The enigma of the comfortable Cassandras in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Oct. 4, 2014, 5:16 p.m.
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(Note: Because I am trying to sensibly translate a position that was largely in the original a bunch of incredulous spluttering, I will be partly suspending self-editing. Sorry if I ramble.)

Once again, I don’t seem to be sleeping, so… I was going to say something about glibness and averting (more) global warming. This will require reading two short essay-pieces.

A while ago there was a curious exchange in the discussion-essay world.

Ezra Klein, a blogger and “wonk” I have liked reading, came out with a rather depressing post, ”7 Reasons America Will Fail On Climate Change.”

The reasons find their main focus in U.S. domestic politics and in America’s outsize emissions, but they generalize to other nations pretty well (hi, Tony), and the picture is international too.

See what you think…

Well, this is dour stuff. I found Chris Hayes’ point that Klein picked up especially productive of grim thoughts. They’re all things that I’ve been mulling over.

Well, there was much talk about this depressing piece that Klein had written… and there was a response, by Joe Romm: ”7 Reasons We Should Succeed On Climate Change.”

Romm objected to Klein’s “defeatism,” and gave seven points of his own in response…

… which began to look very odd to me.

For sure, there is another side to the story. But Romm’s answers seek to deflect Klein’s points… but do not actually answer them, or the import of them.

  1. Romm says first that the cost of sufficient (?) investment to adequately “decarbonize” the world system will be vastly offset and dwarfed by the resulting fuel savings.
    The problem is that the money doesn’t go back into the same pocket(s) that it came out of, and not in the same way. And of course the fuel-savings money comes later. Hence the incentive problem. If the Earth as a smiling-globe unit, and with its sense of time, were making the decision… but it isn’t.
    But so far this isn’t very odd.

  2. Romm responds to Klein’s point, that “the US, which has historically been the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions (though China passed us in 2006), is one of the countries least affected by global warming,” by saying that “America, by virtue of being the richest country, has the most to lose in an absolute sense.”
    Huh? This may be true… but that does not answer Klein’s point about the sense of the comparison, which I’ve already seen Republican congressmen talking about in order to claim that action on climate change is international philanthropy at our own expense that we can’t afford. And the “absolute sense because richest country” thing is a weird thing to say anyway. If a poor man loses $100 from cashing his paycheck down the street, and a rich man loses a billfold containing $500, yes, the rich man has “lost more” - in an absolute and fully explainable sense - but…?
    This is something that you say just to put a different spin on things - and that’s all it’s trying to do.

  3. Okay, here I think I began to make noises. Romm says, “3. We’re sometimes very good at sacrificing now to benefit later (and to benefit others)” - and he talks about D-Day to prove it!
    The U.S. was only there at Normandy because the bad news had already arrived at Pearl Harbor with a crash, with Nazi Germany also declaring war on us a day later. That was reacting to an acute present crisis. Before that point the American public was very keen on staying out of the Eurasian wars, no matter how grim things were looking over there… Who wanted that?
    Klein is right about the “sacrificing now to benefit later” problem. What is this?

It doesn’t get much better after that.
Romm says, “But the Republican Party is triggering a backlash with its climate denialism!” For crying in the bucket - maybe, but in that case there are a whale of a lot of dead-enders out there who don’t know that they’re supposed to be considering abandoning their party and worldview in droves. The situation here is polarized enough that the people for whom the denialism would be unacceptable were probably never going to be Republicans anyway. This is counting your chicks before the people who don’t like you take an interest in buying a chicken coop.
Romm says, “But China is on a path to capping its emissions!” Possibly, but it’s a climate advisor and an envoy to a UN global warming conference who are saying things to support that - still a rather early chick to count (let alone with that glorious note of momentum)… and this would only answer a single aspect of Klein’s discussion of international cooperation problems.

What is this answering of substantive worries about a practical matter with spin?

… But you come to realize that all this is really geared to countering, not Ezra Klein’s accounts of the strategic problems per se - in fact, Romm does not seem to be tuned in to that at all… it’s really geared to fighting the pessimism.

No! We can’t have despair! No defeatism!

Turn that frown upside down!

(I’ll return to this.)

So, after chewing this over, I recommended Klein’s piece in Facebook - and I immediately got a response from a high school friend of mine asking me to read Romm’s and giving me the link.

