A joint NASA/Library of Congress symposium held today in Washington DC asked:
Will human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our own world-changing technologies? Will our technological abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers?
I wasn’t able to listen to the webcast discussion, so I’m keen to see any forthcoming coverage in the blogosphere or mainstream media. The assembled panels seem to have explored themes at the center of a larger debate on Anthropocene era.
For another perspective on science’s impact on civilization, head over to Slate’s terrific special series on human longevity by Laura Helmuth.
Several months ago, I wondered if the media’s fascination with peak oil, which crested in the mid-2000s, had ended. A big concern of many in the energy/sustainability nexus had found expression in popular culture
and in visuals like this:
But now the zeitgeist has flipped, from crude awakening to crude abundance, thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and fracking. (Yes, this is not an unalloyed good.) The United States, which had for years been fretting about its dependence on foreign oil, is now producing a “tidal wave of oil” of its own, as one analyst recently put it in a CNN report. The story of this turnaround can be told in one graph: Read More
Jeremy Grantham is a fascinating dude. He is a highly successful capitalist who blames capitalism for killing the planet. If you’re familiar with this “connoisseur of [market] bubbles,” as the New York Times referred to him in a profile, it’s probably due to his increasingly Malthusian outlook. In 2011, he warned that “accelerated demand” from developing countries was depleting the earth’s natural resources. He declared that we “now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.”
This resource depletion (peak everything!), combined with global warming, poses an existential threat to civilization, Grantham argues. Though some of his recent peak claims have been questioned by experts and ridiculed by pundits, his message has deeply resonated with greens, peak oilers, and climate activists. Two years ago, climate blogger Joe Romm wrote of Grantham:
He is one of the few leading financial figures who gets both peak oil and global warming.
Those two concerns competed for our attention during the 2000s. Now it appears that one of them has been downgraded in threat level, even by Grantham, who said this week in a Guardian interview: Read More
As someone who tracks environmental discourse in real time, I find it valuable to step back on occasion and look at how public attitudes are shaped. For that, I depend on the work of scholars. One book from 2008 that I’ve only just read explores how several major contemporary environmental themes have been expressed culturally, such as in literature and movies. It’s called Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, by Ursula Heise, a UCLA English professor. (I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Heise several months ago.) In her text, Heise analyzes two conflicting impulses in environmentalism, which are famously summarized in the “think globally, act locally” slogan.
This is a tension that environmentalists haven’t come to grips with yet, especially when we consider the scale of today’s environmental challenges. Read More
Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight’s State of the Union Address. Everybody has their own pet cause or issue, of course. So here’s what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say (my emphasis):
For the sake of the Earth, our family farms and our children’s health, we must send a signal across America and the world that organic is the future. Every child must have access to healthy and safe food. We’ve started an organic garden at the White House, and I will work to create a system to ensure that healthy and safe food is a reality worldwide.
I have realized that neither genetic modification nor chemicals help to produce more food. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Currently, 90 percent of all food commodities grown become biofuel or animal feed; this is a crime when 1 billion people go hungry. So I will work on a transitional plan for phasing out subsidies to a wasteful and unjust agriculture system.
I had promised in my first election campaign that I would ensure that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such. I apologize to my fellow citizens and to citizens of the world that I did not keep my promise. The right to know what you are eating is fundamental to any democracy.
Vandana Shiva has long been treated by environmentalists—and far too many environmental writers–as a font of green wisdom. She’s got an eco-schtick that many otherwise smart people find irresistible. Read More
One of the biggest challenges in the sustainability arena is finding a balance between economic development and environmental protection. There is a good argument to be made that we are today paralyzed by two legacies: 1) the unfettered development legacy that helped build the bridges, dams, highways, cities and suburbs of the United States and, 2) in response to that, the regulatory legacy spawned at the height of the environmental movement in the 1970s. Read More
It’s a shame that our public discussions of energy and environmental issues are so narrowly (and ideologically) framed by politicians, industry, and interest groups.
