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Showing posts with label Climate change. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Climate change. Show all posts
The left is probably going to lose on climate change - 5/16/17
Freddie deBoer has written a post taking aim at leftists who are "contemptuous of the essential work of persuasion but totally unable to articulate an alternative." To be fair, he specifically calls out Angus Johnston amid a debate over the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, and I'm not sure how far beyond that context his point extends. Still, this seems fairly sweeping:
Here’s the idea: we build a mass left-wing movement for change by persuading those who are able to be persuaded through appeals to their enlightened self-interest and their desire to build a better world. Then, we will have enough people on our side to take power through democratic governance and show the rest that our way is better for everyone. And we do all this through the slow, unsexy work of politics, which means going to meetings, walking picket lines, writing pamphlets, doing local radio, shaking hands, and yes, having a dialogue to convince others to join our cause. That’s it, that’s the only possible way to win.
On most political fronts, I think this is good advice - but there's at least one where I think it's dead wrong. And I think the left needs to understand that it's wrong, because as long as we keep thinking of the climate change challenge as one of mass persuasion, we're going to lose. Derrick Jensen:
It is our prediction that there will be no mass movement, not in time to save this planet, our home...If we had a thousand years, even a hundred years, building a movement to transform the dominant institutions around the globe would be the task before us. But...the usual approach of long, slow institutional change has been foreclosed, and many of us know that.
This is not the perspective of dilettantes who are averse to the hard work of persuasion; Jensen is writing on behalf of a group of seasoned and prolific environmentalists. And their conclusion is pretty defensible. Gwynne Dyer:
[I]t is unrealistic to believe that we are really going to make those [decarbonization] deadlines. Maybe if we had gotten serious about climate change fifteen years ago, or even ten, we might have had a chance, but it's too late now...To keep the global average temperature low enough to avoid hitting some really ugly feedbacks, we need greenhouse-gas emissions to be falling by 4 per cent now, and you just can't turn the supertanker around that fast.
If these voices seem a bit too radical, here's a conservative outlook from investment banker Carlos Joly:
[T]he needed wholesale transformation of energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing will not happen in time...The result is that we are only forty years away from disaster. In 2052 the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be moving toward levels that will trigger irreversible large-scale damage.
Again: if we had even a century, I could see politics-as-usual making a difference. A kitchen-table conversation here, an election victory there, and maybe your liberal-left climate change plan has slowed emissions enough to buy your scientists enough time to invent a decarbonization silver bullet. If that's where we were, there would be a lot of sense in writing those letters to the editor and having those debates with your right-wing dad and doing "the slow, unsexy work of politics" that yields so much progress elsewhere.

One can even see Freddie's mass persuasion approach as a kind of damage control, a preferable alternative to a world where we do nothing whatsoever to mitigate climate change. But even in the most optimistic forecasts where civilization improves on our present efforts,
The negative impacts will be significant...there will be more droughts, floods, extreme weather, and insect infestations. The sea level will be 0.3 meters higher, the Arctic summer ice will be gone...Acidic ocean water will bother shell-forming animals. Many species will have died out. (Randers)
And these are just the first-order consequences, ignoring the cascading problems of crop failure, drought, mass migration, war, failed states, and so on. To head off the obvious question, I don't know what can be done to avert this, or if it can be avoided at all. But for people of conscience, this outcome should be absolutely unacceptable, and we should not resign ourselves to the damage control of persuasion politics.
How UBI would help fight climate change - 1/6/17
My friend Jarrod Myrick - author of "Jarrod's corner" for the Matt Bruenig newsletter, and tireless advocate for Universal Basic Income - has suggested that I write a few words about how UBI would help fight climate change. I'm a little wary of making this case, simply because I think that both causes stand on their own merits: a UBI is a good idea for reasons that are mostly unrelated to climate change, and climate change needs to be managed for reasons that have very little to do with UBI. Nevertheless, Jarrod's intuition on this is better than mine is, so here are three arguments that I think you could made (in order of weakness to strength):


The theory here is that some people, with a guaranteed income, would simply drop out of the workforce; that the labor supply contraction would lead to a drop in GDP; and that this reduction in economic activity would in turn lead to a decline in greenhouse emissions. This is probably the most popular take on this that I've seen, though I think that on these terms it ends up being the weakest.

One immediate problem with this argument, as given, is that it's not clear that UBI would necessarily shrink the labor supply. People work because they need income, but since they also work for other reasons, one can't simply assume that a UBI would catalyze a net reduction in work. If it turns out that UBI gives us the same "amount" of economic productivity (whatever that means) but simply changes the incentives, then an environmentalist argument for UBI that relies on generalized degrowth falls on its face.

