The Overview Papers

Overview Paper #1: Wizards, Prophets and Judges

The problem with climate change is not other people, it is ourselves (and physics)

Artic Islands

Photo credit: Stein Egil Liland, via Pexels

Previously I wrote about how Charles Mann has characterized environmentalists as either Wizards or Prophets. He described the inherent conflict between the Prophets’ approach of rejecting a consumerist society based on growth into perpetuity and the Wizarding belief in the power of technology to transcend natural limits. However, Wizards versus Prophets is far from the only fault line in our attempt to address climate change or other sustainability challenges.

For starters, debate often fractures along left and right lines. On a recent trip to meet with the UK government to discuss decarbonization I stopped briefly at the colourful Extinction Rebellion protest in London and heard a leftwing politician explain that anyone who was a supporter of a market-based system was condemning the world to oblivion. Conservatives, conversely, accuse the liberals of creating an environmental Trojan horse within which to smuggle their socialist agenda.

 Meanwhile the young rail against older generations for the mess they will be leaving the world in, while baby boomers note the hypocrisy of preaching millennials who also enjoy the freedom of fossil-fuel powered global travel which prior generations were precluded from.

The nature of climate change is inherently linked to notions of fairness (who gets to spend the carbon budget?) so arguments often have a moral dimension. Take, for example, the criticism the actress Emma Thompson received for flying from the US to attend the Extinction Rebellion march mentioned above.

Don’t Mess with my Worldview

We need to understand why these conflicts may be so intense, personal and even vindictive. The first and obvious reason is that the media deliberately stirs the pot; it’s clearly in its interest to exacerbate conflict and escalate adversarial language because that’s never going to hurt the ratings. Consequently, the extreme and controversial perspectives get airtime.

Our obsession with social media plays a role too because it reinforces our prejudices through un-edited but personalized newsfeeds, as well as stunting our ability to be open to other perspectives. Our addiction to smartphones inhibits our ability to focus or think rationally at a fundamental level.

Guilt, conscious or sub-conscious, that we are not doing enough, probably intensifies  our feelings. We might feel that deep down we are not addressing the issue, that we can’t translate our knowledge into action. A subject which generates guilt will amplify emotions. The power of our subconscious and primeval instincts makes a mockery of our ability to impose order. I previously used the elephant and the rider metaphor; Russel Brand recently and entertainingly described the rational self as a stowaway rattling around on the cruise liner of our emotional selves, under the delusion it is the ship’s captain.

But the most important point is that our views on how to address climate change go the heart of our self-identities. Neuroscience shows that when we perceive a threat to our core identity our views become retrenched. Criticism stings because it attacks our worldview. An important implication of this is that using fear as a motivator to engender change is of limited use.

Sub Tropical Forest

Photo credit: Trần Anh Tuấn, via Unsplash

Judging is Futile

Ultimately, no positive outcome can arise from judging each other. Our current system is unsustainable and every action we take as individuals, from taking a flight to buying a pint of milk creates a minute tug on the spider web of an economy still largely based on carbon-emitting energy sources.

Perceiving the use of fossil fuels as a moral aberration is also problematic. We should recognise that the world we have inherited, while far from perfect, is far better than what came before. Modern society gives us a better quality of life than anything experienced previously and in this respect we are all standing on the shoulders of the giants of generations who came before us. None of this world would have been possible without fossil fuels and we shouldn’t forget the cost paid by people who worked in coal mines, on oil rigs or any other part of this vast economy in making their use ubiquitous, even if the consequences are now clear.

Climate change does not allow us the luxury of naval gazing, guilt or turning things into a Punch and Judy show. Both left and right have meaningful contributions to make. Green New Deals offer some of the vast scope and boldness of vision we need, but market-based mechanisms, properly applied and regulated, also have an irrefutable power. A cap-and-trade system effectively addressed the acid rain problem in the US, to take just one example.

In fact, once you get into the vast complexity of decarbonizing the power, heat and transport systems, technical issues tend to push partisan perspectives into irrelevance. Here we see the benefits of objective deep geekiness; exhibited for instance in Jay Inslee’s climate plan. The plan, which, as Greentech Media put it is  “every wonk’s dream”, attempts to present tangible pathways to an “Evergreen Economy” and is the result of over a decade and a half of his development of climate policy.

The truth is fundamentally simple: different approaches work differently. Markets are doing very well now in driving the clean energy revolution in wind and solar. But in some cases governments are required to make things happen. From my own experience energy efficiency is an example of this – trying to push sector energy efficiency through the private sector is, frustratingly, extremely difficult.

Prophets are right to say we need to redefine our values and in so doing achieve some level of personal progress concurrently with environmental redemption. The cult of consumerism which has become our international creed has driven contemplation of spiritual considerations out of our lives. It is correct to point to the hubris in the view that technology will necessarily save the day. But to write off technical solutions on the basis that capitalism is flawed is hubristic in itself. Technology may produce game-changers, and we certainly need the most advanced technology we can muster. Wizards are right to continue to extoll and pursue the ability of our ingenuity to create solutions but must temper this outlook with a suitable level of respect for the planet’s finite natural limits.

The Truth: the Real Problem (x2)

The problem, ultimately, is not other people. The problem is two things: it is (i) ourselves, and (ii) physics.

As humans we are frail, we put our heads in the ground, we have an evolved tendency for short-termism, for ego and the need to compete with each other. We see debates as battlegrounds to be won, not crucibles to hammer out the best possible plans through collective reasoning.

The problem with physics is worse. Physics does not compromise and does not prevaricate. While we point fingers, shout and smirk at the perceived stupidity of those other people through our greenhouse gas emissions we are collectively trapping extra heat around the earth equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima bombs, every day.

The stakes are high because everything we have is in jeopardy; all of the beauty and complexity, all the order we have brought into the universe. The risks of failing to tackle climate change are that profound. Consequently, we need everyone pulling in the same direction. We need every Wizard, Prophet, hard-headed libertarian, impassioned leftie, angry Millennial or Generation Z’er, and every wise baby boomer to stand together. If all this doesn’t work out, if we fail, then at least we will have lived our lives in the best way we could, with gratitude, humility and love. And at least we will have gone out in style; nobly, standing together, at the best of our game.

Or we allow the planet to burn in a bonfire of various vanities.