Climate strategies that don’t work

UPDATE: A complete list of climate series pieces is available here:
The Climate series: a reference post.

This is the second of a series of articles on Bill McKibben’s must-read Rolling Stone piece, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“. Our first article, on three climate numbers that tell the tale, is here:

  ■ McKibben’s Three Numbers—Measuring the march toward climate catastrophe

And we teased out the meaning of his “2°C temperature increase” number here:

  ■ Illustrating global warming—What does “a 2°C increase” refer to?

Now we take a look at the second section of McKibben’s article, one that could be titled “What doesn’t work to fix the problem” (find it by looking for the paragraph that starts “So far, as I said at the start…”).

What doesn’t work

If the scientific problem is that we’re dumping carbon into the air fast enough to make the planet soon unlivable, the political problem is that we seem not to be able to stop. McKibben (my emphasis and some reparagraphing throughout):

So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed. The planet’s emissions of carbon dioxide continue to soar, especially as developing countries emulate (and supplant) the industries of the West. Even in rich countries, small reductions in emissions offer no sign of the real break with the status quo we’d need to upend the iron logic of these three numbers.

So why have we failed? Or rather, what have we tried that hasn’t worked?

Let’s start with individual action — changing our own behavior:

This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don’t work.

Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs.

Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself[.]

The problem is not just that people want their flat-screens; lots of people are trying to green themselves. And they see the results:

People perceive – correctly – that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2[.]

Read the rest of this paragraph to learn why; the data is sound.

That insight (“individual effort will not make a decisive difference”), with which McKibben and I both agree, is not only widespread, but frustrating.

It’s not just that people don’t want to do the right thing (many don’t, but a great many do). It’s that even if we all did the right thing — followed the green-lit way — we still wouldn’t get the result we want. You have to get your power from somewhere, for example, even if you have no flat screen and more twisty bulbs than sockets for them. If that power comes from coal, what can you do?

This leaves political action — working the halls of power to make a change. So how’s that been going?

A more efficient method, of course, would be to work through the political system, and environmentalists have tried that, too, with the same limited success. …

Sometimes it has seemed to work. Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned more aggressively about climate change than any president before him [and] he has achieved one significant change: a steady increase in the fuel efficiency mandated for automobiles. It’s the kind of measure, adopted a quarter-century ago, that would have helped enormously. But in light of the numbers I’ve just described, it’s obviously a very small start indeed.

Limited success. That’s not to say “no success.” But limited.

I left in the part about Obama’s victory with auto emissions standards because (1) it really is a victory, one that’s eluded many administrations, and (2) I’ve given Mr. Obama so much grief on these pages (which he has richly deserved, in my opinion) that I owe him kudos and props (both) when he earns them. Here he has earned them.

And having praised the man and his administration, here comes the other shoe:

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.

And there the president, apparently haunted by the still-echoing cry of “Drill, baby, drill,” has gone out of his way to frack and mine.

This section is delicious with irony, if by “irony” you mean pain:

Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change … describing the sight as “sobering.”

But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil … that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts.

About those Arctic icemelts, I added my cents here:

So what do you think the Oil & Gas Barons (Our Betters) think of the fact that global warming — of all things — is opening up the Arctic for more oil and gas exploration?

Mission Accomplished, of course. For them, it’s an opportunity.

Watch as they clamor for the chance to get rich by accelerating the catastrophe they’re causing. Watch as world-wide government types (eager retainers all) fall over themselves to enable the world-wide destruction. (I include Mr. Eager-For-Keystone Obama in this; I think he wants it as badly as anyone does.)

“Watch as they clamor for the chance to get rich by accelerating the catastrophe they’re causing.” See? Ironical.

The political problem — by which I mean progressives’ ineffectiveness — is not just national. It crosses borders. For example, our “friends” to the north:

[T]he rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta economically attractive – and … that meant Canada’s commitment to Kyoto was nonsense. In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty[.]

See? Corporate money can corrupt anyone, even Canadians. There’s a Venezuela story that’s even more colorful — search the article for the phrase “Christ the Redeemer” and read.

we’ve learned so far

This is me, summing up this part of McKibben’s essay. What doesn’t work?

Individual action is necessary — how can you ask of others what you won’t yourself do? But it’s not enough to keep us below 2°C before the year 2100.

Political action to date has been ineffective except for minor victories. There’s the limitation on auto emissions noted above. And Obama has been forced to delay approval of the Keystone pipeline (the “Barack H. Obama Keystone Sludgepipe”) until after he’s safely free of voter control (sorry, duly elected).

But effective political action has not been tried. How do I know? Because all the political action so far as been ineffective — and not all action has been tried.

Which means … obviously we need to try different political actions.

And here’s where we leave our story for now. McKibben has more — a suggestion for effective political action — and I’ll add my centimes to his.

Until next time,


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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