Our Failed Climate Change Defense

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Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

One Time for One Planet

Image Credit: Arjan Richter
Image Credit: Arjan Richter

One of the things that I have always appreciated about the future is its tendency toward streamlining. One hundred books on my shelf become a convenient to read thirty gigabits on my kindle. Instead of having to wait for the news to broadcast, and then being chained to one station, I can peruse the entirety of world news from a convenient webpage at my leisure. We seem to be obsessed with the notion of contracting things; making them smaller, punchier, and more concentrated.

This is why the entire concept of how we keep time has me at an utter loss. Despite having incredible advancements in technology, our method of time keeping is so insanely disjointed. Given our species’ increasingly planetary nature, why do we still use a method of time keeping invented by an industry that has long been replaced as a major mover of people? Railroad companies in the United States were the first to popularize the notion of time zones. It was an advancement they needed as, prior to their intervention, each town would set their own time based on noon being whenever the sun was at the highest point in the sky. This meant that “high noon” was often different from town to town. Becoming increasingly frustrated, the railroads instituted time zones as they needed a more standard method of setting their schedules.

Daylight savings time was adopted for a similar reason; standardization. As the United States entered into World War I, fuel that would otherwise be used for artificial lighting was needed for the war effort. Thus, war-time was instituted that adjusted most people’s working days to coincide better with the sun. This practice was ended after the end of the war but was reinstated during World War II. The practice was merged with standard time after the end of our planets’ second great conflict and DST has been causing unnecessary mass confusion ever since.

Both of these time related anecdotes have a common thread. The method of timekeeping was adjusted to better suit societal requirements. There was a pressing need that could be effectively resolved by changing the way we organized things in the temporal dimension. Humans are once again faced with a challenge that can be easily resolved in a similar manner. We live at one of the first times in history where having to organize a meeting between groups of people in Los Angeles, Johannesburg, and Shanghai doesn’t sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, we are experiencing unnecessary resistance to this kind of progress because of our own refusal to adjust our time keeping methods. To organize this meeting you would have to first determine a time to meet that works for one location and then ask other locations if it fits in their schedule, adjusting for time zones. You then have to keep in mind daylight savings time which can differ not only from country to country but sometimes city to city. And if you wanted to have a meeting at the same time a month later, you would have to go through all of the conversions again because the daylight savings time situation may have changed.

There is social need for a change. Our global society needs a global time standard from which to operate; One time for one planet. This could be based off of Greenwich Mean Time as it typically considered the standard time already. The idea would be that at midnight GMT on January the first of a designated year, the entire world enters a unified time zone with the time 00:00. This time would be kept in a twenty-four hour style. Now, scheduling your meeting would be as easy as asking if 15:30 works for each group; no adjustments, no calculations, no confusion.

Typically the first question asked in protest to this suggestion is “If it is 11:00 where I am how will I know the time at city X?” It would also 11:00, but really what that person is addressing is the loss of an ability to relate sun positions to times. This would be technically lost, but knowing the time in a place doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about the sun there. If I asked you what the position of the sun is at 8am in Alaska, the answer would vary depending on the time of year. Under a global time standard, terms like morning, noon, and evening would take on the meanings that they had before time zones or DST were popularized. They would describe approximate sun positions, not approximate times.

There are several instances where a global standard is already observed. For starters, the internet runs on a Coordinated Universal Time or UTC (the initialism comes from French). Because of this, most tech companies use UTC for official business. Coincidentally, a lot of these companies have departments all over the world that have to be coordinated. The United States military also uses an international time standard when coordinating between time zones known as Zulu time. China has instituted a national time standard (UTC+08:00) which collapses its five geographic time zones into one standard time zone to avoid confusion. They also don’t observe DST. As a result, the entire economy can move as one unit with no temporal confusion despite vast distance.

As the world continues to become more interconnected the benefits of a universal time only become more obvious. It was estimated that in the US alone, the DST switch costs more than $400 million dollars each spring. I couldn’t find any estimates of global economic cost due to non-standard time, but I am almost certain they exist. With this system we could lessen the amount of confusion in our transactions and our encounters. Commerce, travel, and communication would all benefit from this change. There is also another important yet more ephemeral benefit to this idea. We as a people would benefit from a time standard that represents what we are becoming as a species; united.

On Humanizing Climate Denial

Image Credit: Paul Townsend
Image Credit: Paul Townsend

Imagine you worked at a men’s shirt store, making the world’s most luxurious and stylish shirts. Day after day you stitch together, by hand, plates of fine Egyptian cotton for your clients. Your father did this, as did his father, and his before him; countless generations of clothiers perfecting the art of the dress shirt. The hands of your forefathers guide your fingers as you place stitch upon stitch upon stitch into sleeves and cuffs, chest plates and collars. One day, sitting in your shop you hear the bell over the door ring. The din of traffic on your street grows momentarily. You look up to see a man who you assume is looking to be fitted for one of your shirts. Suddenly, before you can speak, the man rushes over to the counter and throws his body towards you. His vise like hand ensnares your collar and he rips you from your seat dragging you up and over your workstation and towards the door. When you ask him why he is doing this, he tells you that making shirts is bad for the city. He says that for the good of all people you must now become a fitness consultant. You struggle against his grasp but you are still overpowered in every way. This store was not only your life, but it was your father’s and grandfather’s lives. Apparently, without your input, that rich history has been bleached from the tapestry of time and you are powerless to fight it.

