Hoaxwatch: John Tierney edition

So I was munching on my local, sustainable pizza and reading the New York Times at lunch today and read an absolutely fascinating article by John Tierney on the climate and how industrial societies eventually stop polluting. Apparently, everything's going to be okay with the climate because as time goes on, developed societies tend to move towards cleaner, greener technology.

The simple summary of the article is this:

As time goes on, societies pursue cleaner living - starting with drinking water and moving on to energy, going from wood to oil/coal to natural gas/nuclear and now maybe to solar.
Almost all countries in the world are growing and developing, so they'll start moving through the cleaning-up stages of things
Since there's never been a social energy revolution (that is, technology tends to drive changes in energy production, rather than human choice) in the past, we can't expect one to come
Therefore, we're better off waiting for all societies on Earth to gradually go cleaner

On the surface, Tierney's opinion column, which is masquerading as an article in the science section, seems scientifically counter-intuitive; that is, Tierney is playing the game of "Well, actually, research has shown that blah is true, rather than the popular conception!" In this case, the popular conception is that rich societies tend to emit more carbon dioxide emissions.

Which is true. But what really reinforces the point is the vague way he describes what the Kuznets curve (that is, a graph shaped like an upside-down "u" that shows a nation like the US or Britain rising in emissions, reaching a maximum point, then starting to reduce them) looks like.

By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn’t produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve.

And it's true what he says - carbon dioxide emissions and wealth are not a 1 to 1 correlation. But at the same time, while emissions do tend to level out, there are a few things that Tierney utterly and completely fails to point out.

First, no one is concerned about whether or not there's a linear relationship. If we go along in a business-as-usual way (more on that in a second), there's simply no way that climate change will be dealt with - even if we're just talking about developed nations. That's because climate change is fundamentally different from getting clean drinking water and cleaning up local pollutants - it's the same reason that people like Tierney write this stuff. Climate change is subtle and patient. We do not perceive climate change that same way we notice a brown cloud hanging in the air above a dirty power plant, or notice that half of the people living downstream of a factory are getting cancer. In short, people must be made to care about greenhouse gas emissions through education, because if they can't see it for themselves (and no one tells them) then they won't be moved to stop.

Second, Tierney decides that because revolutions apparently never work it makes more sense to just wait for every country to get rich enough to be clean and wonderful. Even assuming that societies approach a zero or negative carbon emissions point (and there's no evidence that they do), we cannot afford the amount of time that that will happen.

Why? Because climate change doesn't operate on some vague notion of how clean or dirty nations feel like they are - it is driven by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We've already driven the concentration up enormously. Keeping in mind that we're not going to fully stop or reverse emissions any time soon - no matter how revolutionary we are - we're going to have a hell of a time mitigating climate change if every undeveloped country in the world follows our lead. The number of developed countries that have created the current crisis is small compared to the rest of the world - especially as population increases in developing countries quicker. If we try to wait, like Tierney says, we'll be so far beyond the business-as-usual projections that we'll be off the map.

Because, at the core, that's what Tierney's missing. He doesn't see climate change as a threat - he sees it as a far off danger, safely exiled to the future. That's wrong. We need to start dealing with climate change right now - if we don't, we won't be able to stop the change.

I understand where libertarians are coming from, but climate change is something we absolutely have to move on. Right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment