Friday, July 11, 2008


I was flipping through AM radio on the way back from work on Wednesday (because my walkman/phone is broken) and, out of curiosity, listened to a few minutes of a right-wing rant against everything climate change. There were a few nuggets of truth mixed in with a whole barge-load of rubbish.

My first thought was remembering how I wish that the issue weren't so narrowly focused on climate-change. Sustainability is about everything on this planet. Climate change is about a single nutrient cycle (carbon) and one hell of a bad outcome if we mess with it too much.

Next, the host went on about how China and India refuse to accept caps until they match the per capita carbon output of the west. This was used to argue that caps will needlessly hamper our economy. However, the alternative is continue to increase our output so that we stay ahead of the developing world. Otherwise I don't see how letting the indians catch up to us is any better than meeting them in the middle. At some point in the future we'll all be on equal terms, it may as well be on a livable planet.

Finally, I noticed how emotional the arguments are. The scientific community is worried about climate change because it has constructed a bunch models, crunched endless numbers, and performed numerous experiments that say we are doing our best to bump the climate out of the stable state it's been in for a few millenia into a completely unknown region that will likely be warmer.

The thing is, the earth is so complex that it just might get cooler instead. However, if you shift the chemistry as much as we are doing, something will change. Our food production system will be challenged severely and if we can't respond sufficiently, billions could die or be displaced. The problem is, since our current state is so stable, once things start changing, it'll be too late to stop. So all this arguing over whether Katrina and the floods and fires can be linked to climate change is pointless. The details don't matter because (look up chaos theory) we can't predict the exact outcome even if we had them all right (which we don't).

The details don't matter for another reason, though. Models, predictions, and robust scientific theories aren't going to spur the kind of change we need. People are not rational. Science is the application of rational thinking to the natural world. It turns out this is useful. It is also very hard because people are not rational. To change behavior and future outcomes, sustainability needs to be sold with broad, sweeping, emotionally-charged arguments.

There is this idea among those who wish to keep the status-quo that capping emissions will hurt the bottom line. This idea is not limited to greenhouse gasses. Chemical plants that produce waste products fight regulation worrying that it will cost more to clean up than they can afford.

In the short term these fears are probably real, but in the broader view, there is no reason why emitting no waste products would cost more than emitting lots. Look at the word waste. Why do we want to waste stuff. Let's use all the resources we have as fully as possible, not just as little as we need to to make a quick buck.

I have lots of thoughts on how an unchecked market leads to these self-destructive short-term solutions (ask John Nash) and how governing bodies need tilt the balance so companies take the long view. I am not an economist though, so they are just my thoughts. Anyway, no-one cares about the details.

Sustainability means to many that resources are limited, therefore we should conserve them. People need to see the positive side of sustainability. Dumping gasses into the air, chemicals into the waters, and trash into the land is waste. That's not a judgment, that's the definition of the word. These are waste products. Waste is bad. Companies should be made to feel the cost of the waste they produce. This won't cost anything overall, we are just shifting the cost from society back to the producers of the waste.

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