Partisanship and Global Warming: Some Personal Thoughts

Partisanship and climate change: that the political right and left in most countries sharply divide the willingness to act on climate change is easily observable and very real. Some would say that divide is a red herring. That is to say, it may be correct, but it is not the root of the problem. That would mean partisanship is a symptom of something else. In conversation with people on both the right and left, it appears to be a difference of opinion on the risk benefit of the cost of trying to solve the global warming problem. In this concept of partisan resistance to acting on global warming, the right is characterized as perceiving the risk to be low enough that it is more of a benefit to keep using fossil fuels than it is to make the effort to substitute some other source of energy. until the risk-benefit is on the side of using fossil fuels is counterbalanced by something else that is cheaper. This further suggests that the right perceives the risk from climate change as small.

But is that a good interpretation? For sure there are some “zombie” thinkers in this world, such as those who maintain COVID19 is a hoax and angrily shout at nurses that they are dying of something else. Is that the same non-logical ideology style of thinking that is separating most people on the right or left side of the Global Warming debate? Is it really that the people who rail against solutions for global warming have based their fixed and unshakable beliefs on faux science and ideological opinions? Or is it something more tangible — like looking for a cheaper option for energy?

One of my colleagues wrote:” I am not sure that the right will wait for something “cheaper” — rather I think that the right does not want to destroy our economy to deal with climate change. I believe that as the costs of not dealing with climate change in terms of hurricanes, storms, floods, and drought-caused problems get higher, the right will look at the necessity of dealing with those costs by acting on climate change in order to keep the economy afloat.”

Another colleague suggested that one could claim that the real base is the individual and how that person feels their own finances will be affected. Both of these are similar concepts in that the climate damages would need to be sufficiently great to essentially affect everyone’s wallet. The pandemic responses suggest that the risk needs to be very high before many people will forgo some of the special events or daily pleasures. Climate change events are just not going hit every one’s wallet soon enough to make a difference in the perception of risk. Real climate impacts are usually seen and reported as local weather events and local events do not translate into general panic and action until the buildup is enormous.

I wondered if it might be possible to estimate when the climate change impacts on lives, property damage, and employment would be bad enough that most people on the right or left would be personally affected by an obvious human-caused climate disaster of some kind; like flooding, drought, wildfire, heat wave, or sea level rise? On a world scale many countries are already suffering from one or more of these impacts with millions of people displaced as refugees and thousands of dead. I decided to look at the US and Canada as my examples (I am Canadian and have family in the US).

I took a look at the US economy as a whole. The nominal size of economy of the US in 2020 will be roughly $22 trillion. The US national debt is forecast to be about $27 trillion, or about 123% debt to GDP ratio. According to the IMF and World Bank, if the net present value of the national debt exceeds 250% of the annual revenues, a nation is in serious trouble. For the average individual in the US to be adversely affected by climate change damage, the national debt increase would need to increase another 125% of the GDP due entirely to climate change impacts. NASA predicts sea level rises of between 1 and 8 feet (0.3 to 2.5m), stronger hurricanes, more droughts and heat waves, and increased flooding, if fossil fuel use continues to 2100. That would probably cause enough damage so that everyone in the US feels the pinch. If my logic has any substance at all, it might easily take until 2100 before clearly identifiable climate change damage would create a serious enough dent in the economy to shift the attitudes and behaviour of most individuals in the general public. Leaving action on climate solutions until 2100 would by all scientific predictions be an unmitigated disaster for the world.

In Canada’s case, the picture is much simpler. Yes, the rhetoric is correct, the two dominant parties today are all in favour of combatting climate change. But a mere glance at the policies demonstrates that the policies do not match the rhetoric. The actions instead say: keep on expanding the export of the oil, gas, and coal resources with new pipelines and new high-volume transport ships to continue to feed the voracious appetites for fossil fuels in the rest of the world. How does Canada supply most of its primary energy demand? We import almost all our fossil fuel products from other countries. The emissions from our major fossil fuel producing regions are so high that Canada simply cannot even meet its agreements to limit internal emissions, to say nothing of the exported fossil fuels destined to be burned and to add emissions elsewhere in the world. The reason for this is that Canada has a very large proportion of its workforce and economy vested in the exploitation and export (not refining) of fossil fuels. If that stopped, it would leave an enormous gap in jobs and national revenue. A different reason perhaps, but the same result. It is unlikely that Canada has any real intention to stop exporting fossil fuels until well into the latter part of this century.

