“If we were to continue on a long-term trajectory that continues the trajectory we’re on now, then – unless the leading scientists have everything wrong that they’ve been saying, which I doubt – we’re facing a huge problem of sustainability of the system that we have now. …” Second of a two-part transcript from a talk at American University in Washington, DC.
On November 9 I spoke with Dr. Erich Vogt’s undergraduate class on International Environmental Politics at the American University’s School of International Service. The general subject of this one-shot guest appearance was the current state of climate policy and politics. The transcript, slightly edited but mostly left in its conversational form, is from a portion of the 75-minute session.
Earlier post: The collision of climate science and politics, part 1
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[continued from part 1}
And that’s where we are today. If we were to continue over the long term on the trajectory we’re on now, then – unless the leading scientists have everything wrong that they’ve been saying, which I doubt – we’re facing a huge problem of sustainability of the system that we have now. What it implies is that over a period, within your lifetimes, you’ll be experiencing something that’s very different than what we have now, in terms of the habitability and environment of the planet, and what’s happening with sea level, and what is happening with various sorts of extremes.
The implication is the need for a major, I’d say pretty radical, transition in how we use energy, and what energy sources we use. Sometimes people who are pushing from a ‘green’ perspective say, ‘clean energy will be good for the economy and will create a lot of jobs’ and so forth, and that’s true, but in fact if it was going to be easy, we would be doing it. It’s not easy. This is just my personal bias – it’s going to be a hassle to change the energy system. It’s not something you would just do for fun. You would only do it because the consequences of not making the changes are worse.
But it implies that we’re building buildings and roads and transportation systems and putting in place power plants and digging stuff up out of the ground, that all seems to assume that we’re just going to go on using coal and oil and natural gas as far as the eye can see into the future. There’s nothing about the way the system is operating to suggest that it has any intention of getting off of these fuels. And yet the implication of this analysis for sustainability is that anything that we’re doing now that is contingent on using energy sources that alter the atmospheric composition to heat the planet is not sustainable. I mean unless it could be shifted over and done very efficiently with renewable energy. Or possibly nuclear energy, if all of those problems can be dealt with.
So we have a real ‘how do we get from here to there’ problem, and I don’t think it has any one simple straightforward answer. It seems to require a lot of different things to happen on a number of different fronts. And I suppose if one wants to see it as the glass half full, since you will be moving into many different parts of the system as your own careers develop, it is going to create a range of opportunities to do things.
For one thing, it seems to me that there’s no way to successfully confront a problem of the magnitude of climate change without high-level leadership from political leaders and from economic leaders. It’s not something that’s so close to home for the average person that they’re likely to feel tremendous pressure from the public. It’s one of those issues, like national security issues, where the leadership has to say, “this is what the best experts are telling us, this is how they’re diagnosing the problem, this is what we’re hearing, this is what we’re looking at, this is what we think we need to do, this is what we’re agreed that we need to do.” And over a period of years, and really to implement it over a period of decades, bring the public along to support it.
We don’t have that now – climate change has become such a political hot potato, for a politician to bring it up is immediately to be pounced on. ‘You’re going to kill jobs, the science is so uncertain, you’re going to cost us trillions of dollars,’ whatever.
Even those who understand the problem, like the President, to take the most prominent example. His science adviser, John Holdren, who is a Harvard professor, has a long record of articulating what the mainstream science community understands about climate change, and he talks directly to Obama. I mean Obama understands what the science says, he understands what the National Academy of Sciences says in his reports. You can read them yourself, they’re not that technical. But he won’t talk about it. It’s like, how does it help him get re-elected? It doesn’t help him get reelected. It’s just a problem. They can’t find any way to make it a political winner in the short term. It’s too complicated, it’s too controversial, it’s not what they want the election to be about. It’s not what voters are pushing them on, which is perfectly understandable given the state of the economy. I would hardly expect voters to be pushing on too much other than getting this economic disaster behind us somehow. So it kind of falls off the radar screen. It doesn’t get talked about in Congress, there’s no legislation. Nobody talks about the climate summit conference coming up. Nobody gives a talk to the people and says, ‘this is what the problem is.’
It also seems to me that it’s going to be difficult to address the problem without very strong and sustained communication from the science community. And I do believe that many of them have already made heroic efforts in this direction. They don’t have the power to solve the problem – they only have to power to understand the problem, and to educate. But somehow, what they are finding has to be communicated in some way to their fellow citizens. Like scientists saying, ‘We’re citizens who have a particular type of expertise, and we’re stepping into this debate to tell you what we know and what we think needs to happen.’ And I think that needs to come through more clearly somehow.