For example, to listen to Republicans, you wouldn’t know there’s an energy drilling boom underway in the U.S. This ambitious NYT piece unwinds how that boom happened, and where it is may be headed. It’s a nice overview of the implications for U.S. foreign policy and the tradeoffs of expanded oil & gas development (think environmental). As a supplement, check out Bryan Walsh’s incisive analysis of President Obama’s energy policy and the politics that shape it. Both pieces make for essential reading, helping us to understand larger (and conflicting) forces at work. They are also a useful tonic to the noisy, one dimensional energy narrative that usually plays out in the media.
This brings me to my larger point. Much of the discussion on energy is driven either by raw politics or, in green circles, peak oil and/or climate change concerns, with the environmental media largely focused on the latter. But as Jon Foley lamented several years ago:
In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?
Oilprice.com: A recent report stated that replacing all coal based power stations with renewable energy, would not affect climate change, and in fact after 100 years the only difference would be a change of 0.2 degrees Celsius. What are your views on climate change?
Tom Murphy: I see climate change as a serious threat to natural services and species survival, perhaps ultimately having a very negative impact on humanity. But resource depletion trumps climate change for me, because I think this has the potential to effect far more people on a far shorter timescale with far greater certainty. Our economic model is based on growth, setting us on a collision course with nature. When it becomes clear that growth cannot continue, the ramifications can be sudden and severe. So my focus is more on averting the chaos of economic/resource/agriculture/distribution collapse, which stands to wipe out much of what we have accomplished in the fossil fuel age. To the extent that climate change and resource limits are both served by a deliberate and aggressive transition away from fossil fuels, I see a natural alliance. Will it be enough to avert disaster (in climate or human welfare)? Who can know – but I vote that we try real hard.
On that note, it deserves mention that the 40th anniversary of the hugely influential Limits to Growth book recently passed us by, with virtually no coverage of it in the mainstream press. A symposium was held earlier this month at the Smithsonian, which “addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet.”
It would be slightly less difficult if these challenges were treated by progressive/green media types in a larger context, instead of being so narrowly framed around climate change. For instance, a consortium of journalistic outlets participates in a project called Climate Desk. This collaborative venture, which just retooled its website, defines its objective thusly:
Climate change is one of the defining stories of our time: rising sea levels, bigger storms, peak oil, colder winters and hotter summers. That begs the questions: why aren’t we talking about it more, and what the hell are we going to do about it?
Sure, climate change seems on track to be one of the defining stories of our time. But is it a bigger story than resource depletion or unsustainable development, which I would argue speak to the underlying reasons for rising greenhouse gases? If so, then it would seem that a project like Climate Desk is merely reporting on the symptoms of a larger problem. That makes me think that the “what the hell are we going to do about it” question is best served by addressing the causes of climate change, not the symptoms.
Maybe next time the Climate Desk gets revamped, it’ll get a new name that reflects the defining challenge of our time: How to chart a sustainable course for the planet without restraining economic growth.
Michael Lemonick, a veteran science journalist, has an intriguing op-ed in today’s LA Times. He argues that the severe weather/climate change attribution debate is too simplistic and unhelpfully framed around the wrong question. Here’s a better way to think about this issue, he suggests:
An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.
So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack “” but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.
Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event “” a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm “” is caused by climate change.
That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.
This sounds reasonable to me. The problem I have with the severe weather/climate debate is that all those other contributing factors Lemonick mentions largely get ignored, so that the global warming angle can remain paramount. For example, when we hear about the imminent “dust-bowl-ification” of the American Southwest or Australia, the discussion does not include the obvious risk of city-building in arid, marginal landscapes, and the kinds of policies in place that put populations there increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, extended droughts, etc.
This is why I think global warming needs to be folded into a larger debate about sustainability. Because if we don’t change our patterns of land use and development, reducing greenhouses gases isn’t going to be enough to save cities like Los Angeles, Miami, or Phoenix.
UPDATE: In the comments, Roger Pielke Jr. mentions something he wrote with Daniel Sarewitz in The New Republic in the early 2000s:
Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese, and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt.
UPDATE: Some context from Andy Revkin.
I’m betting Andy posted it now because of the recent BEST news, which has inspired many headlines like this one.
But for me, the cartoon perfectly illustrates the suggestion I offer at the end of my latest post for the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
Steve Jobs got us attached to our gadgets. Some suggest that a similar bond needs to happen with sustainability. I explore this theme over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.