Coal as Metaphor: Expanding our understanding of “non-renewable”

by Tristan on March 12, 2010

in Activism, Air pollution, Climate change, Climate science, Ethics, Transportation

There’s a reason this site is called “burycoal” (and it has nothing to do with how silly the word “bury” looks written down) – it’s easy to grasp that if climate has to do with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging up all the carbon which the earth has buried over billions of years into solid black stuff might not be the best recipe for human survival. It’s immediately comprehensible that while burning down a tree while another is growing does not add to the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere, digging a tree’s worth of coal out from underground and burning it does – or rather, perhaps we could say that the coal carbon-neutrality cycle is as long as the coal’s “renewable” cycle, which is qualitatively longer than that of trees.

However, there are limits to this over-simplifying way of thinking. For one, when you burn a tree you don’t just give off pure carbon dioxide but also soot, “black carbon” – and this has its own set of effects on climate. So your wood stove is not neutral (and you should replace it with an EPA certified unit, which are designed for cleaner combustion). For another, humans engage in all sorts of practices which turn chemicals into other chemicals, and this poorly thought out alchemy (with respect to the ecosystem at least) is a major contributor to global warming even if the processes are run using carbon-neutral energy.

The production of animal food products for human consumption, for instance, according to a UN Food and Agriculture report, contributes “37 percent of all human-induced methane.” Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as CO2, but it is actually a mistake to simply equivocate it, 1 unit of methane to 23 units of CO2. It is also qualitatively different in that this major contributor of it is not a source of energy. We need energy to produce it, but its production itself, abstracted from the energy inputs, is a major source of methane. Animals are effectively global warming machines – they ingest carbon based food, and they output a global warming agent far more potent than went in. They re-assemble what was already in the climate (i.e. from whence their food? Out of the air!) into something which has a very different effect on the climate (23 times worse!).

In fact, according to the FAO report,

“the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”

More than transport. Think about this for a minute – all those trains, ships, trucks, automobiles, all that coal fired electricity running city trolleys and subways, all those airliners too.

Now, I’m not saying that shutting down meat production will be easy. But it seems naive to think that it would be more difficult (technically, politically) to shut down all meat production than to switch to carbon neutral transportation solutions. Now, of course I’m not making a exclusionary disjunctive claim here – we obviously need to do both. Heck, even Glenn Beck agrees with me on this one.

The point I want to make here, however, is not that you should go vegan (although I think everyone should seriously limit their meat intake – not one less meat meal per week, more like reduce meat meals per week to one, and reduce your consumption of dairy while you do more research and learn what you’re actually involving yourself in when you consume these things – ignorance is not a serious excuse). Rather, taking the environment seriously with respect to global warming means treating our ability to release greenhouse gases as a non-renewable resource. Think of it as a finite garbage dump, and when it overflows, we go Venus (this is a misleading analogy, since actual landfill space is not a world historical environmental problem). The production of animals is, in this frame, the same as coal – because it involves the consumption of a non-renewable resource. That non-renewable resource is not a “thing”, but rather the sensitivity of the climate, up to the point where we catastrophically steal from future generations.

So, the sense in which I want to say “coal” can be a metaphor for understanding our climate predicament is that there is a finite amount which we can modify and still sustain flourishing life. This modification can come from digging up the black stuff, or it can come from re-assembling the stuff the air into stuff that acts differently in the air – and this is what we do when we raise livestock. The non-renewability of a resource is not only in the fact it can not continue to be extracted, but also in the fact it can not continue to be emitted. The connection of these two thoughts is necessary to think rationally about the way in which humans interact and shift their eco-situation.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 12, 2010 at 1:35 pm

For one, when you burn a tree you don’t just give off pure carbon dioxide but also soot, “black carbon” – and this has its own set of effects on climate.