The media coverage…I don’t know how to make it better, but it really has been seriously inadequate in how it deals with climate change. For a long time the media coverage fell into the old thing of balance. You have to have both sides, like it was a debate about some kind of social issue. So there might be a huge report out by a lot of scientists, they would have to find some professor at Oregon State or someplace who didn’t agree with it, and quote him so that you would have ‘balance’. And it basically created the notion that there was some big division in the science community, this kind of fake balance.
But even when they get past that sort of lame type of coverage, it’s not an easy issue to cover because a lot of it has to with analyzing long-term trends. It’s not something the media is usually that good at. They’re good at conflict narratives, you know, and stories that unfold day by day. Something like the long-term effects of our system and its impacts on the planet is difficult to turn into stories that really work in the media. So people for the most part who depend on the media as their intermediary between them and the science community – and most people don’t know any scientists, or couldn’t even name a scientist, and don’t understand science very well – don’t really get the kind of education from the media on the substance of the issue that would enable them to be informed participants. So that’s a problem.
Somehow there needs to be an effective counter to the global warming denial machine, there needs to be effective pushback. Part of that I suppose is the job of the leading scientists, by calling down Presidential candidates who just say things about the science that are completely inaccurate. That needs to be challenged effectively.
And then I think, finally, and its something that I’ve been giving more thought to, there needs to be effective bottom up pressure, citizen action, grassroots action. The politicians need to feel something more than pressure from the wealthy and powerful industry interests not to do anything, they need to feel a push in the opposite direction. From citizens, from their supporters.
What we see at this point in terms of community-level action tends to be organized around people trying to defend their communities against the impacts of the energy sources that we have now, the dirty energy. Mountaintop removal coal mining. You know, the coal mining method of choice now is to blast the tops of mountains in Appalachia. They’ve done that with hundreds of mountains now, to create this kind of moonscape to get the coal out, and then dump the top of the mountain into the valleys and streams below. And this has been allowed to go on for years now essentially unregulated. And if the federal government steps in where the state government won’t and makes even the slightest effort to regulate this activity, there is tremendous industry pressure. ‘Oh, you’re going to kill jobs.’ So people in communities in Appalachia are organized to try to save their mountain. You know, the March on Blair Mountain and so forth. It doesn’t get much national attention.
The aftermath of the oil blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the BP Deepwater Horizon. People down there in the Gulf Coast region are experiencing the aftermath of that, and there are still ecosystem impacts. And one problem is that BP has a lot of the scientists under contract, they made sure to put the top experts on their payroll immediately, have them working for the company. They control the funding for analyzing the impacts, and it interferes with the integrity of understanding what’s going on. And now there are hundreds of people in the Gulf Coast region who are experiencing really odd health effects. People who rode on the boats, participating in the effort to pick up the oil. People in coastal communities. And it’s very hard to focus attention on that.
And this Keystone Pipeline issue that we talked about earlier is another example. So I don’t know what that all adds up to, but those particular kinds of things seem to be what is most possible to organize around if you’re a community organizer at the grassroots. But even there, it can be difficult to translate that into something that makes a demand on the government with reference to climate policy. Like, a lot of those landowners in the Great Plains whose land the pipeline is going to pass through are very conservative politically. They don’t want to talk about windmills and greenhouse gases.
So there’s a lot of different things that need to happen and each of them is problematic. And I guess I’ll conclude with this: It seems to me that … the scientists fondest wish, I think, would be that if something like this could be dealt with on its own terms. Not in a partisan way, not in a political way. ‘These are the projected impacts on climate from this emissions trajectory, that emissions trajectory,’ and just have the leaders of society discuss it as a practical problem. What are we going to do about it? Intelligent, practical problem solving. Not political.
But it just doesn’t appear to happen that way. In fact, we’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction. The climate change problem has become heavily politicized. It’s become part of partisan polarization. What you think about the issue is liable to be very different, depending on whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s gone completely into the political system, it’s for some people become part of the culture war. It gets swept up into the whole battle in American politics about what kind of government do we want to have, what is the philosophy of government and what direction do we want the country to move in.
And global warming is not a problem that can be solved just by changing out your light bulbs personally, it requires action on a large scale. It requires proactive government problem solving and international agreements, making binding agreements with other countries, and regulating energy companies, and so forth. There is a very substantial percentage of the American public and various political interests who just don’t want to go in that direction. And they’re willing to bend their interpretation of the science out of shape in order to suit their philosophy of government. ‘No, we want to shrink the government. No, we don’t want to have spending. No, we don’t want to have government regulations. No, we don’t want to be participating in some United Nations treaty. No, No, No.’ And everything that would be pointed to as a step for dealing with the climate change problem is just ideological anathema to large numbers of people and powerful factions in US politics.
So climate change has been swept up into that. It can’t be carved out and dealt with as a separate issue all to itself, it has to be addressed in this larger context of what I call the crisis of American democracy – which is partly the extent to which corporate power and wealth dominate the system, and partly the polarization and the difficulty of moving forward on policies.