It's the Lizard Brain, Stupid

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 16, 2010 1:21 AM


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At what point will climate change advocates wake up to the fact that they are chasing their tails? At what point will the various camps reassess the dominant assumptions that inform their positions, namely: 1) It's a communication problem. If only scientists would get some media training, if only journalists didn't do such a crappy job informing the public, if only the Moranos and Anthony Watts of the world didn't exist...and so on. Forget it. None of that makes a difference because people already get that global warming is a problem. Michael Tobis and his ilk believe they are on the front lines of a communications war, fighting the good fight against the likes of George Will and "unhelpful" reporters. They will be going round in circles for quite some time. Tobis & company believe that all they have to do is find a way to break through the fog of misinformation and misdirection. That the path to daylight is paved with a better understanding of climate science. This belief rests on the assumption that Joe Q. Public is willing to engage in the complexities of climate science. Keep dreaming, guys. 2) It's a lack of political courage. Bill McKibben best represents this view. He bemoaned political cowardice during and after Copenhagen. James Hansen thinks this way too. The assumption is that today's political leaders should have the courage to fundamentally reorder the world's economy to head off a problem that won't truly be evident (in terms of real impacts) for decades. Any historical evidence that politicians have ever acted so decisively and proactively? (No, Teddy Roosevelt setting aside forests and protecting wildlife doesn't qualify, because that only happened in response to something that could be seen and felt--e.g., overexploitation of natural resources.) The complicating factor here is that no world leader can afford to act unilaterally anyway, given the planetary scale of the problem. 3) It's a tactical war. Joe Romm, for all his bluster, is really the point person on this front in the U.S. (Communications is a subset of his tactics.) Romm, as anyone who follows Climate Progress knows, has calculated that the most feasible way to reduce carbon emissions is through a cap and trade mechanism. It's the only policy prescription that he believes is politically feasible. Moreover, he has further calculated that a number of unfortunate political compromises will have to be made in order to get cap and trade implemented. (And even then, there's no guarantee.) This explains his camp's embrace of the U.S. Congressional climate bill, which many climate advocates believe is not nearly strong enough to ward off catastrophic climate change. On this point Romm agrees, but again he calculates that the legislation will be improved over time, probably in the near future when climate change becomes more apparent, thus creating the necessary political conditions for more concrete action. So Romm engages in tactics that he evidently feels are necessary to advance this incrementalist strategy. The problem here is, what if he has miscalculated? Hansen certainly thinks he has. And so do Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who have recently laid out a sweeping counter argument at Foreign Policy Magazine. What will be interesting to see on this score is what happens if Congress doesn't pass the climate bill, which seems increasingly likely. If it is passed, I'd say Romm's side won the tactical war and only time will tell if they made the right or wrong calculation. But if the bill is defeated, then is there a reset in climate change strategy? Can the forces advocating for a carbon tax (led by Hansen?) or a massive federal investment in R & D (led by the Breakthrough Institute) line up influential allies to help advance their respective cases? Will Romm & company double down on cap and trade and fight just as hard to get it enacted in the next Congress? He might be among the few in his camp who would relish another battle. He seems to have a natural affinity for political blood sport. Meanwhile, whither international negotiations? Even if the U.N. is removed as the key driver of the process, which is what is now being increasingly suggested, it's still a safe bet that weak carbon emission targets will eventually be the result of any binding treaty. Does anybody really see China or India signing on to anything that might impede their economic growth (especially absent a U.S. climate bill)? So at some point, you have to ask yourself: are the tactics getting you what you want? Huge gambits have been made on the U.S. passing a cap and trade bill. What do you do in Mexico City later this year if there's no U.S. climate bill? At what point do you stop chasing your tail down this path? Now I'm someone who believes that taking Bush & company out of the picture crystallizes the big picture. It was so easy to blame Republicans for eight years. Obviously, we can't do that anymore, since Democrats control all the levers of power. Nonetheless, we often see Romm still puffing up the Republicans as meanie obstructionists to climate legislation. They're a convenient foil, I suppose. But the true villains nowadays to climate advocates are skeptics, or as they are more commonly referred to, "deniers." True, Morano and Watts have given voice to these climate naysayers, but blogger Tobis and science commentators like Chris Mooney overemphasize the Morano effect. Another convenient foil. After all, putting the onus on climate skeptics takes it off climate advocates and their failure to mobilize greater engagement and action on climate change. William Connolley is one climate blogger who doesn't make this mistake, but he still falls prey to a false assumption that is widely held by climate advocates:

Everyone really knows the world is getting warmer and it is our fault. The endless slew of press stories to and fro makes little difference to this. Goverment policy continues onwards like a juggernaut and isn't touched by gossip. Witness the tiny impact the CRU email hacking had, in the end. It all seemed so exciting for a day or two. The obvious fact that people are reluctant to cut their CO2 consumption by not flying off on holiday is just the same as people still putting lots of butter on their toast and salt on their chips.

Notice who bears the blame here: all of us, because we're not changing our behavior. What's ironic about Connolley's statement is that his example of the buttered toast and salted chips is actually proof of why we don't change our behavior. Because, in fact, nobody stops larding on the butter or gorging on french fries until their health goes south. (More people probably stop eating steak due to gout than to a concern for animal welfare or the environment.) That's the way we humans operate. And that's the way we think about climate change. It's a distant problem, a growing danger, sure, but not one that can be felt or fully appreciated in the present. Sort of like the Milky Ways and Dr. Peppers I consume in large quantities. Man, I know I'm gonna pay for them one day, but that doesn't stop me. My point is, we are are a reactive species. Yes, we ought to start paying more attention to our lifestyle habits if we want to lick the climate change problem. But we won't make much progress on that end until we figure out how to overcome the limitations imposed by our evolutionary brain. UPDATE: William Connolloy informs me that I have misunderstood his point--that, in fact, he too is saying there is a cognitive disconnect between certain behaviors and the future risk associated with them.

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