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Global Warning

Posted by Hemant Puthli on October 27, 2009

The Warning

If “global warming” doesn’t kill us, then “global war” will.

The Background

The new book entitled “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest in the communities centered around the subject of ecological economics. Apparently the authors have injected a provocatively contrarian view into an already heated debate on why and how to control carbon emissions, by suggesting that this may not be necessary after all.  Andrew Winston, himself a noted author on the subject of climate change, very neatly sums up the state of play as regards the controversy in his recent post “SuperFreaknomics Ignores the Business Case for Sustainability” at his HarvardBusiness.org blog.

The Context

Andrew Winston’s post lays out a fair and reasonable assessment of the various positions around the controversy and presents a sound rationale as to why the focus must be on the business case for sustainability, and why the shift to a low-carbon economy is beneficial even without considering its impact on restoring the environmental balance. However, some of the reasons that he offers to support the latter argument (i.e., benefits other than mitigating climate change risks) involve perspectives that are mostly American rather than global. The post concludes with the following paragraphs:

As many have repeatedly argued, we also place ourselves at great risk globally by continuing to pour money into oil markets. We send hundreds of billions of dollars a year to parts of the world that don’t like us very much. And we place ourselves at personal risk — the National Academy of Sciences just estimated, conservatively, that fossil fuels cost $120 billion per year in health costs and cause 20,000 premature deaths (that’s more than six 9/11s if you’re counting).

So while we find new ways to pour attention on “contrarians” and have a debate that most of the rest of the world has already stopped having, we risk our health, fall further and further behind the countries we compete with (China and Germany, for example, in renewables), and become more indebted to our enemies.

Solving climate change is not really about asking people to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” but about political will and making it easier for business to create the low-carbon solutions we all need. Regardless of the climate science, the benefits of action and the costs of inaction for business are astronomical — and worth superfreaking out about.

While I really appreciated and agreed with the content in the earlier paragraphs of the post, I was a bit disturbed by a couple of phrases in these last few paragraphs, such as “… parts of the world that don’t like us very much” and “… (become more indebted to) our enemies”. Was this necessary? Is this one of the benefits that Andrew Winston believes is important enough for global citizens to favor control of carbon emissions?

The Issue

Clearly, in his opinion it does merit consideration, else there would have been no mention of these so-called benefits along with many other benefits that justify carbon control. Not only is this disappointing but also dangerous, for reasons that my comment to the post (reproduced below) highlights:

Thank you for a sane and rational assessment of the various discussions to date on what seems to have become a highly controversial and polarized subject. It’s time people like you brought a mature and balanced approach to the climate change round table, and I hope voices such as yours are being heard in the relevant quarters. We (i.e. mankind) have already lost a lot of time and we simply cannot afford to lose more, especially on the inane polemics provoked by contrarians.

I was just a tad disappointed, however, with your comments towards the end, especially in the third and second paragraphs from the bottom. Statements like “We send hundreds of billions of dollars a year to parts of the world that don’t like us very much” smack of an “us-and-them” standpoint on world affairs and therefore don’t have a place within a global perspective on a global problem. You take a distinctly American / Western Hemisphere position when you say something like that and I do appreciate the sense of patriotism, as it were, implicit in the underlying sentiment. However, there’s a thin line between patriotism and jingoism, generally speaking, and clearly there’s no place for the latter when it comes to developing solutions for a planet in crisis. If there are parts of the world that don’t like “us” very much, then it is up to “us” to find out why and try and fix it, to the extent we can. There are already many divisive forces that want to deepen the chasm between the “us” and the “them” that you implicitly refer to in that statement, and one must be careful not to play into those hands. President Obama’s vision of a more inclusive foreign policy and his approach towards global diplomacy are highly welcome in this regard.

The fact that you are sending hundreds of billions of dollars to parts of the world that don’t like you very much should not, taken on its own stand-alone merit, be a reason for you to be less dependent on oil. There are already abundant and adequately strong reasons for weaning yourself away from dependency on fossil fuels, as you have cogently argued already (in this post as well as elsewhere, in your body of work), and including this one weakens the argument rather than strengthens it. The global socio-political landscape is yet another dimension to the global environmental problem, though sadly not many are focusing on this while addressing climate change issues. IMHO, it is only an integrated view that will work, or else we will end up trying to fix one problem at the expense of exacerbating the other.

Talking about “parts of the world that don’t like us” and “our enemies” is very 20th century / cold-war / Bush-era kind of talk. The new global diplomacy is about inclusiveness, about engagement and partnerships, about forging new relationships with allies and adversaries alike, in areas where collaborative action is critical for the preservation of life on the planet as we know it. And leveraging the collegial spirit of these new relationships to resolve conflicting agendas in other areas that are perhaps bilateral and/or less critical at a global level.

Summary

The world can end in many ways – with a whimper (deterioration of the environment, over a period of time) or with a bang (war between the have’s and the have-not’s, in a shorter span of time). Our prime interest is in not letting the world end, any which way. Environmental balance as a goal is merely a means to a greater end. So is world peace. Neither makes sense in itself / by itself / for its own sake, if we can’t have the other as well.

Post Script (added Oct 28)

Andrew Winston’s response appeared a few hours later (time-zone difference adjusted). And this is what it said:

Thanks to all for your comments. Hemant, you make a good and fair point about my language on ‘us’. I was perhaps being too casual in my tone and agree that we need cross-border cooperation on a grand scale to handle a problem as thorny and global as climate change. Regardless of where the hundreds of billions of money for oil goes (to U.S. ‘enemies’ or not), it’s a waste of resources that we could use to build infrastructure and invest in the long-term health of our economy and education…or whatever your priorities might be. We can build a more profitable economy by basing it on resources with zero variable cost (renewables). On this point, see this week’s cover story on how we can get to 100% renewables for all our energy by 2030 — it’s not only possible, it’s economic.

to which I wrote back:

Thank you, Andrew. I appreciate your acknowledging my point – it is refreshing to see that, given that the zeitgeist consists of provocative contrarians with hard stands and closed minds, as your post and its linked contents point out. I do hope delegates to Copenhagen later this year demonstrate a level of maturity in working towards the common good, and eschewing such inane polemics and self-centric political chicanery that this book has stoked.

 

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