What I believe and why

by Milan on November 4, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Economics, Ethics, Objections

Tristan and I have been discussing the importance of what people believe to the general issue of climate action. As such, it seems worth answering the key question behind this site: Why do I believe that we can move to a global economy based on renewable, zero-carbon sources of energy?

Why climate change is scary

Partly, my belief is rooted in the belief that doing so is necessary. That belief arises from two major sources. There is the degree to which I can evaluate the empirical evidence and related theories myself, and then there is the degree to which I think bodies like the IPCC and National Academy of Sciences are credible. To me, there seems to be many lines of evidence that reinforce one another. We have all kinds of observations – from temperature records to species migration patterns to ice core samples – that seem to demonstrate that greenhouse gas concentrations affect the climate, and that the climate can change in ways that would be very dangerous for humanity.

The fact that I find James Hansen credible enough to take seriously contributes to a significant extent to my concern about the possibility of runaway climate change. So does the fact that I haven’t seen any forceful rebuttal of his argument from credible scientists or organizations (though many object to his overt political advocacy).

Even if runaway climate change will not happen, it seems like there is strong evidence that warming of more than 5°C would have devastating consequences for humanity. Furthermore, it seems like that is the amount of warming we are likely to produce by the end of the 21st century, unless we change the development path the world is following.

Why renewables can do the job

All that makes me think the transition is necessary. I think it is possible because of the same combination of factors. I know enough to be able to see that the total incoming energy from sunlight far exceeds the current energy use of humanity. Furthermore, I know that we can convert that energy into forms that are useful for us. This belief is reinforced by calculations like those in David MacKay’s book. You can take the average amount of sunlight falling on a square metre of the ground in a day and combine that with the current efficiency of different means of converting that energy into a useful form and arrive at a sense of how many metres we need per person, to give people an amount of energy comparable to what they are using today.

On that basis, the transition to renewables looks feasible, though the scale of the thing is clearly massive. Producing a comparable amount of energy per person using renewables will probably require using a significant portion of the world’s total land area. That said, it is quite possible that the land can be used in multiple ways. We can farm between wind turbines, after all.

Why we can (hopefully) afford it

Finally, I believe that the transition is affordable almost completely on the basis of the testimony from others. I don’t know enough – and haven’t put in enough time – to produce an assessment comparable to that of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

This last section is admittedly the weakest. I cannot say for sure that the transition will be affordable – only that the best available evidence suggests that it is. Given that the transition is both necessary and possible, I think we should do it even in the less likely case that it is very expensive.

After all, climate change threatens to devastate human civilization, by undermining the stable climate upon which it depends. Even if making the transition to zero-carbon forms of energy was massively expensive – so much so that it was just about the only thing we could do aside from grow enough food to survive – the choice to make that investment would still be the best option open to us.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 8:29 am

” There is the degree to which I can evaluate the empirical evidence and related theories myself, and then there is the degree to which I think bodies like the IPCC and National Academy of Sciences are credible. To me, there seems to be many lines of evidence that reinforce one another. ”

The mutual re-enforcement of different lines of evidence appears to be an important factor in motivating belief. Denialists see a many-faceted narrative of exclusion and exploitation, part of which is the “scam” of climate change. While it’s easy to say nasty things about conspiracy theorists, perhaps what’s really crucial is the feeling of being excluded, and the corresponding lack of trust in institutions. And there are a lot of institutions which people shouldn’t trust, because they lie to them. So, the spread of the mis-trust from direct state propaganda to somewhat independent institutions like scientific bodies might be an unintended effect of propaganda, structural exclusion, rising inequality.

“The fact that I find James Hansen credible enough to take seriously contributes to a significant extent to my concern about the possibility of runaway climate change. So does the fact that I haven’t seen any forceful rebuttal of his argument from credible scientists or organizations (though many object to his overt political advocacy).”

Credible figures are certainly important. However, what figure appears credible to someone is to some extent determined on pre-suppositions, preferences, and these can manifest as theoretical, emotional, or even aesthetic grounds for recognizing as credible or as non-credible.

Milan November 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

Determining who is credible is certainly a critical problem – perhaps even the key problem for people in today’s society. Nobody can be an expert in everything, but we are constantly confronted with the need to make decisions in technical areas.

I agree that conspiracy theorist thinking can be extremely damaging, when it undermines public faith in important institutions. A good example is the anti-vaccination movement, which has certainly caused a significant number of children to die needlessly.

Tristan November 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm

You agree that conspiracy theorist thinking is damaging – but the interesting question is do you agree that there are public institutions which lie to people, and that people do have reasons to be mistrusting of many institutions? It’s easy to make fun of the anti-vaccination movement, but what about the movement against the federal reserve, against wall street and the bailout, against the Public-Relations-ization of politics, against a US government which in the majority view doesn’t act in the general interest but in the interest of a tiny elite?

Another question is, why do you believe what you believe? I don’t mean the intellectual reasons you’ve given – but other conditions that, perhaps unconsciously, underlie your belief. One would likely be the education you’ve accessed. Another might be the fact you haven’t lost faith in the financial system, and the political system, as it currently exists. What are the conditions such that this faith has been maintained? It would be easy, and perhaps correct, to say that you are actually part of the tiny elite which states serve the exclusion of the majority interest. If you’re interested in building broad based support for climate action, you might want to interrogate your own privilege, and ask to what extent that provides the condition for not only different views on climate change, but different opinions about many things related to climate mitigation and climate justice.

Milan November 16, 2010 at 9:54 pm

It’s not that I have a great deal of faith in the ability of our legal, financial, or political systems to deal with climate change.

I feel like a passenger on a leaky ship in a storm. We don’t really have the option of swapping it for a better one. We need to make do with what is available.

We could try to radically rebuild the ship in a hurry, but we have no guarantee of ending up with one that does anything well – much less one that can deal with climate change better than our current system.

Tristan November 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

Well, I would suggest that form of faith in current structures, weak as it is, is still a product of material conditions that differentiates you from the majority of Canadians. So, you can say “We need to make do with what is available”, but there are going to be disagreements in the “we” about what is available. I generally meet only two kinds of people with respect to their views on climate change. Either they have some politics, or they are some form of denialist or pessimist.

I think the way you conceptualize the “current structures”, as being something we either need to maintain wholesale or swap for a new one wholesale, is counter productive and unrealistic. If what you mean is that any expression of an alternative politics appears as “revolutionary” and as a threat to the current powers that be, then fine. But that doesn’t mean that implementing changes can’t be reformist. I don’t mean reform in the sense of compromise – that’s what we can’t afford (“oh, well you want to destroy the planet, and I don’t, so I’ll let you half destroy it”). But of course we shouldn’t tear down all the institutions and put different ones in their place.

Milan November 17, 2010 at 11:18 pm

It’s certainly true that there can be reform that is not revolution. I think such an approach offers us the best chance of success, though I must admit that it seems most likely that humanity will lock in a catastrophic level of climate change, and will then try to bail itself out with geoengineering.

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