Climate Change & Tragedy Of The Commons
But though a rise in sea levels and an increased incidence of extreme weather are the easiest parts of climate change to understand, they aren’t actually the most important. Human beings adapt pretty readily to flooding. We know how to build sea walls, and ecologically-sophisticated systems of flood control. In the extreme, we know how to move – we are a highly mobile species.
It’s less clear how well we’d adapt to wholesale changes in the ecology attendant on changes in CO2 levels. An increase in the acidity of the oceans, for example, could significantly disrupt the marine food chain (what’s left of it after over-fishing). A wide variety of land-based species are also sensitive to changes in the climate; global changes could have an unpredictable global impact on overall biodiversity. The earth, of course, will adapt just fine; the terrestrial climate has seen some pretty huge swings over geological timescales, and the diversity of life has recovered from multiple mass-extinctions. Human beings, though, have only been around for a million or so years (much less depending on how picky you are about what counts as “human”), and large-scale civilization is only a few thousand years old. We have no idea how well that civilization would adapt to widespread ecological disruption.
I should have been more precise when I said that I find efforts to fight global warming to be futile. I believe that the obstacles to collective action to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions are insurmountable. That does not mean we should throw up our hands and await the inevitable. Noah is right: we ought to be working hard on adaptation strategies. Just sitting there and hoping it will all go away is no kind of strategy. I was trying to make a point about false hope — the kind of false hope that people who insist that the only thing standing in the way of collective action against global warming are the Republicans.
Mind you, I certainly find it worthwhile to be working on ways to reduce carbon emissions as well. It’s just that I don’t have hope that they will be successful, for tragedy of the commons reasons. I think many who are concerned about global warming don’t want to encourage adaptation, because that seems to them like giving up. They remind me of my fellow Christian conservatives on the topic of same-sex marriage, circa 2008. They didn’t want to accept that gay marriage was inevitable because driven by deep social forces that almost certainly could not be countered, and so the best strategy for conservatives was to put our minds toward working on adaptation. Now the inevitable has happened, and is happening, and we find ourselves unprepared.
That’s the mindset I’m talking about with global warming. I do not oppose, in theory, efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but as a matter of practical strategy, I don’t think them likely to succeed. If I believe the planet is warming — and I do — then we have to plan for the world as it is likely to be, not as we fervently and devoutly wish it would be.
By the way, Claire Casey has a good piece up at the Daily Beast explaining why the Keystone XL pipeline controversy is “Washington’s dumbest debate,” precisely because it is all about symbolism, not reality. Excerpt:
Even less attention is given to what is widely acknowledged to be the critical factor in achieving our climate objectives—funding innovation. Today, about two-thirds of our total energy innovation spending goes to supporting the deployment of existing technologies. Spending on R&D has remained flat for the last several years and funds for demonstration projects of new energy technologies have all but disappeared. That’s not to say there isn’t a government role in deployment, but it’s an imbalance that needs to be addressed if we’re ever going to make strides in reducing our demand for oil and other fossil fuels. The technology choices we have today just won’t get us there. We need breakthroughs in energy storage to unleash the real potential of intermittent renewables like wind and solar, new plants and processes if biofuels are ever going to compete with oil (and not with our food supply)… the list can go on and on.
As even some the leaders of the anti-Keystone movement acknowledge, one project won’t make the difference on climate change. Instead, we need comprehensive policies, like a price on carbon. Since the implosion of cap-and-trade, a lot of good thinking on the left and right has gone into how to price carbon, including some very interesting work being done today at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Funds could be returned to the economy through a reduction in the corporate tax rate, rebates to consumers, and funding innovation. Whatever happens with Keystone XL this week, issues like this one deserve to return to the center of our political debate.
I accept this. But can we also not talk about how we should be preparing long-term in case we don’t get the policy or technology breakthroughs we hope for?