The climate system is hugely complex, and full of all sorts of feedbacks. Burning trees may alter albedo, by changing land cover. It also affects soils, which may change in their role as sinks and sources of greenhouse gases. Also, it’s not just CO2 and aerosols that are relevant. There is methane (as you point out later), as well as nitrous oxide.

Something can affect the climate without affecting the carbon cycle. For instance, one factory manufacturing CFC coolants and propellants could overwhelm the natural variation in the climate system (which causes ice ages and interglacials), just by venting its products into the atmosphere.

They re-assemble what was already in the climate (i.e. from whence their food? Out of the air!) into something which has a very different effect on the climate (23 times worse!).

It is worth noting that our agricultural animals effectively eat large amounts of fossil fuels. They eat crops grown using fertilizers made from natural gas, sown and harvested with equipment burning oil. Pigs being fattened up to eat consume more fish than all of Japan, and the fossil fuel intensity of fishing keeps going up and up as stocks are depleted, and the industrial fleets of freezer trawlers need to go farther afield for more meagre returns.

23 times worse!

One tonne of methane, left in the atmosphere for 100 years, would cause as much warming as about 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide during the same span. That said, methane doesn’t stick around that long, and generally gets converted into carbon dioxide when it oxidizes. As such, the situation here is a bit more complex than just saying one tonne of methane is 25 times worse than a tonne of CO2. Methane basically has two lives, a short and potent one as a single carbon with four hydrogens and a much longer span as carbon bonded with oxygen. This chart shows three mechanisms by which CO2 leaves the atmosphere.

But it seems naive to think that it would be more difficult (technically, politically) to shut down all meat production than to switch to carbon neutral transportation solutions.

This seems like an unfair comparison: shutting down meat production versus de-carbonizing transport. The fair comparison would be the difficulty of re-creating a global transportation infrastructure that is climate-neutral (directly or indirectly) versus doing the same for the global agricultural system.

reduce meat meals per week to one, and reduce your consumption of dairy

Agreed. Eating less meat and traveling less are probably the two most significant things individuals can do to reduce their harmful impact on the climate.

ignorance is not a serious excuse

I discussed this a bit in my M.Phil thesis: “Another factor relevant to normative evaluations is the degree to which the action producing the change is intentional. It is also likely that those who engage in activities that could plausibly have a major environmental impact have a duty to investigate the possible consequences of their actions.”

The duty to investigate is a bit like the duty that people blasting rock have to make sure the area is clear first.

when it overflows, we go Venus

A couple of things. First, we are far from having scientific certainty that anthropogenic climate change could kick off runaway climate change sufficiently severe to boil away the oceans. Secondly, even if it is possible, it might take hundreds or thousands of years to occur. That’s not to say it isn’t an outcome we should worry about, but just to stress that we don’t really know whether it is possible or what it would take to initiate it, if it is. Several posts written by the climate scientists at RealClimate have argued that runaway climate change to such an extent could not possibly be kicked off by human activity.

Really, even the 5.5°C of business-as-usual warming projected for 2100 are quite sufficiently catastrophic to warrant major mitigation effort. I don’t think the Venus possibility is something that should be asserted lightly. Rather, it is a kind of high water mark for worst case scenarios.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Milan, do you agree with my central argument in this post – that we need to understand all climate-destabilizing production as a non-renewable resource. Or rather, the destabilization of the climate itself is a resource which we can “use up”, and as we use it up, we steal from future generations. Of course there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how unstable the situation is, and to what extent some particular action destabilizes it – but this is only a technical, not a moral problem. We can still understand what it means to say “there is an X such that X is the overflow point for climate instability”, and call X a renewable resource, even when we know that we don’t know X.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 1:46 pm

“Eating less meat and traveling less are probably the two most significant things individuals can do to reduce their harmful impact on the climate.”

Eating less meat is qualitatively different from travelling less. We want a world where we can travel a lot, and we can have it sustainably if we make the required changes. But I think it makes sense to want a world where we eat far less meat, perhaps none. Sure, people enjoy meat, and people enjoy travel – but I think travel is a far greater value than meat eating. If there were actually a zero sum game between needing to reduce either travel or meat, I think most people would agree to sacrifice almost all meat before they start sacrificing travel.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Heck, even Glenn Beck agrees with me on this one.

