August 25, 2010
Nicholas Drake, head of the National Environment Resource Fund, lamented that climate change was happening too slowly (and having a negative effect on his fundraising). What was needed was a major climatic event or shock to get people motivated to do something. This is a scene from Michael Crichton’s book, State of Fear (a fictional work with 28 pages of well-researched sources and statistical support) but it encapsulates the challenge climate activists face: how do you raise funds and motivate people to change their behaviour and accept sacrifices when the crisis is not imminent? You can sex-up the numbers like the University of East Anglia tried; you can incentivise companies to develop new markets in green technologies (and hope that we can continue to print money to pay for them); you can bring climate into the mainstream (weathermen are doom-forecasters) and hope that next winter won’t be so cold. One thing is certain: environmental NGOs will have to prepare for less funding and compete harder for scarce resources with poverty and aid organisations – like the rest of us, they will have to start to learn to do more with less (and maybe even start flying coach!).
I consider climate change like my receding hair-line. Every morning I look in my sink and see more hair – it concerns me and I know that something bad is coming, but a quick reassuring check in the mirror reassures me that the crisis is still far off. Of course, if I woke up tomorrow and half of my hair was in the sink, I would indeed feel more compelled to act. But more than being afraid and acting irrationally in a state of urgency and panic (literally pulling my hair out!), what could I do? Science is promising solutions which could give me hope, but in the end are inadequate, cost too much and worsen the overall situation (the Elton John solution). I could try to take special foods and use tonics or oils to slow the rate of hair-loss – this would make me feel good that I am doing something, but the effectiveness of the remedies are debatable and my vulnerability can be easily exploited (this is the snake-oil salesman solution). I can pretend I am doing something about it, but in the end, I am only trying to deceive others in the hope they will not look more closely (the comb-over solution). Or I could be strong and just accept it and crop my photos (please don’t scroll back up to the top of the page) or shave my head and call it sexy and spend my time worrying about things I can do that make a difference (the Bruce Willis solution).
On climate change, the Bruce Willis solution makes the most sense. We have to face the facts that if the planet is on a warming trend, for whatever reason, then we should do our best to adapt to the coming changes. The West can adapt to the potential shifts more easily (some economies may actually benefit from a warmer climate) so we would need to do the most we can now to help poorer, more vulnerable regions to develop and become stronger. But we are not channelling any significant amount of money to help poorer countries – we are doing less now than when we were not afraid of global warming. Instead, we are funding projects to try to stop the sun and oceans from warming. Man is declaring war on climate change – yes, man is going to stand up and save the planet – throwing everything we have at the sun and the oceans. This has the makings of either a Greek tragedy or a comic farce (given that man is represented by the United Nations, I suspect comic farce is more apt). So rather than Bruce Willis, we have the Elton John solution. The reality is that most of man’s clever and expensive ideas (biofuels, photovoltaics, battery technologies …) consume more CO2 than they save. If these attempts to save the planet and stop the sun had been looked at rationally and from an economic perspective, and contrasted to our using these funds instead to help alleviate poverty and disease in developing countries, we would have looked more like Bruce and less like Elton.
Then there are the snake-oil salesmen, preying on the vulnerable and afraid who will try anything to find a solution. By putting the word “green” in front of nouns like industry, chemistry or economy, fly-by-nighters come in and try to make a quick kill before we catch on to the shallowness of their solutions. We feel good showing off our green trinkets and consumer items as others, usually the poor people, pay for our environmental concern. Can computers or cars ever really be green? I have been looking for a good definition of sustainable, but I am lost as every noun it modifies is something unsustainable. Sustainable snake-oil is what we have, given that our fears of cataclysmic climate change leave us vulnerable to market predators. I think the European Commission should set up a DG or create a unit in SecGen to police the market exploitation of ‘green innovations’ (we can’t trust DG Enterprise and Industry as they have based their future development on snake oil under the name of Europe 2020).
Instead, the European Commission has decided to take the comb-over approach to climate change – pretending to do something and hiding as much as possible. The problem I have with people who opt for comb-overs is not the sadness of their pretending, but rather, that they think others are so stupid as to not notice. So we see Commissioner Hedegaard’s team – no evident climate scientists or technology experts, but many secretaries and drivers (Drivers??? Surely they mean Cuistax drivers!). The Climate Change website has been under revision (SINCE FEBRUARY!) as has Hedegaard’s site. Then there are cute games and links to other sites. This is pretending at its finest. The people who decided to call the DG “Climate Action” must have looked in the mirror and thought this comb-over was well done. Are we that stupid?
So the European Commission has chosen the comb-over approach; European industry is finding new markets for snake-oil; and we have chosen the Elton John approach of spending a lot and making things worse. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that man is powerful enough to take on the sun and oceans. No one has the courage to be like Bruce – I guess it is Yippie-Kai-Yay for developing countries.David Zaruk