A second problem is that even if UBI curbs economic productivity, it may not necessarily follow that this would curb greenhouse emissions. That's because emissions may not be a function of GDP; in the last few years, for example, the two have arguably uncoupled, and there are historical examples of countries that have seen simultaneous economic contraction and growth in carbon emissions. While most data seems to point to a relationship between the two, I don't think we can make assumptions about what would happen given a massive intervention aimed at global reductions in economic activity.

These objections may seem distinct, but I think that they are actually related, and if we bear them in mind we can build a stronger case:


The degrowth argument, we have seen, rests on two basic assumptions: that people will only work if they need income, and that work necessarily produces greenhouse emissions. Both of these claims, I've suggested, may be faulty. But what if, instead, we suppose that wage-slavery disproportionately incentivizes certain kinds of work - in particular, work tied to the exploitation of fossil fuels?

If this is true, then UBI may very well free people up to engage in labor that produces fewer carbon emissions, with a net positive impact for climate change. This is an argument that can be made without generalized claims about GDP and "economic productivity" and how these things relate to UBI and climate change.

Here, what I think you would have to argue is that there is a direct relationship between wage slavery and the irresponsible use of fossil fuels. Conceptually, this strikes me as a pretty intuitive point: it makes sense that the same economic regime that recklessly exploits labor would also recklessly exploit fossil fuels. All you have to do here is make the standard Marxist environmental case that wage-slavery is what facilitates the bourgeoisie's mobilization of the means of production in an infinitely escalation pursuit of capital - and that technologically, those means of production have always relied in one way or another on burning fossil fuels.

Capitalists, in fact, implicitly recognize this point when they insist that the fix for climate change must be technological - that we cannot hope to place limits on economic activity, and must instead hope for some kind of technological silver bullet that lets us chase profits without burning coal. This point is certainly true if you take wage-slavery for granted; in that case, all you can do is dream of some magical form of production where infinitely expanding resource extraction somehow doesn't have deliterious environmental consequences. It seems to me, however, that no matter how politically and logistically difficult it is to launch UBI, that this approach is still more plausible than the probably-physically-impossible fantasy of infinite clean energy.

Regardless, what seems clear to me is that the fight for UBI and against climate change are both caught up in a basic political fight against capitalism. And for that reason, I think there's a third argument that's even stronger than the first two:


You absolutely cannot fight climate change without massive redistribution. And the only way that you get there is by creating powerful institutions through which people can democratically expropriate the commonwealth from rich people who are hoarding it.

The problem is that this is a huge political lift, and since climate change is a progress trap, most people don't feel motivated to fight it. The consequences for failure, as apocalyptic as they are, are also extremely long-term, and by the time anyone feels motivated to do anything about carbon emissions it will probably already be too late.

But this, I think, creates an extremely strong case for UBI - because UBI creates a redistributive institution powerful enough to fight climate change that would provide immediate and significant material benefits for everyone. Once you enshrine the principle that everyone deserves a basic standard of living regardless of ideas about desert, that redistribution on the scale of (say) at least 10% of the national income is warranted, and that we should build a state institution powerful enough to guarantee this - from here, the case for funding green international development is open-and-shut. And more importantly, the systematic leverage that the rich have to fight it has been severely undercut.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how the fight against climate change ever gets off the ground without something resembling this approach. It's not clear that UBI would spark degrowth, or that degrowth would bring down greenhouse emissions; it seems possible that UBI would free people to engage in labor that's less environmentally destructive, but even this is fairly speculative. What strikes me as certain, however, is that people aren't going to fight for adequate redistributive institutions unless there is some kind of powerful, immediate benefit - something more than just the intellectual conviction about the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. UBI is exactly the sort of incentive the fight against climate change needs.
Clinton's climate science denial - 4/24/16
Liberals are enjoying a bit of shade Hillary Clinton threw at the Koch Brothers this afternoon, dismissing them as "people who deny climate science". Unfortunately, as climate centrists, their position is not meaningfully distinct from libertarian denial. A quick look at just two graphs from the US Environmental Protection Agency tells the story:

Here are the EPA's projections for the future of CO2 concentrations in four different scenarios. Conveniently, the red line (RCP 2.6) shows what happens if global climate emissions peak during Hillary Clinton's first term. By the way, nothing like this is on the table in Clinton's agenda. Her stated goal is merely to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions [in the US] by up to 30 percent in 2025 relative to 2005 levels and put the country on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050."
So what happens if emissions don't peak by 2020? The science is straightforward on that, too:

Again: the bottom line, RCP 2.6, shows what happens if emissions peak during Clinton's first term. The others show what happens if they don't. Every alternative has us at or near a 2 degree Celcius rise in temperature in the next 84 years.

