Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wherein I Weigh In on the Astyk/Monbiot Debate

Like a lot of people here, I'm sure, I found the recent Sharon Astyk-George Monbiot argument fairly fascinating, partly for the obvious reason that they're both interesting people and thinkers, and partly for the, ZOMG! George Monbiot of The Guardian is arguing with someone I've argued with! factor. That makes me like, two degrees of argumentation away from Monbiot, and when you're as argumentative and contrary as I am, that's kinda cool. So kudos to Sharon for getting the well-deserved attention and press.

Now, I'm not a published author like Sharon, nor the columnist for one of London's biggest newspapers, but I do have an opinion, a blog, and a desire to procrastinate writing an essay. So, I thought I'd spend some time discussing their discussion.

If you haven't read the discussion, you really should (here and here) but I'll summarize quickly. Basically, Monbiot favors a technological green deal, while Sharon argues that the costs for such a green deal come with “an enormous front-load of fossil fuels." Because Sharon doesn't believe we can afford, both financially and climactically, such an expenditure, she instead favors a 5 year plan of personal reduction of carbon emissions. She writes, "This is a drum I keep beating, not because I wish to undermine efforts to expand renewable energy, but because I think living in a 5 degree warmer world with wind turbines will be small, sad consolation." Monbiot believes Sharon's voluntary abstinence plan is pie-in-the-sky thinking, whereas Sharon believes Monbiot's green new deal plan is wishful thinking.

Now while I greatly admire Sharon's work, and find her to be an incredibly interesting writer, we do tend to occupy different spheres of the environmental blogosphere, so it's not particularly surprising that I disagree with her AND Monbiot. But first, let's start with where we agree. One, we all can agree that climate change is real and imminent. And we can all agree that there is a lot we don't know. Based on our limited information, Sharon posits that Monbiot's plan "has a 20% chance of success if it isn’t already too late to invest in a build out [ie a rapid investment in green technology], 0% chance of success if it is too late for a build out, but not too late to stabilize the climate at all with rapid cuts, and 0% chance if we’re already past the tipping points." She argues that her plan has a "10% chance of succes [sic] if we still have time for a build out, a 10% chance of success if we don’t have time for a build out and a 0% chance if we are past the tipping points."

And this is where I find both Monbiot's plan and Sharon's plan troubling: neither plan has a shot of working if we are, in fact, past the tipping point, whatever that is. Put it this way, I think there's a possibility, that even if we attempt Sharon's more conservative plan in terms of mitigation, we could end up with a world that is a few degrees warmer, and WITHOUT wind turbines. We are already seeing shifts in weather patterns, the ice is already melting. It is evident that global warming is not a future event; it's happening now.

The truth is the time is past for a strategy focused solely on mitigation. The focus now needs to shift to adaptation. Solutions that have a zero percent chance of success if we're past the tipping point are no longer acceptable as solutions. 

So what exactly is adaptation? To put it simply, if collapse is one side of the coin, adaptation is the flip-side. A neo-Malthusian view of society is represented by a J curve: that is human population grows and grows until we use up all our resources, and then the population collapses and gradually starts to rise again. But collapse is not pre-ordained! The flip-side to Thomas Malthus is Ester Boserup, who argued that "necessity is the mother of invention." A Boserupian view of the world suggests that we throw out the Malthusian J-curve, and replace it with an S-curve. The idea is that when resources start running low, instead of a collapse, societies figure out a way to adapt. So if oil were to run out, a society might collapse, or they might adapt by using different types of energy.

While Sharon is right that the costs for a green deal likely involve a large fossil fuel expenditure upfront, that is very likely the price we are going to have to pay to adapt. In this, I agree with Monbiot that a technological green deal is necessary.

But, once we've gotten our green deal, we don't get to slap each other on the back, and say "Job well done," because the truth is, a green deal is just the STARTING point. It is absolutely crucial that any sensible approach to climate change must focus on a reduction of human vulnerability to climate change. 