Quite possibly, the reason why Gore doesn’t focus on meat eating (and why Beck wants to draw attention to it) is because they know that message will put people off from supporting action on climate change.

If you ask someone to go much farther than they are willing to on something (like to give up flying entirely), they sometimes fight back by refusing to do anything significant whatsoever.

Something similar sometimes happens when you tell people that emissions must be cut to zero to stop climate change. They retort with: “That is impossible, and if you are saying that is what is necessary, why should we put up with the pain of doing something inadequate like cutting emissions by 50% by year X?”

Milan March 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Milan, do you agree with my central argument in this post – that we need to understand all climate-destabilizing production as a non-renewable resource.

I’m not sure what this metaphor does for us. You are taking a whole suite of unsustainable phenomena and saying that they are like a particular example within the group. It’s like saying “metaphorically, all crimes are muggings.” Do you think this provides some sort of moral clarity, by taking attention away from the diversity of unsustainable activities, and the complexity of the ways in which they interact?

Sure, people enjoy meat, and people enjoy travel – but I think travel is a far greater value than meat eating.

Again, the issue isn’t giving up one or the other, but finding ways to do both in a manner compatible with a stable climate. At present, the huge majority of people are unwilling to give up (or even significantly scale back) either one.

If we do eventually get serious carbon pricing, the costs of both activities will rise. The degree to which that affects the quantity of both categories of goods demanded will signal something about the relative priority that people give to meat eating versus travel.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Also, the cynic in me says that if we cannot find a way to stop dangerous climate change while still allowing people to travel a lot and eat meat, then we don’t have any real chance at success.

It doesn’t seem implausible to say that most people would rather play a hidden role in extinguishing the chances future generations have at good lives, rather than giving up either of these things.

The proportion of people willing to voluntarily abstain from meat-eating and travel, for environmental or ethical reasons, represent a subset within the subset of ‘environmentalists.’ Plenty of my environmentalist friends, fully aware of the seriousness of climate change, are still jetting around for short visits to South Africa or Hong Kong or India. Very few are vegan, and vegetarians are probably in the minority. I don’t think we will ever see such voluntary sacrifice within a broad segment of the general population.

Meanwhile: China’s oil demand increase ‘astonishing’, says IEA

The solution is going to have to be a combination of making it impossible for people to act selfishly (by raising prices, and banning especially harmful activities) and fixing things in the background so the unsustainable becomes sustainable (replacing coal plants with huge solar farms).

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm

“if we cannot find a way to stop dangerous climate change while still allowing people to travel a lot and eat meat, then we don’t have any real chance at success.”

Is this the same Milan who keeps arguing we don’t need serious political change because everything can be done from within the liberal (democratic?) system?

“we don’t have any real chance at success”

The “we” you keep invoking is the we that doesn’t exist. The “we” which is produced through advertising, marketing, ideology. The “we” that could do something is, by definition, politically radical. Your position keeps being, effectively, “we shouldn’t do it, because they can do it without our help”. “We” as real existent beings, are just part of the “they”, the they which is mass produced through everyday talk. You were hoping that the Gore thing could mean the “they” would become environmentally “aware” (but not really aware, just produced as “environmentally aware”), but it turns out the “they” likes flying too much to like Gore’s tragedy talk. So, now you think “they” (“we”) can’t do anything unless a miracle mousetrap saves us.

I’d say, that in response to your post on sindark about what kind of learning would be relevant here – you should learn more about the we and the they. There are various schools of analysis which all do remarkably well at explaining this, i.e. Marx, Heidegger, Psychoanalysis, critical theory etc… – the thing they all have in common, is they understand why the liberal way of understanding politics so desperately fails whenever a serious problem presents itself. No one really believes in their ideals, everyone is afraid of terror (so you can’t have virtue, because virtue without terror is impotent).

