A blog by Barry Edelson

Climate Follies

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

— George Bernard Shaw


As the human propensity for foolishness is restricted only by the limits of our imaginations, it is difficult to say who looked more ridiculous at the just concluded climate conference in Copenhagen: the earnest delegates who had to pretend to believe that their respective governments were either able or willing to negotiate a meaningful agreement; the heads of state who went to great lengths to appear deeply concerned about a matter over which few of them have ever lost any sleep; the commentators who ranged from the adamantly convinced to the convincingly deranged; or the hysterical protesters who turn up like clockwork (they must be Swiss) at every gathering of world leaders to insist upon immediate and profound action, which is, of course, the one thing that is almost guaranteed not to happen.

Insanity has been familiarly defined as doing the same thing over and over again but somehow expecting a different result. It has been more than a dozen years since the Kyoto "agreement" on climate change. In the intervening years, millions of trees have been felled and thousands of barrels of ink have been spilled to publish a geometrically expanding body of research into the subject. Countless newspaper articles, documentary films and political speeches have been dedicated to it. And the net result of all this effort? Ever higher quantities of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere, and the targets agreed to at Kyoto buried deep in the sprawling graveyard of good intentions.

So why do they do it? Why do the scientists and activists and diplomats continue to delude themselves that something meaningful is really going to be done about global warming? Does anyone really believe that the Chinese dictators are going to do anything constructive about the climate, unless it also happens to helps them to tighten their stranglehold on their country? This is the same humanistic government which in the last year has harassed parents for complaining about the shoddy construction that killed their children in the Sichuan earthquake. Do you think a rising India is going to put the brakes on its spectacular economic development of recent years, when the vast majority of its population still lives in abject poverty? Do you think Brazil, at the head of an increasingly confident formation of Latin American nations, is going to agree to unflex its newfound muscle when the great gringo to the north has centuries of oppression and profligacy to atone for? And does anyone actually think that the United States Senate, which harbors several dozen elected men and women who would be hard pressed to defend the heliocentric theory of the solar system (it is, after all, only a "theory" and also happens to contradict the literal word of the Bible), will ever ratify an unenforceable treaty that demands the tiniest degree of sacrifice on the part of the American voter? This is the very same great deliberative body which can proudly boast one member who went to Copenhagen last week on his own initiative to declare that global warming is a hoax.

No one has the skills or tools
to solve a problem on
such a gargantuan scale.

The kindest answer to the question of why the climate worriers continue to delude themselves is that they genuinely believe that a catastrophe is looming for humankind and are afraid for the fate of our species. However, even if they are right about the science and sincere in their concern, it doesn't really explain why they persist in trying to enlist the help of governments, which by definition exist solely to address the concerns of their citizens in the present day and the immediate future, and for whom solving the problem of an unlivable planet in some remote decade or century is not part of their constitutional responsibility, let alone their unenlightened self-interest. Even if many of these leaders were truly concerned about the prospect of what Thomas Friedman calls "global weirding", and even if they were now convinced that the pending calamity is actually upon us, they possess neither the skills, tools or political capital to address a problem on such a gargantuan scale.

There may indeed be wise scientists and engineers who possess the knowledge and even, let us hope, the wisdom to tackle this Earth-wide challenge. Few of them, however, are likely to possess the worldliness, public confidence or political acumen to shepherd their brilliant solutions through the realities of corporate determination, governmental inertia and international babel. The sad truth is that the human being, who is at root a self-serving creature with tribal instincts and strange social habits, has gradually assumed dominion over much of the planet but without the wherewithal to exercise such authority without making a hash of it.

But surely, you ask, if homo sapiens created this situation, it must be capable of rectifying it? As individual specimens, we are indeed capable of envisioning what course of action should be undertaken and through what means it may be attempted, but that is a wholly different matter from being able to work in concert with millions — nay, billions — of one's fellow creatures for the betterment of everyone, or even agree with them on what constitutes a better condition. Still, you demur, human beings have in the past harnessed their immense, collective power to undertake missions of great import: to build massive dams and canals, to wipe out deadly diseases, to win righteous wars. Unfortunately, we must insist, these tasks were confronted only when the profit was attainable by a few, or the threat immediate to the many. A little-known aspect of the economics of Adam Smith, to whom fiscal conservatives wrongly attribute a doctrinaire adherence to market principles and a disdain for public interference, was the fundamental principle that private enterprise will engage in an activity only if the benefits (i.e., profits) of that activity will accrue to it directly. For all other kinds of socially beneficial activities, we have government. One of the most commonly cited examples is education. Prior to the introduction of universal public education in America in the mid-19th century, the only people whose offspring were educated were those who could afford to pay tuition and do without their children's labor. Since educating everyone was deemed to be greatly desirable, but was insufficiently profitable to attract the interest of individual companies, it fell to government to provide it. (The indisputable success of this thoroughly public undertaking, notwithstanding many appalling localized failures, does not stop some from insisting on the privatization of the schools, as though this was not precisely the original condition that prompted our forebears to establish a public alternative. But that is another matter.)

Similarly, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was not the work of vast numbers of individuals working in concert, but the result of vast numbers of individual enterprises acting independently for the acquisition of their own wealth. It is in no individual company's interest, or even to the advantage of a very large cartel, to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide. Indeed, its very survival may depend on its continued pollution of the air. Capitalism has indeed proven exceptionally good at generating wealth by allowing individuals to attend to their own self-interest, but it is a colossal failure at confronting the by-products of its success. Prosperity conceals a multitude of sins, and the slow but inevitable degradation of our living environment is surely foremost among them. Corporations are doing precisely what the laws of almost all nations allow by maximizing their profits and seeking to secure their positions of pre-eminence within their respective societies. For other productive means and ends, like the provision of general education, paved roads, clean water, public sanitation and national security, only public institutions are available. Regrettably, even these are often beyond the competence of many countries. Global warming? Are you serious?

To those who complain that essayists are fond of pointing out man's foibles and troubles but loath to dirty their hands with answers, consider this very practical suggestion about how best to confront the impending climate disaster: move north, and to higher ground.

December 20, 2009

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