Lately, I have been wondering if this is how at least some of the people who deny climate change feel. Fossil fuels are a deep and integral part of the United States’ history. Nearly all of the industries that bore this country from struggling colonial settlement to world super power were either fossil fuels themselves or industries that directly depend on them. Large parts of the American east were built up by the coal those regions produced. Fortunes, and the communities built on its heels, were made off of oil in Texas. The automotive industry, ever a source of national pride, depended on the oil trade for fuel. The steel industry that gave rise to the mighty cities of the nation was dependent on coal. The railroad companies that bound the nation together depended on both steel and coal to move the most important people and the most important goods of their time. This is a deep, deep history and a source of American pride. The entire American dream of being able to start with the shirt on your back and build an empire is spelled out time and again in oil and coal; in steel and train tracks.

But now, people come on to the scene suggesting nothing less than one of the most radical paradigm shifts imaginable. It sounds to those who deny climate change like climate advocates are telling everyone to abandon a ship that has served us for so long. It sounds like a call to dive in to the cold and murky waters of the unknown without a clear sense of direction. It sounds like a terrifying proposition and I wonder sometimes if that is why people are willing to forgo solid scientific evidence and hold fast to an incorrect assumption. Humans have evolved to be afraid of change. If the known is working adequately, why change to something that is unknown and potentially dangerous?

This is why it’s important for climate advocates to be conscientious of how we present data. I feel like I will always be harkening back to Chris Mooney’s Washington Post op-ed about how resistance to many things in science (vaccines, climate change, nuclear power, evolution in schools) is framed as a science issue but is truly an issue of emotion and trust. Telling people in fossil fuel industries that their trade is killing the planet leads to them taking up a defensive stance. People do not listen when they are worried about being dragged from what they have known their entire lives.

If climate advocates want to help the world change, we must realize the magnitude of what we are suggesting. We must then realize that, while the path may look simple to us, to others it is an unnecessary one filled with danger and uncertainty. It is our job not to oppose these people, but to work with them. Not to force their views in line with ours, but to gently guide them onto a better path. Sometimes good science should be presented like a sledge-hammer; shattering preconception and false observation. But other times it is important to realize that when dealing with people there are many competing and conflicting emotions. This may be the greatest challenge of being a climate change advocate. It is undoubtedly a part of the challenge we face.

I shouldn’t have to say, however, that we must face it.

America’s Blood Stone

Image credit: Rachel Molenda
Image credit: Rachel Molenda

Last week I was holding a freshly dried Roundtree and York blue stripped button down shirt when I had a sudden realization so severe that my vision began to fade to the soft gray light that signals the onset of a loss of consciousness. A connection was made that was so visceral, so astounding, that my body could not decide if vomiting or passing out was the correct course of action. Standing there in my apartment complex’s laundry room, holding my warm, crisp shirt, I realized that the garment was stained with blood. It wasn’t mine or from anyone that I knew. The blood wasn’t even physically present, but rather was a price for the state of the cloth that I held by my fingers. It wasn’t the blood of the Sri Lankan workers who stitched it together. It wasn’t the blood of workers who harvested the cotton comprising 68% of the shirt’s weave. It was the blood of my own countrymen. My shirt was stained with the blood of other Americans.

 ~~~

The jewelers of the world had a problem in the nineteen nineties. More and more people were becoming aware that more and more of the diamonds showing up in western markets were so-called “blood diamonds”. Clearly, a person discovering that the diamond engagement ring they just bought had been mined to sustain genocide was not good for the diamond business. Or, I guess, humanity. So the United Nations, spurred on by NGOs like Silent Witness, enacted steps to try to ensure that diamonds entering the global trade were being mined cleanly and legally. These diamonds could be certified as being clean of the blood of civilians that had their lands stolen and their bodies mutilated to satisfy a global lust for crystalized carbon. It is still unclear how effective these measures were or how effective they continue to be. Luckily for the diamond business, people have stopped caring as much. So has the diamond business.

 ~~~

“Ok, enjoy your life in Hell!” These were the parting words of a coal industry representative to West Virginia resident Andy Winter. Andy has lived in Lindytown all his life. His family had lived there all of their lives. It was only when Andy refused to sell his family’s portion of Appalachia to the coal companies that he was condemned to the ninth circle for betraying… someone. The companies wanted the land for something called Mountaintop Removal mining, or MTR. As opposed to traditional mining, MTR involves the literal leveling of mountains to gather the coal out from amongst the rubble. It is estimated that more than 500 mountains have been erased from the landscape through this kind of mining.