Just who is vulnerable? According to the IPCC, while all countries are vulnerable to a certain extent, the countries most at risk include the LDCs (least developed countries) as well as the small island states. The risk to small island states is fairly self-evident, but why are least developed countries so at risk? Part of the answer lies in geography: many of the LDCs are in areas where climate change will be particularly problematic: for example, Bangladesh is a flood-prone area as it is, and rising sea-levels will exacerbate those issues, while many of the drought-prone countries in Sub-Saharan Africa could suffer more critical droughts more of the time. But part of the answer is that LDCs lack the infrastructure and the financial wherewithal to reduce vulnerability. The Netherlands suffers from its own geographic problems: as a low-lying country with an incredibly high population density, you might think it was a Malthusian collapse waiting to happen, but instead The Netherlands is the poster child for adaptability. Their climate change strategy has included a $1 billion investment to retrofit their dykes. The difference between the Netherlands and some of the LDCs then is not a difference in geographic vulnerability, but a difference in SOCIAL vulnerability. The Netherlands being a rich country with a stable government has the money and the institutions to adapt, whereas Bangladesh or Malawi might not. Part of our response to climate change must involve increasing adaptational capacity in these socially vulnerable areas.

Not all adaptation will involve technological solutions. In one of the more extreme examples of adaptation, the Maldives is establishing a fund to buy a new homeland should rising sea levels render the small island unlivable. Other means of adaptation might include better response systems to floods and hurricanes (the evacuation strategy prior to Hurricane Gustav is a good example of this kind of social adaptation.)

The point is, the world is not static, nor has it ever been. Much as we might wish that things were different, much as we might wish that we could stabilize the atmosphere, and stop global warming in its tracks, most scientists now believe that even if we were to stop carbon emissions this second, we'd still see a rise in temperatures and sea levels. Thus, we MUST learn to adapt. 

For too long adaptation has been put on the back burner, because, OMG, if we teach people to adapt, then maybe people will stop trying to reduce carbon emissions. This approach is nonsensical, dangerous, and if continued, could result in a zero-sum outcome where we've neither built our adaptive capacity, nor reduced our emissions. Luckily, the IPCC is now on board with regards to adaptation, and there's a real chance that the post-Kyoto agreement will give adaptation the attention it deserves.

Sharon sees a real problem with a world that has wind turbines, but is a few degrees higher, and acts like it is fait accompli that such a world wouldn't be worth living in. But the truth is, we don't know what the future will bring. We don't know that a massive green deal would result in temperatures rising by a few degrees. But even if the temperature did rise, we don't know that human beings could not ADAPT to such a world. In any case, I think we had better try. Because the alternative is accepting that we might just be screwed. And frankly, I'm not okay with that being a possible scenario.


Joyce said...

What an excellent post! You've just articulated what I've been thinking, which is that we must do both. The example that comes to my mind is that, to reduce our energy usage long-term, we have replaced our old drafty windows and added insulation to the attic. Those things had to be manufatured, which certainly produced carbon. These items were not something I was going to find used on Craig's List, nor was it acceptable for us to continue to use fuel at the level we were, just to keep from freezing to death during an Illinois winter. Ideally, new green technology would find the most efficient way to create those new windows and that insulation, as well as building renewable sources for the energy we will still have to use. Meanwhile, we are keeping the thermostat a bit lower and wearing more sweaters.

jewishfarmer said...

Nice post, Arduous. I think you really added something to the discussion - I'm going to send it linked to Monbiot - we've been talking on email a bit, and maybe he'll be interested.

I would say that I think the difficulty is that there's a big range between adapting to 1.6 C in climate change and adapting to 5 C in climate change, to give some fairly stark examples. I agree with you that adaptation has to go on the table - period. But in a sense, adaptation with a short-term build out (I advocate renewable energies, but increasing them more gradually) means you have to run ever-faster in order to keep in place - that is, if we burn all the fuels required to keep the economy going to fund the build out, plus the build out, we can find ourselves having to adapt to say 3C of climate change instead of 2C - and we do know some things about how bad that will be, and how much more energy and resources it will take to compensate for that.

The other point that arises for me, and applies, of course, to my analysis and Monbiot's as well is that there's something fundamentally and deeply weird about us calculating what level of climate change adaptation we can tolerate - the primary price of adaptation will be paid by the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. A green build-out, odds on, will do almost nothing to benefit them. All it will do is ensure that they have to adapt with no resources to a much harsher scenario. Perhaps that's inevitable no matter what we do - but when we talk about what's liveable or tolerable to us, it isn't so much a matter of whether life will be worth living if we have X degrees warmer - it is how many people don't get to live period.


TDP said...