Our tiny country, like Saudi Arabia, is feeding the fossil fuel appetites of the world, especially the US appetite. If that continues for very much longer, the societal mess will be real but delayed. That means the temptation will be to continue emitting until it gets bad for me and my wallet., thus ensuring greater and greater damage. This despite the blindingly obvious fact that this is a global problem, not just a national or local problem.

The same thing is absolutely true for the solutions. Solutions cannot be delayed until it hurts — that is just too late. It’s kind of like making fine whisky. You don’t prepare the barrels to make whisky for yourself in 35 years, you do that for your kids. We have benefitted from the forward thinking of our forbears, so it is now our turn to think long-term.

Is the left significantly different? Do people on the left want to make changes even if the climate change damage does not directly affect them in the pocketbook? If one examines the history of the global effort to stop global warming, it has been a dismal failure on both the right and the left.

The environmental movement, often considered a left action, of the 60’s and 70’s had its roots in social and economic change with the concept of sustainable living in harmony with nature as the platform. In the 80s and 90s, the main target became the loss of biodiversity due to habitat loss and pollution. Major advocacy groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club went after polluters and corporations that over-exploited our resources. Global warming crept slowly into the perception of the general public and it wasn’t until about 2015 when the young people suddenly took the reins of control of the climate change debate and were able to muster literally hundreds of millions of grassroots supporters, leaving the large environmental organizations behind. Instead of slow and steady concepts like the fee and dividend or carbon tax concept to gradually ease people off fossil fuels, the young people want immediate action and major changes to the basic structure of our economies and our attitudes to each other. No longer do they see capitalism as the means to a glorious future; instead they argue capitalism is the root cause of our lack of respect and sustainable behaviour toward the natural world. Inequity in both economic terms and based on race and gender have become hallmarks of the social requirements underpinning any engineering or technical solutions. It would seem the left position is a future-looking perspective that imagines a future world rather than depending on the individual economics of the present world to define their attitude to solving global warming. In a few countries, that position has translated into a limited amount of action, but generally it is still business as usual, even in the face of radical youth activism.

Perhaps it is no surprise, but one would think that action would be automatic if science has defined an inevitable disaster unless something substantial is done to change the current trajectory. But no, even the promises made by nations at the meetings of the UN intended to encourage and define the necessary action have so far, essentially been failures.

If there is a big boogeyman, it is the fossil fuel industries’ logical interest in milking the last dregs out of the investments they have already made in the exploration and other infrastructure associated with the fossil fuel industry. If the world could convince those same industries to be the solution, rather than the problem, the subsidies could stay with them as they shifted to nuclear or renewables. A hard look at the fossil fuel industry reveals that without the subsidies it receives as well as the externalities for which it is not held responsible, the industry would fail. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a number of other studies, the fossil fuel industry is subsidized or forgiven about $5 trillion per year. Human cost is also large, an estimated 7–9 million people world-wide are killed from fossil fuel-caused air pollution alone. And of course, the many rivers and streams clogged with fly-ash from coal and oil pollution from spills and deep-water blowouts cause literally billions of dollars per year loss of industry that rely on our oceans and clean waters.

But wait a minute. Hidden in these somewhat abstruse global numbers is a critically important message. Solving global warming does not need to be expensive! There is money to be saved and money to be made by getting rid of fossil fuels — heck even if there were no global warming, it would make sense to move away from the dangers of fossil fuels.

A simple extrapolation of these numbers makes it clear that the mechanism for making the transition to alternative energies than fossil fuels need not be an economically crippling venture. Instead, a very different picture emerges. If all sides could agree that the fossil fuel industry be given a target of 2050 to stop extracting and selling fossil fuels, those same industries could retain the subsidies and tax breaks on the assumption the industry meets certain annual milestones in transitioning away from fossil fuels to another source of energy. Further if the industry thought of itself as an energy industry (electricity and heat) rather than a commodity industry (oil, gas, and coal), they could probably see a huge advantage in accelerating the fission industry and stepping into the fusion arena as well.

In my opinion, the transition can be done carefully to avoid any disruption to the world economy. In fact, once the fossil fuels are no longer in operation, the world ends up with a $5 trillion per year bonus that it can spend on many other problems that need to be addressed including, first and foremost, the social problems and the impending environmental problems resulting from losses of biodiversity. What remains as an impediment is getting to first base with almost everyone on side, including the national leaders whose countries control the fossil fuel resources, and the fossil fuel industry.