Two degrees, remember, is the infamous tipping point in climate science where everything starts really going to hell. Two degrees is where warming processes start triggering other warming processes and the cycle becomes irreversible. Two degrees is where significant coastal areas (particularly in east Asia) start drowning beneath rising tides. Two degrees is where food production in populous nations like India and China begins to drop precipitously. Two degrees, as Gwynne Dyer writes, is where the geopolitical situation becomes so unstable that there is "a probability of wars, including even nuclear wars...Once that happens, all hope of international cooperation to curb emissions and stop global warming goes out the window."

Climate centrists may smugly claim the scientific high ground over radicals like the Kochs, but if they aren't even trying to peak global emissions within the next four years, they haven't actually accepted the science.
Sanders critics adopting the libertarian position on climate change - 4/19/16
When the International Students for Liberty Conference was in town back in February, I had the chance to speak with a representative of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) about the libertarian position in climate change.

For decades, of course, the standard libertarian position has been denial. Fossil-fuel funded think tanks and scientists have produced a massive body of disinformation designed to sew doubt and center national debates over whether the earth is even warming at all. The left, accordingly, has invested most of its energy in fighting this, and its environmentalism has often amounted to defending the basic point that climate change is real.

So I suspect that a lot of leftists would be surprised to learn that in recent years, libertarians have begun to concede this point entirely. As I spoke with the representative from PERC, she rehearsed the same line I've heard with increasing frequency: climate change is real, and free market capitalism is the best way to fix it.

"Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975," the Cato Institute explains in its Cato Handbook for Policymakers. However, "Drastic action is unwarranted at this time," and we should instead "allow for the development of technologies that can result in lower emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere" rather than relying on government action that would "take away capital" (read: taxes) "in a futile attempt to stop warming, that would best be invested in the future".

These are the two major premises of the new climate denialism that I've identified previously: climate change is not an urgent problem, and it's within timely reach of market solutions. Like the old climate denialism, it's directly at odds with the science, which doesn't just demand action - it demands immediate action. But unlike the old denialism, this position isn't just defended by Republicans and libertarian radicals: it is rapidly becoming the consensus position of centrist neoliberalism, defended by Kochs and liberal Clintonites alike.

Which brings us to today's Washington Post:
Mr. Sanders is right that climate change demands an aggressive response, and he is right to favor a carbon tax. He should leave it at that: put a price on carbon, insist on adequate regulation and let the market find the fastest and most efficient road to slowing the warming of the planet.
This is the PERC position, almost verbatim. Unlike Cato, it rhetorically "demands an aggressive response" - but substantively, the only policy difference here is their advocacy of the empirically inadequate carbon tax. From the perspective of climate science, all three approaches are equally apocalyptic, for all the same reasons; once again, the radical right has lured liberals into an unacceptable position simply by inviting them to meet in the middle.
Climate centrism is just another form of denial - 10/27/15
More than a year after Naomi Klein published her bestselling This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Jonathan Chait has gotten around to posting some hilariously belated criticism. I'm not going to link to it - instead, read Ryan Cooper's decisive rebuttal in The Week, which walks through the basic science and policy issues with admirable patience and clarity.