The reason why Obama is interesting is because there are some indications he is the most Jacobin politicien in America in a long time – i.e. the fact that he has terrorists to call friends.

The most amazing thing about liberals is that in the same breath they will refuse to hold the church responsible for a genocide, and then themselves refuse to shed any blood to bring about the world which they know can’t be brought about peacefully.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Rationally, I don’t think we will succeed at avoiding catastrophic climate change.

That said, the question is how to maximize our odds of doing so. As I’ve said again and again, a big open-ended effort at political reform is not guaranteed to succeed, and not guaranteed to produce effective mitigation action even if it does. As such, trying to drive change through the existing system seems to offer us the best odds of avoiding catastrophe.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 2:40 pm

So, you admit you don’t actually have an argument. You’ll just say some insulting things about Chomsky and buckets, and hope that all of a sudden politiciens will start acting on totally different motivations than we’ve seen then act for the last 25 years.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm

“I’m not sure what this metaphor does for us. You are taking a whole suite of unsustainable phenomena and saying that they are like a particular example within the group. ”

I don’t think I’m doing this at all. I’m saying that what makes coal really non-renewable is not that there is a finite amount of it in the ground, but in the fact that there is a finite amount of it we can admit. The finitude in the “in the ground” of it functions as a metaphor for its real un-sustainability which is in its “in the air”. And, in its “in the air” function it is not not equivalent to methane. Which means, cows are made of coal.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 2:57 pm

“Rationally, I don’t think we will succeed at avoiding catastrophic climate change.”

This is everything that is wrong with the climate change movement. It doesn’t make it concrete for people – that’s why the people who actually do things tend to get their priorities wrong. And isn’t an accident – because local problems are far more concrete, easier to grasp as something you need to act on. And this is a big problem – because local problems don’t actually matter, what matters is the future survival of the human race on this planet. So, the climate change movement has to be something radical, because anything not radical is just you (not you personally) sitting at home watching the Inconvenient Truth. But then again, Al Gore doesn’t actually buy into this kind of anti-revolutionary liberalism – he actually calls for real protest movements, where people would really get arrested –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lIcdpq-5-c

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Hansen also called for protests on coal
Hansen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPCFx1fMBeI

Coverage of Protests on Democracy Now (part 1 of 3): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdgpCn6kjjI

Milan March 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Al Gore doesn’t actually buy into this kind of anti-revolutionary liberalism – he actually calls for real protest movements, where people would really get arrested

I certainly don’t object to protests or civil disobedience motivated by concern about climate change. Those are both accepted parts of our existing political system.

And I am not asserting that no other political system could deal with the problem. I am saying that changing political systems is much risk for little reward. We need to be more targeted in our efforts.

The finitude in the “in the ground” of it functions as a metaphor for its real un-sustainability which is in its “in the air”.

This is not unlike the situation for bacteria what will get poisoned by their own waste products, when the concentration gets high enough. They are at risk, on the one hand, from running out of the resources they require to survive. At the same time, they are at risk from overwhelming the ability of their environment to handle their wastes.

Human beings are testing both elements of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.

all of a sudden politiciens will start acting on totally different motivations than we’ve seen then act for the last 25 years.

Politicians will keep acting on the basis of the motivations that have driven them for thousands of years. What needs to change is the focus of their efforts, not the basics of what they do.

