I don’t propose to go into the ins and outs of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which have already been widely covered in the media. This is the sixth report they’ve issued so far, and it promises to have the same impact as the previous five, which is to say more or less zero. This blog post is more concerned with the reasons why that is the case. It seems to me that these fall into two broad categories:
The inability of scientists to assess and convey the issues accurately
There are a couple of issues here. The first is that scientists are trained to be inherently conservative. I can’t emphasise enough that no blame attaches to them for this. In most circumstances, this is a completely appropriate attitude. We all know the story about the boy who cried “Wolf!” – the kicker to which, remember, is that the wolf did show up in the end.
This does lead to incomplete models being used. There are many, many things that feed into climate change, and some of them are very difficult to model, involving as they do extremely complex feedback loops. Methane emissions from melting permafrost are one example; we know that methane is indeed being emitted as the permafrost melts, and we know that methane is a very potent greenhouse gas (far more so than CO2, although it doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere for anything like as long). What we don’t know is exactly how this will play out; x amount of methane emissions results in y amount of extra heating, which causes z amount of additional emissions, which in turn results… you see how this is going.
But the fact that we don’t know how to model something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We can be reasonably confident that methane emissions from melting permafrost will have an effect on the climate, and that that effect is going to be bad. Therefore we should treat any model that omits that fact as unduly optimistic – we may not not know just how optimistic, but we can be sure that there is an error in that direction. This may well be obvious to climate scientists, indeed I expect it is, but I’m not sure that it’s grasped widely enough by the general public.
The second issue, and blame is definitely involved here, is that IPCC reports are vetted by economists to try and prevent anything too scary coming out. The collapse of the basic systems on which life on this planet depends is Kryptonite to conventional economics, so I don’t expect economists to like the prospect in front of them. I do however expect them to have the intellectual honesty to admit that that is the prospect we’re all facing. Well, actually, I don’t, but that’s because, as H. L. Mencken pointed out a long time ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.”
Which brings me onto my second category:
The inability of our political and economic systems to respond appropriately
As I have already explained in a number of previous posts (such as this one, this one and this one, for starters), our civilisation is based on economic growth; or, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it: “Take what you can, give nothing back.” This may work well in a fantasy version of the Caribbean but not so much on a finite planet with many complex interrelated systems (of which the climate is but one), each having the ability to respond to our behaviour in unpredictable ways.
This is not the place, nor do I have the competence, to try and give you a primer on systems theory. We all have daily practical experience of dealing with complex systems, however, and those complex systems are other people.
We all have people in our lives we don’t get on with. Whatever they say or do, we just get more annoyed with them. In fact, in extreme cases there’s nothing they could say or do to alter our opinion of them. We currently have that kind of relationship with the global climate. There’s nothing we can do at this point that will make the climate be nice to us. In effect, we’ve just made too many snide remarks about its mother.
We could in principle at least stop winding it up, but the imperatives that made us act that way to begin with are all still in place. We can still only do things that make a profit, or at least those are the only activities to which we assign value. Doing less harm to the world entails doing less, and doing less is always framed as catastrophic. Remember all the lamentation about the plight of the airline industry when Covid-19 first hit? That was a terrific win from an environmental standpoint, but almost nobody said so.
There are many enterprises – airlines just being a conspicuous example – for which going green is basically the same as going out of business. You won’t hear this discussed by the talking heads, because nobody wants to admit it, but that doesn’t stop it being the case. What you will hear is a a lot of talk about decoupling, a concept which deserves a blog post to itself, but the executive summary is that it’s the kind of thing that gets wishful thinking a bad name.
What of political solutions? Well, to paraphrase Professor Herman Daly, politics nowadays is pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of economics. There is very little room for any political opinion that is not framed within the commonly accepted world-view of industrial capitalism. If having factories is causing problems, the solution must be more factories. Politicians exist in order to facilitate the multiplication of factories and to arrange the distribution of the resulting goodies in a way that gets them re-elected.
The leaders of industrialised nations across the world – and I include the leaders of the late, mostly unlamented USSR in this – have been cheerleading industrialisation, growth and progress for well over a century at this point. It is simply unrealistic to expect them to reverse their position now. Arguably it was wrong when they first took it up, although at least back then it was plausible. Today it is, in practical terms, suicidal, but they are lumbered with it.
So then, as the late Comrade Lenin asked, what is to be done? Large-scale converted responses from businesses or governments might be helpful but I don’t expect them to be forthcoming. Therefore we are left with small-scale, local initiatives. I don’t mean to discount these; there’s a lot that can be done at this level. Some good work has already been done by the Permaculture, Transition Towns and Strong Towns movements; there’s a lot of practical advice and support out there; this forum, for example. By all means get involved. Skill up. Build your local network. One way or another, you’re going to need it, and maybe sooner than you think.
Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.