Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The 400pp/m Milestone: A Time to Rage? Or Stop and Think?

Our world just reached a scientific and strategic milestone: humanity was told to do whatever it takes to avoid reaching atmospheric concentrations of CO2 gases of 400pp/m. That ceiling was exceeded last week. No plan has been launched—with the necessary champions—to get us back under it. We’re sailing along in unchartered heavens and seas.  

For the time being, however, the surest voices in the climate change movement are content to rage: to deploy the same divisive excuses that have been dividing us for centuries. We are facing a transformative threat and that threat’s prophets read like 19th-century pamphleteers.

Here’s Britain’s environment author George Monbiot:

“The problem is simply stated: the power of the fossil fuel companies is too great. Among those who seek and obtain high office are people characterized by a complete absence of empathy or scruples, who will take money or instructions from any corporation or billionaire who offers them, and then defend those interests against the current and future prospects of humanity.

“This new climate milestone reflects a profound failure of politics, in which democracy has quietly been supplanted by plutocracy.”

Al Gore offered an easier and simpler message, telling Torontonians, “There is only dirty oil and dirtier oil.” Presumably, we can continue to use the stuff—or try to stop it—whether our actions profit friends or foes, or not.

After comparing the policy effectiveness of the United Nations to “a small boy with olive oil on his hands trying to pull a whale from the water,” Nicholas Thompson of the NewYorker presents a more imposing concern:

“We can ask that China do a little better; there are a million little things that make emissions lower and our lives better. But the West created this problem through gluttony; we can’t solve it by demanding the asceticism of others.”

Our politicians are all on the take and we are gluttons. Plutocrats block our ears to reason; we can’t save our own skins, let alone give others a helping hand. If most of this were true—and not just the toxic possibilities of high-definition television and Netflix—our civilization would have collapsed long ago. Baby booms, passenger jets, family cars, air conditioning, global tourists, and Al Gore’s lecture circuit wouldn’t exist. Consequently, greenhouse-gas levels would be fine and life expectancy levels would still be stuck in the 50s.

The doomsday milestone at hand, however, is not the exhaustion of our ability to solve big problems. Rather, what is at hand is the failure of a set of grandiose calculations by climate change bureaucracies and advocates. People today are not unable to reason; they’re simply being offered unimpressive solutions.

The movement hoped that multilateral diplomacy, atmospheric science, and abstemious documentaries would eventually shame North Americans into state-imposed reductions of fossil fuel consumption. Sometime after we’d squealed in public long enough, China and the rest of the developing world would start to restrain their consumption as well. (All this global restraint, of course, would have to be sufficiently severe as to accommodate over a billion more consumers in this century, joining the ranks of hundreds of millions already desperately hungry to secure residential electricity, central heating, and practical ways to get to work in today’s mega-cities.)

The movement has now realized that North Americans aren’t ready to leave the table. It has retreated, therefore, into euphemisms about “putting a price on carbon” and damning oil producers for continuing to produce the stuff. (Needless to say, a wicked capitalist without a ready buyer is already on the way to become a harmless bankrupt.)

What to do? 

When the problem of global climate change comes up, question talk of global plans and personal sacrifice. 

Saving the planet is more important than saving the face of the United Nations. Thousands of new bike lanes may save thousands of lives, but they won’t save the planet.

North Americans have been global problem-solvers before—when they were acting like North Americans. We succeed by finding solutions not by practicing and selling restraint. We didn’t abate the AIDS epidemic or significantly reduce world hunger by eating less or asking Africans to join us in having less sex.

The world would be best served if our scientists and engineers stayed away from the pulpit and concentrated on affordable alternatives to fossil fuels and more efficient ways to use energy generally.

North Americans won’t be shamed into acting on climate change. Furthermore, they will want to treat each other fairly in doing their share internationally. On the other hand, Washington and Ottawa politicians should be able to talk openly about a harmonized carbon tax, in the context of a simulative fiscal policy, along with an unprecedented commitment to energy R & D, if their proposals were actually designed to solve the problem.

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