Perhaps the biggest thing that has been revealed by the Obama administration is that you cannot really change the system: all you can do is work within it to try to achieve somewhat different objectives.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

So, you think the system, as it is now, can be made to achieve the right objectives? Because otherwise you have no other way out than to say we need to change the system. Hansen repeatedly calls for system changing reforms, to the tune of getting lobbyists out of Washington. This is really not significantly different than Chomsky’s criticism of American Democracy. No one except vanguardists call for replacing existing institutions until after it has been shown that reforming them cannot produce good results. But when I say “radically alter the political situation”, I mean reform – I just mean making the system which is superficially democratic, actually democratic. This is all the 60s were ever about – and the success of the 60s is reflected in the gains made by the civil rights movement.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:36 pm

“Politicians will keep acting on the basis of the motivations that have driven them for thousands of years. ”

There are exceptions. The black jacobins, the white jacobins, the communards, the soviets. There have been genuinely democratic politiciens and political movements. It’s no t impossible that we could have a free election.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Clearly, some level of reform is necessary. It will probably emerge more-or-less automatically once climate change starts having severe and undeniable effects on rich people. The trouble is, we need to kick off that process earlier if we are going to keep cumulative emissions below the threshold where they induce catastrophic warming.

Achieving that acceleration seems to depend on getting a handful of messages spread and absorbed into the public consciousness: that climate change is something to fear, that we are going to have to move beyond fossil fuels eventually anyhow, and that there are multiple benefits to doing so now rather than later.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm

The motivations of politicians are distinct from the systems in which they operate. They include things like a desire for prestige, an inclination to enrich oneself, a desire to serve the public or advance a particular agenda, or even the impulse to harm particular individuals, groups, or organizations.

All that is as true of medieval monarchs as of Roman senators as of Canadian MPs today.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm

“getting a handful of messages spread and absorbed into the public consciousness”

This just seems like a bad idea. By “public consciousness” you mean public unconscious. And by “messages” you mean marketing. It’s not an insane idea, it could work – but it won’t. It won’t work because your message is on the same level as all the anti-alarmist messages which are spread through media sources which you couldn’t dream to have access to. You want half an hour on fox news? Nope. But the denialists will get that everyday, many times a day.

You can’t fight appearance with appearance, that’s how our un-free elections are fought, and that’s why they are always won by the candidate with more money. This is why Chomsky doesn’t say “speak fear mongering to power”, but “speak truth to power”.

Truth is more powerful than appearance. The major problem with the global warming movement is how difficult the explicit truth is, so we have all the complaints about Hansen’s book. However, this is just a mistake. Global warming is real is not a set of propositions proving the relevant certainty of a claim. Global warming is real is true, and the denialists are false. This is not simply emotional, but neither is it simply logical-scientific-propositional.

The falsity of the appearance which denialists propagate is not in the scientific invalidity of their claims, but in the bad-faith character of their constantly shifting positions (i.e. your article “the denialists are discrediting themselves”). This bad-faith can’t be revealed through fear mongering, but only by genuine seeing the truth. Which means you can’t just spread knowledge through the public unconscious, but rather build explicit movements based on true doctrine and practical action.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm

“The motivations of politicians are distinct from the systems in which they operate. ”

No one believes this. It’s not even possibly true. I can’t think of a single serious philosopher or political thinker who would dare to make this kind of claim. If this were true then activist lawyers who work for corporate firms to pay down their debts would revert to advocacy just as soon as they were economically able.

I don’t even think Ron Paul, with his insane emphasis on individual freedom, would agree with anything like this radically unstable assertion of human independence in the face of coercion.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I am open to a variety of strategies. Indeed, one major purpose of this site is to consider what options there are and how they might work.

Deniers have been bested before, as the cases of tobacco, CFC, and acid-rain-causing SO2 emissions show. That success needs to be replicated now on a larger scale.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm

The motivations of politicians are distinct from the systems in which they operate.

I am saying that someone who is a good politician under Canadian parliamentary democracy would probably also thrive under virtually any other system of political organization, from feudalism to a farming commune. The drive to be in power, and the ability to convince others to either give it to you or accept when you take it, are the key elements of the political mindset.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Literally, what you are saying is that the motivations of politiciens do not change once they start being bribed on a daily basis.