My friend is a solar contractor in Arizona. He seconded Romm’s choice of optimism over pessimism, and said that he thought that the spread of photovoltaic technology would take care of things easily and without pain. He spoke highly of the future of solar-panel leasing programs. He was just very sanguine, which I’d never have expected from the tones in which he has been describing the global warming threat in Facebook. We just needed to spread the word about AGW, and people would pick up solar, and we’d get to where we should be.

If I may, for Mom and me: We have six solar panels on our own roof. They barely take the edge off our electricity use… and, of course, they are irrelevant for our winter heating bills, in the short days where you can’t even see the heatless slanting sunlight through our endless drizzly dim, and that is when we use the vast majority of our year’s electricity because of the cold. We’re thinking of leasing a few more panels, but really only because they would come bundled with a rate-freeze deal from the power company; that’s where the financial payoff would come from. The additional panels still wouldn’t make much difference. There’s a tax write-off associated with getting the panels, but it doesn’t help us because our household income is low enough that we get all our taxes back regardless. And our roof is pitched so that we can only have a relatively few panels in any case. This has been our experience - and we’re interested in solar. Somehow I don’t get a great certainty that generalizing this sort of picture to all sorts of other people’s circumstances and outlooks down our street, and through the city, and across the nation is guaranteed to get us out of our giant CO2 pickle. My friend can certainly feel good about his business prospects, or about the good growth outlook for the solar industry, but I am not sure it’s the same thing.

I don’t mean to say that our own experience is the key to everything. But this sort of certainty that any particular social direction is going to go far beyond what present levels of interest would indicate and is going to do as much as is needed

And - the bright “every little bit counts!” thing with the green movement… (Do your bit! And then, as the moral-concern appetite is an appetite that becomes satisfied like any other, go ahead and drive your family in an SUV, or do some such in any number of ways - you’ve done your bit.)
And the way in which whatever step that the anti-AGW crumbums have been continuing to block seems to insensibly becomes the political “touchdown” that concerned people look forward to - as if that blockage is the only problem (e.g., if we can just put in that carbon tax thing, or get it put back in, then we’ll be where we want to be!… never mind that what and how much the carbon tax incentive would actually do is the point of the whole exercise - and is yet to be seen)…

I keep thinking that the possibility that we might actually muck this up is kind of getting lost under the sofa cushions - even among many who say that global warming is a great concern… and that - for one thing - what the great green anti-AGW side would actually accomplish even if the idiot obstructionists magically vanished might be greatly exaggerated or imaginary.

It makes me extremely uneasy. There is really no great conversation going on about where we need to be, and how we get there - and how we can make sure that we get there - of the specific kind ”so many megawatts from this, and so many megawatts from that, and so many megawatts saved, equals X.” Of the sort in that Science article from 2002 that I’ve been showing people ad nauseum since then… for lack of replacements.

(There may be a kind of hypocrisy from me in this, but it’s simply the case: The sort of conversation about this that I wouldn’t really be competent to follow is the only kind of conversation about this that I understand.)

Meanwhile… that business in Romm’s piece, and from other people who protested, that went we must not be depressed… no down talk.

Well, first, the lack of interest in recognizing and engaging with the strategic issues Ezra Klein was talking about is ridiculous.

But, also… they said despair and defeatism… but another possible word is desperation. Which is not such a passive word at all.
Desperate people do things.
Desperate people look for options and sort through them.
Desperate people are willing to consider things even if they seem wild or not immediately palatable.

And the question that has kept clanging the most in my head, as I have looked back at Romm’s article, and at the other similar expressions of dismay at Klein’s pessimism, is:

What sort of political or social movement, anywhere or any time, can be expected to do much if its message about its core concern is - “it’s going well, really”?


Isn’t that… relevant?

But - things must not look dark. Since I read these articles this line of thought has had me now and then stomping around the house and gritting out distinctly Older-Generation-sounding sentences to the empty air - usually variations on “Life is not a therapeutic exercise!!!”

… And one thought that bugs me is that that might be close to the truth of the business.

People have lives. Ideally their lives are pleasant lives, with their nice bits and focuses and diversions. And people are concerned about global warming.

And one thing I think that we all do, or that something in us constantly tries to do, is to justify our levels of interest and concern and engagement.

And who wants to live in the bad world?

(Curiously, only depressed people don’t do this level of skewing and magical thinking. Emotionally healthy people do. … Which one perhaps should not dwell on.)

So: Global warming is a terrible problem! Something must be done!

Is it dire?

Yes! Dire!

We’re likely to fail to handle it, aren’t we?

… Come on, man. -smiles-

Last updated October 04, 2014

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