climate hope

At the end of this interview, the environmental historian Jason Moore says, “Capitalism … had its social legitimacy because in one way or another it could promise development. And I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously anymore.” Which is a very strange thing to say indeed, because economic development is the one promise that capitalism has delivered on, and massively. (This is the chief burden of the books by Deirdre McCloskey that I wrote about here and here.) In fact, and quite obviously, economic development around the world is the chief reason we have a climate crisis, because that development has ravaged our environment — and the global nature of modern capitalism means that that ravaging has been dispersed over the entire globe.

Moore agrees with my friend Wen Stephenson that nothing serious can be done to avert the oncoming climate catastrophe except a world-wide political/economic revolution. Stephenson:

The sheer depth, scale, and speed of the changes required at this point are beyond anything a mere climate movement can possibly accomplish, because such a movement is inherently unsuited to the nature of the task we face: radically transforming the political-economic system that is driving us toward climate breakdown. Given the sclerotic system in which the Green New Deal — the only proposal ever put before Congress that confronts the true scale and urgency of the climate catastrophe — is dead on arrival, mocked even by the Democratic Speaker of the House, the pretense that anything less than revolutionary change is now required amounts to a form of denial.

I am skeptical about this proposal for two reasons:

  1. The revolution would have to be global, because if it happens only in Europe or North America, or both, then global capital will simply shift its attentions and energies to other parts of the world, East and South (which is already where most of the depredations of the environment are happening). But a single, ideologically unified, worldwide political revolution is simply unimaginable.
  2. I see absolutely no reason to believe that any socialist government, local or global, will implement the changes needed to slow climate change. Socialism has a uniformly terrible record in these matters, from the Soviet Union to Chavez’s Venezuela — totally dependent for its social stability on global petrocapitalism — to this little country you may have heard of called China. I strongly suspect that that pattern will continue: when socialist policies throw a spoke into the engine of commerce, and the economy starts to collapse so that there’s less and less wealth to distribute, then socialist governments, like all others, will not hesitate to exploit the environment to become more productive. (Or will become state-capitalists like the Chinese Communist Party.)

Where does that leave us? Well, you can offer a counsel of despair, as Jonathan Franzen does. Now, he says he doesn’t despair:

If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

But this is frankly to admit that all the victories are short-term and small-scale. Franzen tries not to think about what’s happening in the longer term and on the global scale.

Does anything remain? Possibly: technological fixes. Any potential fixes are fraught with uncertainty and danger, but more and more scientists are quietly hinting that they just may be our last resort. But why are those scientists being so quiet in their hinting? Largely because almost every climate activist I know of is absolutely and unremittingly hostile to any such proposals. Like my suspicions about global socialist revolution, their suspicions about technological fixes come in two varieties. The first is straightforward and reasonable: Why would we trust the very technocracy that got us into this mess to get us out?

The second one, though, is a little more complicated. I think that many climate activists hate the very idea of technological fixes because if they should happen to work that would mean that the bastards got away with it. That is, if the global capitalist elite that has soo cheerfully and brazenly and heedlessly destroyed the natural world should, at the last moment, pull a technological rabbit out of their technocratic hat that stops the worst from occurring, that would feel like the biggest miscarriage of justice ever, because a group of people who have a very strong claim to the title of Greatest Criminals in History would walk away scot-free and indeed might even be thought of as heroes. It offends one’s sense of justice so profoundly that it’s hard to root for such technological fixes to work, even if they could indeed avert the worst consequences of capitalist exploitation of the planet.

But a planet saved is better than a planet ruined. Even if in the saving the Greatest Criminals walk free.

So I am thinking a lot about the various technological means of addressing climate change. I’m looking for actions less dangerous than the great big global fixes that some of the more imaginative technocrats propose, but that also would have, at least potentially, far greater effects than the strictly local actions that Franzen recommends. Ideas in this post seem to come in twos, so here are two very promising ideas:

The first involves making plants a little better at holding carbon dioxide:

Chory believes the key to fixing that imbalance is training plants to suck up just a little more CO2, and to keep it longer. She is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin — found in cork and cantaloupe rinds — which is an incredible carbon-capturer and is resistant to decomposition. By encouraging plants to have bigger, deeper, more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.

The second would turn air conditioners into carbon-capture machines:

A paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour. Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a developing fix for climate change — also depend on moving large volumes of air. So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

Let a thousand such flowers bloom — a thousand ways to address our changing environment that are technologically feasible and highly scalable but do not require the complete transformation of the whole human order. Keep those ideas coming, scientist friends. We desperately need them.

the BAD problem

As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.

I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring-as-Dirt Problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is a very interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often boring. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is scary, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.

Robinson Meyer. As Rob suggests, almost every social problem in desperate need of addressing shares the BAD problem.

“a benevolent green nationalism”

This, by Paul Kingsnorth from his new book, speaks for my politics about as completely as anything I’ve read in a long time:

Some of the new populists may hope they can sound the death knell of the green movement, but perhaps they can instead teach it a necessary lesson. What Haidt calls nationalism is really a new name for a much older impulse: the need to belong. Specifically, the need to belong to a place in which you can feel at home. The fact that this impulse can be exploited by demagogues doesn’t mean that the impulse itself is wrong. Stalin built gulags on the back of a notional quest for equality, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to make things fair.

The anti-globalist attack on the greens is a wake-up call. It points to the fact that green ideas have too often become a virtue signal for the carbon-heavy bourgeoisie, drinking their Fairtrade organic coffee as they wait for their transatlantic flight. Green globalism has become part of the growth machine; a comfortable notion for those who don’t really want much to change.

What would happen if environmentalism remade itself – or was remade by the times? What might a benevolent green nationalism sound like? You want to protect and nurture your homeland – well, then, you’ll want to nurture its forests and its streams too. You want to protect its badgers and its mountain lions. What could be more patriotic? This is not the kind of nationalism of which Trump would approve, but that’s the point. Why should those who want to protect a besieged natural world allow billionaire property developers to represent them as the elitists? Why not fight back – on what they think is their territory?

An estimated 10 billion people will inhabit that warmer world. Some will become climate refugees—moving away from areas where unbearable temperatures are the norm and where rising water has claimed homes. In most cases, however, policy experts foresee relatively small movement within a country’s borders. Most people—and communities, cities and nations—will adapt in place. We have highlighted roughly a dozen hotspots where climate change will disrupt humanity’s living conditions and livelihoods, along with the strategies those communities are adopting to prepare for such a future.

— What Life Will Be Like on a Much Warmer Planet – Scientific American. This article + infographic from SciAm (paywalled, I think, and if so, sorry) is pretty good, but I’d love to see another post on places that will benefit from climate change.

Now, before I go any further: I think anthropogenic climate change is real and is going to be, overall, enormously destructive. I favor serious global governmental intervention to head off, if possible, the worst of it.

But it’s not going to be bad for everyone, and it would be fascinating to learn who will benefit and how. But few journalists or scientists want to tell those stories, for fear that they’ll reduce public concern.