Monday, February 04, 2008

Climate Confusion: Who Wins?

by Michael O'Brien

Climate change is the biggest challenge we face as a humans. Any serious student who analyses the information recognizes that the overwhelming consensus from scientists is that we have a very small period of time in which our efforts will have a positive impact for our planet and our children's future. For the past 10 years or so, there has been rigorous debate both by the scientific community and in the press about climate change. The debate is over, the issues have been discussed and now is the time for us to take responsibility for our future.

It is fascinating to watch the media feel the need to present the “other side” of this issue when there is discourse about climate change. My guess is that they feel vulnerable from the vocal skeptics or right wing talk show hosts so they include a dwindling number of scientists or spokespeople who argue against human causation. It seems there is an inordinate amount of air time devoted to this topic in proportion to the actual amount of credible evidence against human contribution towards climate change. This creates a real problems from a public perception perspective as the general public is falsely led to believe that human contributions are inconclusive. The result is that it leads to confusion about the nature of climate change and delays the necessary changes that we must make so that we do not rob a future away from our children. Unfortunately, confusion is a strategy that Exxon-Mobil has embraced as a public policy strategy. Confusion is thought to keep people from making change and therefore maintain the status quo. We saw the same tactics from the cigarette companies. When the truth came out about the “research” they sponsored it became apparent that it was entirely self serving. With climate change its deja vu all over again.

Open debate and dialogue is the stuff of democracy. As a witness to the debate between John McClaughry and Bill Mckibben in Manchester some months ago, I marveled at just how one sided the debate of climate change has become. As a regularly reader of John's postings in the Rutland Herald I seek to challenge my own assumptions and have looked to John to help me see myself and my world from a different perspective. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Will, one must listen attentively to those that criticize our positions as we must assume that we are susceptible to make mistakes. Only then can we move forward with a certainty and conviction that the road we take is the right one. John has at times opened my eyes to a different and sometimes important perspective and I have developed a broader appreciation of some issues as a result. I was dismayed that John did not do that at the debate in Manchester. John's arguments were feeble attempts at throwing stones at the burgeoning data and information coming out of the scientific community. His paper tiger arguments did not stand up to the light of scrutiny. John clung to his arguments refusing to accept the evidence seemingly because it did not fit into his world view. I was saddened by the fact that John's motives were so transparent. In the course of the discussion, John's self interest in perpetuating his narrow free market agenda (his bread and butter) trumped any recognition of human survival or the threat to the human species. It is hard to take John seriously when he describes himself as being interested in the common good or wanting to maximize wealth and happiness. What is especially disappointing is that John touts his scientific background in an attempt to add validity to his message, yet betrayed that training for the sake of public relations. Good gracious, even Newt Gingrich has written that environmentalism knows no party and recognizes the need to not plunder our natural resources. I think that John could find comfort in entrepreneurial environmentalism from a philosophical point of view and for an area for business growth.

The definition of delusion is: despite overwhelming information to the contrary, a person continues to cling to a belief. I don't think that John is delusional, I do think that his role is to serve as a mouthpiece for a radical free market approach to solving problems. In this instance he represents those who wish to create confusion in regards to climate change. As we look around the state there is evidence that this confusion is bearing fruit for those with a laisez-faire policy towards taking aggressive action. One has to question our local leaders and those in positions of power and authority in state government in regards to creating actionable responses to the mandate we have received from the world community. Typically, those in power are reticent to take bold action as it often increases the risk of criticism or disfavor. Inherent in these positions is a significant level of inertia in making change. We ask them now to be bold because as Goethe as said “ Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

To read more about the McClaughry-Mckibben debate..........

Our Automobile Future


by Michael O'Brien

Our Automobile Future

I write this letter as we come off the heels of the Bali Conference where world leaders met to discuss the issue of climate change. This important meeting did result in an agreement that has been described by Thomas Friedman as “incremental” change. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the prestigious United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that “If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." Friedman discusses in his opinion in a New York Times op-ed article that the change we need has to be transformational. A little tweaking here and a little tweaking there is not going to protect ourselves from the predictable calamity that scientists say will occur. A case in point is automobile usage worldwide.

According to Elizabeth Kobert who wrote a article titled “Running on Fumes” for the New Yorker, she says that there are about 9 personal cars per 1,000 eligible people in China. In India, there are about 11 cars per 1,000 eligible drivers. The comparison becomes interesting when you factor in cars in the United States. Kobert says that we have 1,114 automobiles per 1,000 eligible drivers. These figures help us understand why the United States is the top consumer of fossil fuels and emitter of carbon. The really frightening aspect of all of this is knowing that both China and India's economies are on a substantial growth track that will forever change the above automobile ratios. They are hungry for all of the amenities that are synonymous with a comfortable modern life and driving is one of them.

The urbanization of China has been dramatic over the past decade. Peasants have left the countryside for jobs in urban areas and the promise of a better life. As a result, urban areas have sprung up almost overnight to accommodate the boom in manufacturing. With a population if over 1 billion people, China has over 200 cities with at least 1 million people. As they increase their income, they will have expendable income that will allow them to purchase automobiles. The future looks bright for car sales in China and India. Kobert argues that if China and India were to reach car ownership at just half the numbers of American drivers, those two countries would burn through 100 million barrels of oil a day. If they were to match the number of United States drivers, they would need 200 million barrels of oil a day. To the average person these numbers appear quite meaningless until you understand that the current total world consumption a day is about 86 million barrels of oil. This level of oil production has plateaued since December of 2005 and many are worried that we have begun the inevitable decline in our ability to pump oil at these rates.

This would all be just an interesting academic discussion if it weren't for the fact that 35 billion dollars was just sucked out of our economy due to the increase in fuel prices as we were heading into the Christmas holiday. Money spent on fuel is not money spent on the holiday. A recent poll by by Gfk Roper Public Affairs and Media reports that 27 million Americans will need to borrow money to pay their fuel bills this winter, 20 million of them will use credit cards to pay for heat to stay warm. This comes at a time when utility companies are expanding the payment options for households and for many this includes credit cards.

As we look forward, a prudent person would understand that we are facing several enormous dilemmas. First of all, the world must drastically reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the air. An increasing reliance on the internal combustion engine will obviously seal our fate. If we were to develop an alternative car right now that does not emit carbon it would take years to replace the current stock of vehicles. The average car stays on the road for 7 years. The hundreds of millions of vehicles on the road right now will be with us for years to come. As China and India add to their vehicle stock, it is likely that these vehicles will live out their life cycle as well.

Lastly, it is clear that if we continue to burn fossil fuels we will all be competing for a dwindling supply. The laws of economics tell us that prices will increase as demand outstrips supply. The future appears stark. The implications for increased military conflict to secure our energy future has already begun and will worsen as supply tightens.

Leadership on this issue has been treasonous. We must demand a transformational response from our leaders and from ourselves. The governor's plan to capitalize on the carbon credits that our forest might provide for us is a timid response to the long emergency headed our way. Though the internal combustion engine has transformed our society over the past decades the writing is on the wall. We must either immediately transform the car or severely curtail its usage, we cannot wait.