20 Aug 2009

Politics, Community and Climate

In Forget Shorter Showers (via SJ), Derrick Jensen reminds us that personal action cannot solve political problems. He suggests that people -- as citizens (not consumers) -- actively go after those in power, destroying those perpetuating injustice. (I'd do that, but this chair is sooo comfy :)

So how about the people who want to get up, to do something? Well, they need to coordinate their actions. What kind of results might we expect to see? This article [pdf] describes scientists' attempt to simulate the actions of many people -- realistic actions -- using computer models.

A good start, but what about those pesky humans? They are not often as reliable as computer models. This article [pdf] discusses a surprisingly underdeveloped academic niche -- sociologists looking at the human response to climate change. Why is the field underdeveloped? There's the academic reason ("they tend to be more interested in general theories rather than specific topics"). That doesn't mean that nothing useful is emerging. One study looked at how local communities in the US responded to the threat of climate change:
“The most at risk and least responsible were most likely to participate, and the most responsible and least at risk were least likely,” says Zahran. If it suited an area well to emit loads of carbon dioxide and it never suffered the consequences, then the area would be unlikely to participate actively in efforts to reduce emissions."
Why? Free-riding. (Hey! I thought that economists invented that!)

This last paper reminds me of the talk I heard last week at the Brower Center. David Orr (Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College) discussed climate change (we're screwed) and mountaintop removal (WV rivers and communities are screwed). The connection between the two? It's REALLY hard to coordinate those who will suffer to take action in opposition to those who are benefiting from the status quo. (Students in my class will read Olson's book on collective action to learn about this issue.)

Gee. Sounds familiar.

Orr gave some ugly facts:
  • In one week, more explosives are used for mountaintop removal than are used in one month in Iraq and Afghanistan. Need a villain? Massey Energy.
  • Global temperatures are up by 0.7C, and we are locked into a 1.6C increase.
  • Since climate change is characterized by non-linear, stochastic feedback (things can get bad, unexpectedly, and quickly), we are in trouble if we cross the tipping point
  • The tipping point is at +2C, which will (probably) arrive when atmospheric carbon hits 450ppm. We are now at 387ppm and gaining 2ppm/year. That means we will pass the point of no return around 2040.
  • The projections are for 250 million to one billion climate change refugees by 2050.
Even with all this, he's hopeful (but not optimistic) that we -- as a species -- will survive.

Bottom Line: Somewhere out there is a future that "we" control, and we are going to have to change our ways if we are going to avoid the nasty version of our future -- a planet that looks like the picture above :(


  1. So, where does it all leave us? An interesting insight from Social Psychology is the "illusion of control", by which each one of us likes to believe he or she actually exerts a high amount of control in our life and fate. This is somewhat false; many of what happens around us follows probabilistic or stochastic distributions.

    So, I would argue not to forego the short shower, cycling to work, recycling or whatever it is you do just because it won't matter in the grand scheme of things - instead, do engage on those actions. It's not just the illusion of control; just as attitudes guide action, another Social Psychology insight is that actions shape attitudes as well. This might actually help shape people's voting behaviour, to go after those pesky politicians - at the ballot box, at least.

  2. I concur with EE on social psych. grounds. As EE states, behavior often helps determine attitude, so while those those small actions don't really add up to much, people are instilled with a certain [conservation] ethic that primes them to be an engaged constituency. That's when large-scale changes can happen.

    Or at least that's the hope...

  3. @EE and Kai -- I think the point is that personal action is neither necessary nor sufficient for change. It's a nice thing, a happy thing. Sometimes, it's just a false security (I am recycling, so I neednt do more to save the planet...)

  4. @ David

    Good point. It might have a detrimental effect indeed. My point is in a representative democracy, citizens voicing their opinions go a long way into cajoling decision makers into the necessary measures.

    I'm not sure where to stand. I suppose form an economic and technical point of view you're right, but I can't bring myself to believe those small actions I do aren't important. I suppose they are important for me, which leads us into a completely different field.

    But I take your point: no matter how much small stuff each of us does, the impact is small and we need institutions to make the right decisions.


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