Power Points | We're Only Human

by Terry Wildman, Editor-in-Chief

History shows the first evidence linking climate change to human activities was carefully documented in 1897 by Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927). What began as more of an exercise about the effect of rising CO2 on ambient temperature soon generated a flood of increasingly urgent and conscientious warnings about the rapid warming of Earth and the dire consequences of inaction. Even then, in spite of growing scientific and anecdotal evidence of destabilization of climate the dialogue on the phenomenon foundered under pressure from disbelievers and naysayers. It’s long been known that CO2 naturally occurs in the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants, and animals. The trouble comes from human activity that alters the carbon cycle, both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks such as our oceans and forests to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

“We have entered a ‘long emergency’ in which a myriad of worsening ecological, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises,” says David W. Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College in Ohio. “It is a collision of two non-linear systems – the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other.”1 Unfortunately those on both the sides of the issue become unbalanced, unrealistic, and ideological and do not solve the fundamental problem of needing to manage carbon pollution.

Sadly, the response at the national and international levels has thus far ranged from total indifference to being weak through inconsistency. We now face a ‘perfect storm’ caused by the collision of changing climate; spreading ecological disorder, which includes deforestation, soil loss, water pollution and shortages, species extinction, and ocean acidification; population growth; unfair distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national, ethnic, and religious tensions, and the proliferation of nuclear arsenals. These are all made worse by systemic failures of foresight and policy.

Part of the problem we face is the sheer enormity and difficulty of the issue. Climate change is scientifically complex, politically divisive, economically costly, morally contentious, and all too easy to deny or even defer to others to deal with at a later date. Again cynics, non-believers, and NIMBYists, most of who are stirred up by plaintiff law firms looking for business, are proving to be the worst offenders. By not accepting the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing to the urgent need to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization we might as well roll up the streets because we will be guilty of committing the largest political and moral failure thus far recorded. Oddly this ‘crime,’ which totally impacts the future of life on this planet, doesn’t even have a name.

This is all part and parcel of the problem of how we must govern ourselves going forward.

Forty years ago in his essay An Inquiry into the Human Prospect economist Robert Heilbroner stated, “I not only predict but I prescribe a centralization of power as the only means by which our threatened and dangerous civilization will make way for our successor.”2 He included global warming along with other threats to industrial civilization in his paper. Heilbroner also noted that, in the final analysis we might very well be found guilty of simply not caring enough to do what was right for posterity. He stated that the extent to which power must be centralized depends on the capacity of countries that are accustomed to affluence to exercise the self-discipline necessary to step up to the plate.

History again shows that the performance of highly centralized governments is far from encouraging. They are effective at waging war and partially solving economic problems but they continually fail to get out of the way of their own usually massive size, sluggishness, and multi-level bureaucracy.

It’s not that it can’t be done. I have never heard anyone grumble over the costs of water treatment. People know better. They know that if they don’t do the right thing for their company and society, if they dumped foul wastes into public waterways, it would only come back and bite them on the backside. People know the resource is finite and we couldn’t survive without clean water. Companies for the past three decades have been showing responsibility and few, if any, grouse about the price. This is evident in countless firms as costs of investments are capitalized, preventive maintenance is built into the operating plan, and staff members are properly trained to do their jobs. Water treatment is part of operations, no ifs, ands, or buts.

So why on earth are we debating climate change instead of managing gaseous waste the way we manage physical and liquid waste? I suspect the answer is as simple as the fact that, for the most part, we can’t see or taste CO2. It often simply blows away, leaving us with the age-old answer to many problems – out of sight out of mind. Is it that we can’t know what we can’t see? We can’t understand what we can’t taste? Wrong! We are a heckuva lot smarter than that.

“I believe we’re mired in a dysfunctional debate on climate change because it’s a classic way for politicians to exhibit their self-professed profundity,” said John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil. “What I object to are self-declared experts who, lacking any scientific knowledge or credentials, basically repeat what they have read, have no certainty other than their opinion, and believe themselves omniscient on the subject. They can present themselves as the saviors of humankind, the protectors of the biosphere, the heroes of modernity, the avowed enemies of the unclean.”3

We have already proved that we are well on the way to managing physical waste and liquid waste with tangible social and economic benefits. Why then can’t we turn a social and environmental problem like carbon emission into value-creating enterprises that improve society as well as the sustainability of our earth? In actual fact we can set aside our arguing for or against global warming or climate change because that’s not the point. We can also forget the extortion by developing countries for climate change remediation payments. The issue is whether we have the wherewithal, wisdom, will, and foresight to preserve and improve the human enterprise in the midst of a growing human crisis. Let’s help all of those who need it with the technology of gaseous waste management at the same time we’re working on it ourselves. With a population of 10 billion people by 2100, we will have no choice but to come to terms with the prickly issues of politics, political theory, and governance with wisdom, guts, and creativity.

1 Orr, D. Governance in the Long Emergency. Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington: Island Press, 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Hofmeister, John. Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

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