrost, the burning of the Amazon or melting of methyl hydrates on the seabed.
And if that happens, we will need every gigadollar of GDP and intellectual firepower we can get to survive.

1.2 Neoliberals

Neoliberals are devoted to the power of the market. They feel that market forces will counter every problem and push the human race forwards and onwards and upwards. Insurance companies will assess the risks of climate change as we gain more knowledge and drive premiums up so high that their clients will adapt and adjust accordingly. Except that the clients who are paying the premiums are not the people doing the damage, and the people who need to change their ways are not the people who are at most risk from the results. As Chomsky says, "the free market is socialism for the rich - markets for the poor and state protection for the rich."
Polluting technologies receive a massive subsidy from the environment, skewing the 'free' market in their favour. A Neoliberal who accepts this fact should be eager to ensure that all costs are laid at the doors of the polluter. But most Neoliberals behave irrationally (or at the very least, hypocritically) and defend the subsidies and protectionism that works in their favour while attacking any attempt to introduce balancing charges that work against them, such as carbon taxes.

1.3 Technophiles

Technophiles believe every problem can be fixed once the technology exists to fix it, and that we will have the time and money and know-how to develop the technology we need, so long as we invest in research and (to a lesser degree) development. They support future technologies such as clean coal and hydrogen cars, while overlooking the poor uptake of existing technologies such as wind and biofuel. They believe staunchly in the miracle cure – that when the right technology is developed it will automatically transform the world.
But it took acts of parliament to underwrite the development of the railways and supplant the established canals, and it took over fifty years for the car to supplant the horse as the primary mode of transport in most of the world.
Technology alone cannot solve a problem rapidly. It must be nurtured and coddled until it is robust enough to compete with more mature industries. Leaving it up to technology alone will impede the change away from fossil fuels. A good idea is not enough.

1.4 Regulators

Regulators want to pass laws forbidding or restricting the use of technologies that use fossil fuels, and subsidising and promoting their replacements. It is the natural tendency of the politician. However they can also foresee only disaster in following that instinct.
Laws, alone, could change a nation’s behaviour, but to do so that nation would have to handicap itself in the international marketplace. It directly opposes the free market approach of the Neoliberals, and threatens economic disaster. To have any significant impact, as Kyoto has demonstrated by its failure, a regulatory approach must be global in scope and imposition. All nations must be subject to the restrictions at the same time. Some allowance for contraction and convergence is necessary to counteract the natural misgivings of poorer nations, but all must accept a level playing field in the end.
This goes against the grain with some countries with a substantial economic lead over the rest of the world. They see such plans, accurately, as inhibition of their existing position and advantages in the market, and reject the necessity to voluntarily abandon that position.
Other countries, that have a rapidly growing but fragile economy, see the roadblock ahead and push for longer delays before they have to start adopting the restrictions.
Between them, these countries block and hinder the regulators at every turn.

* Reverlutionary – one who tries to turn the wheel of political or social progress in reverse.

1 comment:

Co2emissions said...

This is the first of a four-part article, which I will post over the next two days.