The first order of business if we are to win this global battle, is to change the frame of reference for deciding to demand action. It cannot be me and my wallet. It cannot be the narrow viewpoint of the very few national leaders who own the fossil fuel resources of the world. It cannot be the gentle push from the left. The only attitude and behaviour that will work is for the good of everyone is to recognize the urgency to act now and establish solid milestones with money attached. This will enable industries to rise to the challenge and disincentives for those industries that fail to understand and meet the objectives.

As difficult as it is to believe, the world is now at the stage where hypotheticals and hope are not going to be enough. Scientists have built literally hundreds of scenarios based on the potential decisions and non-decisions of our leaders about the use of fossil fuels and their replacement by alternative energy sources. We have done this because we need to be as certain as we can be about what results will be experienced from whatever decisions are made. This is the basic background that all good negotiators undertake when they are entering into a contract. And make no mistake, human society is entering into a contractual negotiation. On the one side is the notion that individual choices are the best tool to fight climate change with the added incentive of a gentle nudge using the carrot and stick concept of the fee (stick) and dividend (carrot) applied to carbon emissions — a kind of modestly adjusted neoliberal laissez faire free market predatory capitalism. On the other side is the notion that wholesale changes in our basic economic structure towards a circular economy, major changes in cultural attitudes so that the emphasis is equity, lots of tax-based social services, and above all caring for each other, not just “me and my wallet.”

These two largely partisan sides matter. They are hugely different and each one has roughly half the world on its side.

What seems not to be grasped yet is that we humans do not get to decide which is the best approach. The arbiter in this case is not the least interested in the opinions or even the good intentions of humans. The judge is very tolerant up to a point, but once the decision is rendered, there is no appeal. Any dissent is a death penalty.

That judge is Mother Nature.

Photo by Houcine Ncib via Unsplash

We can negotiate amongst ourselves, but not with Mother Nature. Once we decide, or do not decide, to take firm action and reduce the global warming to a level that humans can tolerate, by cleaning up our polluting habits as well as learning to be effective recyclers like the rest of nature, and recognize once and for all that infinite growth by constant extraction of resources is not possible, Mother Nature will make the final decision as to whether or not we collectively made enough of the right decisions soon enough — as individuals or as a collective. Mother Nature will not judge intentions, only results.

To acknowledge yet another colleague’s comment; a line in the sand is being drawn, but it is not we humans who are drawing the line, it is the assembly of ecological factors and the natural world reacting to our activities. I am not Mother Nature but I have learned quite a bit about her judgements in the past. As far as humans are concerned, a world that hits 30C or 40C by 2100 is not going to be able to hold society together for much time beyond that. If we have set up that stage at a high enough carbon dioxide level and enough of the forests burned or cleared, with a high level of carbon dioxide and nutrient load in the ocean, as well as significant destabilization of the glaciers of the world, the final decision will have already been taken by our tolerant but strict Mother Nature. Extinction or near extinction of humans is the end result of that scenario. If it must be “me or my wallet,” then I recommend we start planning how to fortify the future for the last small group of humans tucked safely in the Arctic, maybe with caches of dry goods and information to help then rebuild society, once nature re-stablishes a natural order.

But this really does not have to happen! No, not at all. We now know the scientific basis for the recent global warming: it is because of our use of fossil fuels, because of carbon intensive industries, because of forest destruction and agricultural practices that emphasize single crops, heavy fertilization, and pesticides. We know the technical solutions to all of these problems. There are lots of alternative energy sources that do not cause global warming (nuclear, wind, solar, deep geothermal, hydrogen, waves, water flow, and perhaps even fusion power eventually). Forest management based on reusing and rewilding the forest cover is easily made into standard practice. Agricultural practices such as no till planting and cover crops protect the soil from loss of nitrous oxides and carbon are completely possible. Even cement and steel can be made from carbon free energy and atmospheric carbon captured to add to the concrete.

How soon? It is never too soon to tackle a deadly problem. Judging from the world’s ancient past and the mammalian limits of our human physiology, we are essentially a cold-climate species. Our world experience as a species has so far never been more than 1.20C above our pre-industrial age average temperatures. That means to control the climate for long periods of time, not only do we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases from our human activities, but we must bring the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide down to about 275 to 300 parts per million. Do we know how to take this much carbon dioxide from the air? Sort of, but not to the scale required yet, so we still have some work to do. We would be best to concentrate on reducing our emissions right now, and in the meantime figure out scaled-up systems of atmospheric carbon removal and storage for when we do get to true zero emissions, at a minimum by 2050.

Scientist (PhD marine sciences). Looking for solutions. Focus: ecology, evolution, global warming, energy transition, biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge.

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