It's Cooper's patience that I find most striking, because when I read through this article I can't help but notice that this is the exact same argument we've been having with climate change deniers for years. The right's denialism has rarely been absolute. House Republicans and AM radio demagogues may gleefully insist that it's actually getting colder every time we have a blizzard, but for the most part the political opposition has relied on two basic claims:
  1. Climate change is not an urgent problem. Invariably, the ostensibly respectable opposition has tried to claim the moderate ground by conceding that climate change is happening - but that it's simply not as urgent as the "alarmists" claim. Their typical position is that climate change is a cyclical process that proceeds gradually over millions of years. This is actually more coherent than Chait's position, which is that predictions placing the tipping point within a matter of decades are "alarmist" - for reasons that he never bothers to actually specify. Both, in any case, are at odds with the same clear and uncontroversial evidence.
  2. The technological solutions to climate change and their implementation are within timely reach of the market. The Republican variation on this position does not bother with any analysis of the rate and capacity of technological innovation, but simply assumes that a magic solution to fix climate change will appear when the time comes because capitalism. Chait (probably) has some basic understanding of what we can expect from technology within predictable market conditions, but because he underestimates the urgency of the problem (1) he overestimates the ability of tech within the market to deal with it. This point is crucial, because scientists (who are generally not economic radicals) mostly share Chait's views about the market and technology; but because they differ on the magnitude of the problem, they're arriving at drastically different conclusions.
So what this comes down to, as it always has, is whether or not we take climate science seriously. If we do, then our understanding of climate change dictates quite strictly how much time we have and what solutions are available. Like the right, Chait can only get out of this by denying objective and uncontroversial points of scientific fact.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the major difference seems to be that while the right has by now an extremely elaborate apparatus of rationalizations for denying climate change, and a massive culture of indoctrination that pressures them into accepting these rationalizations - while all of that is happening, centrist deniers seem to be relying on nothing more than their instinctive aversion to radical prescriptions. Chait doesn't offer any particular reason to be skeptical of the science, and indeed doesn't challenge it at all; as far as I can tell, he may even think that climate scientists are on his side, which actually makes him more ignorant than the deniers who think that scientists are lying to them.

Regardless, there is really no reason to think of Chait and his climate centrist colleagues as any better informed or any more committed to science that their right-wing counterparts. They're both in denial, and they're both equally dangerous.
Climate change is more important than absolutely everything else - 7/26/15
Recent debates between liberals and leftists have largely been proxy debates over priorities. Leftists insist that the fight for economic equality and security is more fundamental to the fight against racism than various regulatory and legal initiatives involving police cameras, training, etc; liberals argue that those projects should be the focus. Leftists insist the fight for economic equality and security is more fundamental to the fight against sexism than various reproductive health and ecclesiastical segregation issues; liberals argue the opposite.

It is easy enough to conclude that these controversies just express a fundamental disagreement over capitalism: leftists oppose it as the root of oppression, whereas liberals see it as "problematic" at worst, and certainly not the center of any progressive agenda. There's something to that, but I want to complicate that picture a little by advancing a slightly different argument: liberals do not want to prioritize at all.

To expose that point, consider another issue: climate change. At the very least, climate change threatens to displace something like 2 billion people in the next 50 years due to coastal flooding alone; this says nothing of even greater threats like global famine and war. The worst case-scenarios are absolutely apocalyptic. And crucially, all of this is not only possible, and not merely probable - it's also imminent. If we are going to lower carbon levels before we start reaching climate tipping points, we have to begin immediately.

Given the scale and proximity of the danger, it seems to me to follow trivially that stopping global warming warrants literally any sacrifice we could possibly make. Nothing that we value is likely to survive the civilizational collapse that will accompany global warming; even if humans happen to make it, they will be cast into ruin, poverty and utter degradation, along with their lofty spiritual and intellectual achievements. If we get through climate change, we can live to fight another day the microaggressions in the latest Avengers movie or whatever; if we don't, both battles are lost.

Which is all to say that I can't think of any issues we should prioritize over climate change. And not only that, but we should be thinking about climate change the way #TCOTs think about Benghazi: everything we talk about that is not climate change is a distraction from climate change. If stopping climate change means accepting a totalitarian global autocracy that exercises absolute control over the world economy and carbon outputs with zero tolerance for democratic resistance, that is what we should endorse. If stopping climate change means that the US government leads a state-sponsored extrajudicial campaign of terrorism and assassinations against the global energy sector, that is what we should endorse. If stopping climate change means that we go back in time to when the Olsen twins were at their most innocent and adorable and drop them into a volcano as human sacrifices to appease the God Of Climate Change, that's what we should endorse.

I can't think of a moral argument against any of this, at least not one that is not entirely deontological. But are there any liberals in the universe who are prepared to think about politics this way? Would any of them be willing to vote against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or even FDR if their right-wing opponent promised, credibly, to stop global warming? If so, it would be entirely out of character. 

I fully expect any leftists who objects to this point to provide some explanation on how my priorities are out of order, or how my analysis is somehow flawed. Liberals, however, would almost certainly just make noises about "false choices" and "myopic obsessions" and so on, just as they do with leftists who prioritize economic issues. This is a problem with the way they think about capitalism, but it's also a problem with a way they think about the role of priorities in politics.