You put it better than I could! I think we could do both Sharon's strategy and Monbiot's strategy at the same time, but with some pacing modifications. It will take sacrifice from everyone to lower their energy usage so that the energy we need for the green conversion can be redirected. The low-tech conversions need to be done first, like Joyce has done, changing out windows, insulating the attic, etc. Turning down thermostats and using our ovens more efficiently. I think the "get behind the cause for change" enthusiasm that was seen during the election could be tapped to get us all going in this direction.
Massive reduction in personal and business energy use so that we can have the excess energy/money to switch to a greener energy economy. There already are so many people out of work, with little money to spend, that it could become patriotic for them to turn their thermostats lower and thereby feel that their recent poverty has more meaning than just losing their job. It could actually be helping their country transform! Their sacrifice could have a positive, optimistic meaning, something they are contributing to get the job done.

ruchi said...

Thanks, Joyce. I agree with you absolutely that we have to do both: adaptation AND mitigation.

Sharon, thanks for your comments, nice to debate with you as always. ;) I think, interestingly, we are both coming from the same place. I too, am very concerned about how climate change is going to affect the most vulnerable people of the world. But in my mind, that's why adaptation is so vitally important. A green new deal MUST involve ways to reduce the vulnerability of said people: through technology transfer, development assistance, etc.

I think, what we have to ask ourselves here is this: if people are dying, WHY are they dying, and how can we reduce their vulnerability? This is going to depend from circumstance to circumstance. In Bihar, it's flooding that's the problem, in sub-Saharan Africa there's the risk of drought and the increase of malaria as temperatures shift. Now I agree with you that since we don't know what exactly will happen, it's hard to pin-point how to adapt, and how much people will need to adapt. But, we can do some modelling, we have good ideas as to what the vulnerabilities are, and we can build human capital and social institutions by investing heavily in education, health care, etc.

Here's the thrust of my argument, and this might be at the heart of our disagreement (or it might not, I don't know) I don't really buy that human beings will be killed by climate change per se. If human beings die, it will be because we did not do enough to build adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability. So, I don't see it as a priori that climate change will result in the deaths of many of today's vulnerable and poor people, it all depends on whether they STAY vulnerable, or if we are able to build adaptive capacity.

I know it is hard to talk about adaptation, perhaps because it's seen as admitting that we've failed or that we might fail to stop climate change. That's not something people like to think about, and I can understand why. But I think, at this point, not talking about adaptation is akin to burying our heads in the proverbial sand, so I'm happy to be having this discussion with you.

Young Snowbird, right, like you, I advocate both personal sustainability and renewable energy, and believe very strongly that we need both.

Amaya 5 said...

Ruchi, I think that you bring up a lot of good points here, unfortunately I feel there are a lot of side effects to this situation. While adaption is most certainly important aspect to the equation, it will only help for so long. While we can adapt ourselves, we can't force evolution on the rest of the living planet. It also falls, in my opinion on the Monbiot end of the spectrum as far as results are concerned. Or rather what Sharon argues as enormous front-load of fossil fuels - to use her statement out of place.
Technology and resources are going to be needed for your adaption to occur. Resources needed to adjust or as you say adapt, these individuals, communities, and countries to help them survive in a changing landscape. While I really love the fact that you are a humanitarian here, humans are not the only ones being effected. And that fact, effects us even more. The whole ecological system is breaking down due to climate change. And while we can build (using new resources) new communities in less disasterous areas to temporarily help folks out. It truly will only be a temporary fix. Though maybe one that helps the process in the long run. If the ecological food chain is continually torn apart, it is only a matter of time before humans are left with no food. No matter how many victory gardens we plant. There will be more hurricanes, floods, temperature fluctuations, etc... in every landscape.
So while there is global economic crisis going on, it is the perfect time to cut our fossil fuel use as individuals. This is vitally important for setting an example for these developing countries that are following our lead. These third world countries that want the same cars we drive, want the nice big and pretty homes we live in, want our wealthy lifestyles- oh right they want our clean water too, and to have full bellies, and food on their plates when they desire, not just when they are rationed and schools for their children... So that the examples that are followed, not just by governments, but by the people that they govern. Because regardless of whether we are experiencing a peak oil crisis, we are experience the climatic effects of what oil in our atmosphere does, not matter how much oil is left for us to burn. And the billions of people who are waiting to follow our example, must follow a healthy example. So while we are adjusting (or adapting) our use of fossil fuels, we must also move forward on the technological front. Because realistically humans enjoy comfort. And if humans are not comfortable, war will continue at increased levels. Sadly, people often don't make sacrifices unless they are getting something out of it. So technology will need to move us forward to keep our comfort levels and ultimately reduce CO2 emissions. Yes, there will be a front load of fossil fuels doing this, but hopefully coinciding "adaptation" and reduced usage.
Oh there is so much more to this argument.
Bottom line: There is no one silver bullet.

ruchi said...