But mountains don’t simply come down like they do in a window display at an outdoor store. Their demolition commends a heavy price. Mountains have to be cleared of all timber. This leaves only jagged scars where old growth forest used to be. Rarely is this timber even taken to market; it is buried or burned. Rubble blasted from mountainsides is discarded in streambeds, the act of which destroys aquatic habitats millions of years in the making. These streams will not become viable again on any timescale that concerns the juvenile species that doomed them. Entire aquatic communities are lost, and the fish that survive are subject to greatly increased levels of selenium, a toxic by-product of MTR that is supposed to be contained in specially designed pools. Scores of fish with deformed spines and jaws bring the soundness of these pool’s design sharply into question. The EPA, by the way, was recently persuaded by the coal lobby to raise the maximum amount of selenium pollution allowed in rivers near mining operations.

And lest you think the price to be paid for this rock is measured solely in disrupted natural communities; human communities also share in this burden. Coal companies use technically legal yet morally objectionable practices to snatch up all the land they can. Entire towns, including churches and cemeteries, are dynamited to extract the other black gold that lies amongst the smoldering remains of both natural and human communities. Residents that keep their lands, residents like Andy Winter, must contend with living on an increasingly poisoned property. Studies have found that humans living near mining operations are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 42% more likely to be born with birth defects. All of this while blasting can legally take place only a thousand feet from their front door.

 ~~~

Standing there, holding my warm shirt in my fingers, I noticed the sickening blood stain. Humans like to convince themselves that the members of our species who commit atrocities are vastly different than we are. It is only in the savage wilds of Africa that people have their lands seized and their bodies mutilated in the name of the blood diamond trade. Those things could not possibly happen in America. But with 45% of America’s electricity coming from coal and most of that coal coming from Appalachia, the fact is America has a blood stone of its own. And nearly all aspects of my life, and of your life, depend on this trade. It is not just my clothes that have been ruined with blood, but nearly my entire life. I’m still not sure if passing out or vomiting is the correct course of action.

Strive to be Ready for When the Change Comes

Image Credit: USDA
Image Credit: USDA

“Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready for when the change comes.” -Andrew Jackson

I am consistently amazed by the degree to which human responses to change are comparable to that of other animals. For all of our blustering that we with our enormous brains are superior to the lesser beasts, we manage to fall into a lot of the same patterns as our imagined underlings. The population of Ireland in the early seventeen hundreds, for instance, was limited by the fact that agriculture was difficult and crop yields were typically low. This pinned the population at around two million. However, with the introduction of the potato the population of the small island exploded four fold. The crop was ideally suited for growth in the wet, temperate climate and gave great yields on small plots of land. Even the poorest of peasants could farm large potato crops on their meager lands and stuff their family full of the tremendous tuber.

This population response to a sudden increase in resources is found in every species. Every individual in every population has an energy budget that needs to be fulfilled. If you can only find enough food to sustain the body mass that you already have, you are not going to add more mass let alone spend precious energy reproducing. However, if the potato gods, in the form of Sir Walter Raleigh, gifts your island with an abundance of metabolic energy for every individual, then mating will commence posthaste. And it’s not just humans that follow this pattern. Muskrats, damselflies, right down to bacteria all fall in to this resource usage pattern.

The inverse of this pattern is also true. Take away precious resources from a system and the individuals, now faced with a scarcity problem, with compete for what is left. Some species will go as far as hoarding resources so that they are self-insured against future resource depletion. Here again is a trend that humans fit perfectly. Today we have complicated systems of wire, light and electricity to transfer our stock of resources from smartphone to bank server to ATM. Still, however, the concept remains the same. Not to mention, it was only seconds ago by evolutionary standards that people did have to physically hoard their resources and protect them from others.  In fact, the entire notion of capitalism is based on the fact that resources are finite so you better get as much as you can because you just never know when there will be a shortage.

This stands in comparison to my favorite near utopia, the United Federation of Planets, in which molecules can be taken from anything and arranged into anything else. The result is that money is a non-existent thing because, when your own waste can be turned back into food, resources are effectively infinite.

But until we arrive at that glorious point in the future where I can command my tea to be earl grey and hot, questions of a scarcity society will continue to plague us. Some of our scarcity questions we seem capable of solving. I would wager that we already have the technological components that we need to solve our fossil fuel scarcity question. Others questions are considerably more frightening. With only an estimated 2.5% of earth’s water being fresh, and less than one percent of that being available for human use, how will we solve that most biologically basic scarcity issue? With rivers now failing to reach oceans and aquifers drying up, will we hoard our resources and fight each other over what is left? Or, will we follow the model that we have set for ourselves time and time again, adaptation. At the point in history when enough food could not be gathered to feed a village, we cultivated our crops and made cities. When we could not cultivate enough to feed the city, we irrigated those crops and made nations. Now we face a choice; not just in water usage, but in nearly all realms of scarcity questions. We can remain as we are and watch as our countries wither. Or we can adapt, innovate, and build a world.