Barack Obama does not think we can stop climate change - 6/24/15
President Obama had a lot to say about climate change in his recent podcast interview with Marc Maron, but it was a digression on lessons he's learned in office that was most revealing:
Progress, in a democracy, is never instantaneous, and it's always partial, and you can't get cynical or frustrated because you didn't' get all the way there immediately.... Sometimes your job is to just make stuff work. Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the Ocean liner two degrees North or South so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were. But, at the moment people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn. We don’t need a two degree turn. You say ‘well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns. And you can’t turn 50 degrees... societies don't turn 50 degrees, democracies don't turn 50 degrees.... As long as they're turning in the right direction, then government is working the way it's supposed to. 
This incrementalist perspective is standard liberal orthodoxy in Washington, and there are plenty of situations where it's tactically sensible.

But climate change is not one of them. Climate change is a situation where the changes we have to make are not only radical but immediate. Global temperatures rise two degrees Celsius in a matter of decades, pushing civilization over a ledge where all kinds of threshold triggers fire, feedback loops launch, and chain reactions cascade into a warming process this planet hasn't seen in millions of years. You only stop this with massive overhauls of the largest sectors of our economy, including energy, agriculture, and transportation. And you only make those overhauls with political action that is deliberate, impatient, massively controversial, and socially volatile. There is no getting around any of this. Climate change is an iceberg just a thousand yards in front of the ship; if you're going to miss it, you have to turn 50 degrees.

No major politician - and as far as I know, only one aspiring politician - is actually thinking about climate change in this way. No one is prioritizing it the way it must be prioritized, no one is advocating specific proposals on the scale of what needs to be advocated, and no one is willing to do any of this despite our political system if they can't do it within our political system. Radical leftist candidate X may promise to cut emissions twice as fast as Obama and invest three times as much to the Green Climate Fund, but none of this is qualitatively different from mainstream Democratic / centrist-Republican proposals because none of this gets the job done fast enough.

This is what climate change will look like - 6/4/15

At least 1,725 refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe have died this year, ACAPS reports today. More than 200,000 had to be rescued last year. Most of them are fleeing the war in Libya, but many of them are migrant workers from further south.

This is what climate change will look like. It will hit hardest in places like Africa, where predictable chronic drought will compound already rampant poverty. It will force tens of millions north, destabilizing countries like Libya and Tunisia with wave after wave of immigrants. And a significant fraction will attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

We haven't seen migrations of this magnitude in the modern era, but there's plenty of historical precedent. The major lesson is that it completely changes civilization. You can stop mass migrations, but only if you're willing to become a xenophobic fortress society. Sometimes even that doesn't work. The last time we had a really big, famine-driven migration across the Mediterranean, it effectively ended Bronze Age civilization. And if you open your borders, then the war over resources just goes internal.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of all of this is that we won't recognize it as a symptom of global warming until it's too late. Droughts will look like aberrations; wars and migrations will look overdetermined; and everything will happen at the pace of climate change. That's a pace that isn't measured in the familiar news cycles -- it's measured in decades, centuries, and millennia.

You can't fight climate change without massive foreign aid - 6/2/15
Carbon emissions from the United States and other industrialized countries have driven climate change in the past, but that's about to change. In the future, emerging economies will account for about 90% of the growth in anthropogenic carbon dioxide as they build their own roads, coal-fired power plants, and so on.

To mitigate this and keep warming below the standard two degree tipping point, the US is going to have to make enormous investments in international aid. To honor international commitments we've already made, we should be giving about $30 billion a year by 2020*. Developing nations have called for about four times that number, and their request is probably much more realistic.

In other words, in 5 years, the US should be giving away more money to fight climate change than we budget for agriculture and transportation combined - about $120 billion annually*. These are conservative estimates. To put them in perspective, here's how Senate Republicans responded when President Obama made a one-time pledge of just $3 billion:
"If they think they're going to get all that money for the fund, they're mistaken," a senior aid to Senator Inhofe said. "You're going to see us being more aggressive about not sending more money to the U.N. and elsewhere for climate change."
If you take climate change seriously you should be mobilizing for a political war. And you should challenge as inadequate any climate change agenda that isn't calling for massive, historically unprecedented foreign aid. And you do not have a hell of a lot of time to get this done. This is not the sort of political long-war that progressives are used to fighting; generously, we have a decade or so to get this rolling.

* Right now the US is capping its contributions to the Green Climate Fund at 30% of international totals. At that level, we would have to contribute $30 billion annually to honor the 2010 Cancun Climate Change Agreement, which calls for $100 billion annually from industrialized nations. Developing nations at the Copenhagen climate summit, meanwhile held out for $400 billion annually.