Amaya, here's the thing: of course I don't think there's a one silver bullet answer either. I favor adaptation AND mitigation. And in terms of mitigation, I think we need to voluntarily cut personal emissions AND we need new renewable technologies. It's gotta be ALL these things. But for some reason, when you start talking about adaptation, people get really scared and start to think you're going to chuck mitigation out the window. No one wants to do that, it's just that adaptation has to be discussed more.

You are right that technology and resources are going to have to be used to enable adaptation: we're going to need everything from malaria nets to schools. We're going to need more homegrown teachers and doctors and engineers in the LDCs. You're right, that's going to use up some fossil fuels. But you know what? I am NOT okay with a world where we put off education for some of the poorest children in the world because it will use up some damn fossil fuels.

So yes, you're right. There's no one silver bullet. We're going to need personal sustainability, new technology, AND we're going to need to build adaptive capacity, especially in the LDCs.

Because if we don't, the real danger is, we could experience that loss of biodiversity I think you are talking about, AND we could also not have built our adaptive capacity.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

This is a really great post with some great points...but after reading your post and the previous arguments made by Astyk and Monbiot, the one thing that has been running through my head is, "Are we really that far gone?" Both Astyk and Monbiot's arguments are based on the assumption that we only have a few years to turn things around, and we might even be too late. But I read a lot of environmental news and blogs, and I don't hear anyone else saying that. Am I reading the wrong articles? Do I need to change my tactics and start demanding that people change instead of kindly encouraging them to change? I think most people would be willing to follow Sharon's strategy and make drastic sacrifices if they felt like there was a critical need. But I think most people are hearing the same message I've been hearing: change is important and necessary, but we have some time to do it.

ruchi said...

Erin, it really depends on what you mean by "far gone." The answer is yes: we are too far gone, in that modelling suggests that even if we cut carbon emissions entirely right now, we'd still see some rise in temperatures. And while for most of us living in North America or Europe, this rise in temperature is only minorly going to affect us, even a small rise may have quite an impact on the Global South. This is why adaptation strategies are imperative even if we're not THAT "far gone." Sorry, I really didn't mean to scare you, but the point is "far gone" basically means different things depending on adaptive capacity. For an incredibly vulnerable people with no resources or human capital to adapt, then even a tiny change can be too much. For say New York or London, "far gone" would be a lot bigger change.

Anonymous said...

Being somewhat pessimistic recently, I'd argue that absent of an immediate world-wide scaled disaster, voluntary energy reduction is much like a prisoner's dilemma except there are millions and millions of prisoners. I will quote a couple of sentences from one of Stanford classes "When there is a shortage of any resource, such as water or energy, there is usually a call for conservation. However, and individual only benefits from restraint if everyone else restrains as well. However, restraint of an individual is unnecessary. That is, if everyone else restrains then it would make much of a difference if you didn't restrain. On the other-hand, if you restrain and no one else does, then your attempt at conservation is futile. Therefore, it is everyone's individual self-interest to NOT conserve. However, if everyone acts individualistically, all are worse off."

Witness the discussion/negotiation between countries during climate summits. The outcome has been nothing more than "no, you do it first."

While I think we as individuals should conserve, a country/world survival strategy cannot rely on it. I am more siding with Monbiot - though it may be too late, a green deal provides tangible and consistent motivation for both businesses (profit) and individuals (jobs).

Human adaption is a necessity at this point. But I also worry that we as humans see a very narrow scope of adaptation. As Amaya pointed out, people may be able to move away for flood land, we cannot force the adaption of the entire ecosystem. The pace of global warming is much too fast for the ecosystem as we know it to adapt. Eventually it is possible that our food chain will be torn.

I obviously don't have an answer. But arguing for one solution only seems too narrow. At this point, we need to use all the tools we have and the ones yet to be invented.