Anyone’s motivations would change. Mine would change! This is the fundamental anti-democratic nature of representative democracy: as soon as the leaders become not-the-people, they won’t be able to identify with the people. This happens in every single democratic organization I’ve been involved in, i.e. 3903, and CCRI. This alienation is produced by the system, and it’s why the most serious anarchist thinkers (i.e. Chomsky but he rarely talks about this anymore) advocate a system where leaders would ideally not stop having their other jobs, and if they do need to be employed only as politiciens, then they would have to not be paid a huge amount more than someone else doing equivalent work, because otherwise the alienation between leader and people would make it impossible to make reasonable decisions.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm

“The drive to be in power, and the ability to convince others to either give it to you or accept when you take it, are the key elements of the political mindset.”

Ok, so you are saying the only political motivation is power. Harper is demonstrating the possibility of that aptly enough – you don’t even need to go to Nietzsche to find the analysis, Andrew Coin offers it on a weekly basis.

This is just wrong. Every single thing I’ve ever read by a politicien convinces me that they had/have motivations outside the simple desire for power. Also, most things convince me that the desire for power ends up corrupting their genuine motivations – and the injustices inherent in the system make this problem worse.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Ok, so you are saying the only political motivation is power.

I identified several other personal motivations in my non-exhaustive list.

Obviously, institutions matter a lot. While greed in Nigeria might lead to outright theft combined with large-scale abuses, in Canada it is more likely to lead to favours for businesses that lead to cushy jobs later.

We need to cultivate the good impulses people have, while constraining the consequences of the bad and selfish ones.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm

This is trivially true. Once in a system, the system changes one’s motivations. You’re just defining motivations as the kind of things which get you into the system. It’s not clear this is as universal as you think – Robbespierre entered politics for qualitatively different reasons than Stevie. This is totally evident in their writings. You are just defining “political motivation” to not contain any positive content, and then you can say it isn’t changed when the positive content changes, because you defined that out of what you wanted to call “political motivation”. This is not an analysis.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 4:48 pm

“large-scale abuses, in Canada it is more likely to lead to favours for businesses that lead to cushy jobs later.”

Do you not think that not-mitigating climate change is a large scale abuse of power? Why do keep being such an apologist for a political system which is trying to kill your grand kids?

As for large scale abuses, the Canadian state has committed genocide against first nations for over a century – and it’s not clear that it has stopped now. Not to say I don’t like Canada better than Nigeria – but to some extent this depends on who and where and when I am. There are other who’s and places and times where I could be in which the worst atrocities are committed in the name of the Canadian state. And, the point of climate change analysis is to show that those local problems are not even significant in the face of the problem which is not being dealt with now.

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 4:51 pm

“large-scale abuses, in Canada it is more likely to lead to favours for businesses that lead to cushy jobs later.”

This is the standard liberal move, isn’t it. “There are large scale abuses, and they happened in the past or far away.” But they don’t do they. They happen in a past we haven’t dealt with – and not dealing with them is a form of perpetual crime – and they happen in the present in other countries which we support, i.e. the free trade deal with Columbia.

Until you recognize the catastrophe that is liberal politics, (not to say the USSR wasn’t much worse – it was, probably worse than Nazi Germany), then you can’t understand why Climate change mitigation looks “rationally impossible”.

Milan March 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Going back to the metaphor, are you trying to illustrate something beyond the fact that sustainability requires not producing self-destructive quantities of dangerous wastes?

Tristan March 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm

I guess. I’m just thinking the non-renewability of the resource which is partial destruction as an analogue of coal’s literal exhaustibility of extraction.

. March 13, 2010 at 10:27 am

“Even though her home state will be savaged by climate change, Katrina-style, [Senator Mary] Landrieu routinely sides with her energy funders. In 2008, after providing the pivotal vote to preserve $12 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil, she received $272,000 from oil and gas interests — third among Democrats.”

Tristan March 13, 2010 at 10:55 am

When bribery is so explicitly a part of politics, I don’t see why we should expect anything other than the deepest pockets to come out on top.

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