Climate Disruption: “Happy talk” and “a slap in the face”

These are excerpts from an interview with philosopher Dale Jamieson in Salon by Lindsay Abrams. My favorite part is highlighted.

Q: (Abrams) So far as our ethical responsibilities go, is it that people don’t want to feel personally responsible for this?

A: (Jamieson) Right. And our ethics don’t really hold us personally responsible. Every moral and religious tradition has prohibitions against all kinds of things, but there’s no ethical or moral tradition against emitting colorless, odorless, tasteless gases into the atmosphere.

Q: (Abrams) And how do you square the ethical arguments with the economics?

A: (Jamieson) Of course, the economics has the same problem, because you can generate economic studies that produce wildly divergent numbers, which all depend not really on the underlying science, but on how you value impacts that happen 100 years, 500 years or 1,000 years in the future. So there’s no real independent economic evaluation over and above the ethical stance. However you feel about what happens to future generations affects the economic calculation. So we’re kind of at sea with this problem.

You know, the ethics doesn’t really compel us in the way that prohibitions against killing, cheating and stealing do. The economics doesn’t really produce hard numbers the way that we’re used to thinking about them in regular market transactions. It’s a long-term problem, it affects everyone, all of our contributions are small; so we’re just sort of lost in trying to deal with the problem. That’s why in some ways we need to slap ourselves silly. That’s why in some ways we need to get past some of the happy talk. Happy talk doesn’t get you out of the wilderness when you can’t find your way around. You have to really understand the seriousness of the situation.

Q: (Abrams) When you say “happy talk,” do you mean saying it’s not as bad as we think, or do you mean spreading positive news about, say, policies that are going into place or technologies that we are coming up with?

A: (Jamieson) It’s just part of who we are — maybe because of the television shows we grow up with or the way history is written or whatever — but we all have this tendency, and you can fill this in generationally, to have the Lone Ranger or John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the equivalent superhero who’s coming in save everything and then cut. We frame our problems as bad guys and good guys. Even when we read in the newspaper that Republicans and Democrats are at each other’s throats, we’re going to have a meltdown in the market, disaster is going to happen; somehow, it never seems to happen. Somebody comes in and kind of puts it together. Nobody may be happy, but the day has been saved and disaster doesn’t befall us.

The climate change problem isn’t like that. There is no singular solution. There’s no single person or country that’s going to come riding in from stage left to save the day. It’s going to be much more like managing a syndrome than curing a disease.

One way to do that is we’re going to need to take the reality of climate change into account with everything that we do. Secondly, we’re going to have to break off pieces of the problem to attack. So the biggest, baddest piece of the problem to attack is really coal, because the reality is we’re going to burn most of the easily recoverable oil in the world for various reasons; that’s almost certain to happen. The fact of the matter is, we need to phase out coal for all kinds of reasons, climate change being the most important one. If we could start to do that and have an international agreement where different countries at different rates of time, in different ways, would move through coal-free energy systems, that would be a big and important step to begin to moderate the problem on the emissions side. We have to break off pieces of this problem — no one thing is going to be a silver bullet that’s going to fix it.

Q: (Abrams) If I could back up for a minute: When you say we’re probably going to burn to all of the available fuels, does that mean you don’t hold out much hope for the Keystone fight?

A: (Jamieson) Well, Keystone is a bit ambiguous. Here is the thing about oil: It is an extremely attractive energy source because it’s highly mobile, easy to use in automobiles, we have a infrastructure that supports it and so on. So when it comes to conventional oil, there is no question that it is extremely desirable and always will be. The prices may go up, but it will be used. Keystone is a tricky business and it’s become quite polarizing in part for its symbolic importance and in part for its real importance. It’s about extracting oil from shale, and if we go into that business then we are going to squeeze a lot more oil out of the earth’s surface than if we just continue to maintain conventional ways of capturing oil.

I must say, for me, I am against the Keystone project, but I don’t see it is the absolute game changer that some environmentalists do. I think it’s much more important to focus on phasing out coal than to focus on one particular unconventional oil project; although I think it’s good to do that, it’s important to do. I also think, in general, it’s not good to focus on single, high-profile, symbolic projects — the whole conversation has to change. If we did have a coherent and good plan for phasing out coal all over the world, for example, there would still be new coal plants being built in China for the foreseeable future, just with a cap on them. And in the U.S., coal-fired power plants would still be operating for some period of time. But we’d have a coherent strategy that would take us somewhere in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years, in 40 years, instead of this constant, incoherent guerrilla warfare, project by project, that we have going on now.

Q: (Abrams) So what is the ”slap in the face” that will make people realize this has to happen, and shake us out of our current debate?

A: (Jamieson) You know, a lot people say that it’s nature that gives us the slap in the face. And there is some truth to that.

Hurricane Sandy, for example, changed the discussion about climate change in New York. It isn’t that people went from “I don’t believe,” to “I do believe.” They went from “Yeah, I believe” to “Shit, we need to actually think about this.” And it doesn’t mean that we’re being so effective or doing the right things, but it definitely changed the discussion.

There are two problems with that. One problem is that nature may not slap the people who are doing the emitting in the face. I mean nature will slap people in Bangladesh in the face who do very little of the emitting.

Q: (Abrams) Right, and that’s another huge debate happening.

A: (Jamieson) Exactly. So the impacts may be far from the sources. And another amazing thing: If you take the gun issue, there was a time in which people would have thought, “Well, yeah, we kill a lot of people with guns, but if someone came in and shot up a school, then we’d really get some gun control.” And actually now, after somebody came and shot up the school, it just meant that we started thinking that shooting up schools as kind of normal. So I think part of it will come from these disasters, but I don’t think we can really count on that.

I’d like to think that writing a book like my book is part of what it is to slap people in the face. I would like to see some politicians start speaking more realistically to people about this problem. You know, people talk about budget deficits; a lot of doom and gloom. But when you talk about climate change, you almost seem to have to do it with a happier face on, if you’re going to be thought politically relevant. I mean my contribution is to try to write a book that I think, in a completely rational and not emotive way, just tells it how it is. I don’t have any secrets for how to do more than that. I wish I did.

Maybe if the Dalai Lama … well, even the Dalai Lama talks about climate change from time to time. Even the pope talks about climate change from time. I don’t know who people listen to or what makes a difference.

Q: (Abrams) While avoiding too much happy talk, is there any way we could end this on a slightly more positive note?

A: (Jamieson) Well, let me just say two things. One is, this is not an all or nothing, turn on a dime, save the damsel in distress kind of problem. It’s a sloggy kind of problem. So the fact that there aren’t these instantaneous successes doesn’t mean that there isn’t success; the slow turning of the boat around does make a difference. The Obama administration, for example; there’s no big fancy international agreement, but there are things like the increased CAFE standard, there’s the new rules on coal fired power plants — all of this stuff makes a difference. And it’s all important. And for people who care about climate change, it’s important to stiffen the back of the politicians and the administration that’s willing to do those things.

The other thing is we have to think of this in terms of our own life. I think that there are these personal conversations to have about what it means to live in a world that’s going to be undergoing these changes in which wild animals are largely going to disappear, landscapes are going to be transformed and a lot of things that we take for granted now are going to be different. It’s going to be harder to understand the world that your parents grew up in and harder for your children to understand the world that you grew up in. And I think coming to terms with what climate change means individually for people and families, even when it’s not typhoons and droughts and the movie “Noah.” It’s important, first of all, because people are going to have to live in this world and have good lives in this world and it also can help to move people and affect them in a more personal way than just the kind broad political appeals.

About ecoquant

See Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
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