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Global Warming and its Discontents
August 30, 2010 12:01 PM   Subscribe

You've heard of the IPCC, but have you heard of the MEA? The term "global warming" has been with us for 35 years. The idea that CO2 would cause the planet to heat up has been with us significantly longer, discovered in the early 20th century by the Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius (previously). However, the concept of global warming is not without its problems (and this has nothing to do with solar flares).

Global warming skeptics and advocates of utopian engineering aside, it is safe to say that world governments, politicians, and scientists (pdf) are concerned - to greater and lesser degrees - about global warming. Al Gore's work, in particular and despite its many flaws, has been very influential in addressing the problem of global warming for the general public.

A number of researchers, however, have pointed to the flaws in using "global warming" as a catch-all term for human-induced ecological crisis. While global warming remains an important issue, the attention to global warming sometimes comes at the cost of attention to other human-induced ecosystem catastrophes. Sustainability, for example, which has often been defined, after the 1987 UN Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs", has been transformed in much of the public consciousness (pdf) (previously), mostly through "green" advertising, into a synonym for low-GHG development. There have been many efforts to invent readily-comprehensible terms describing human impact on life in the world, in general. The neo-Malthusian Limits to Growth was an early effort to describe major human impacts on world ecosystems.

More recently, the concept of "ecological debt" (previously) and the more politically neutral concept of "Earth Overshoot," have been used to highlight the relationship between regional or national production and consumption patterns and biocapacity. The 2003 project from the Université de Gand, Belgium, "Elaborating the Concept of Ecological Debt", defines the ecological debt of a country (or region) as consisting of:
(1) the ecological damage caused over time by country A in other countries or in an area under jurisdiction of another country through its production and consumption patterns, and/or (2) the ecological damage caused over time by country A to ecosystems beyond national jurisdiction through its consumption and production patterns, and/or (3) the exploitation or use of ecosystems and ecosystem goods and services over time by country A at the expense of the equitable rights to these ecosystems and ecosystem goods and services by other countries or individuals.(pdf)
The Global Footprint Network sponsors "Earth Overshoot Day" (previously Ecological Debt Day) and carries maps and information on ecological debt (also).

Other concepts have been introduced, as well. The September 23, 2009 issue of Nature featured a paper by Johan Rockström and colleagues and a discussion of the concept of "Planetary Boundaries." Rockström, et. al. proposed nine metrics for looking at human impact on world ecosystems, defining a boundary as an ecological threshold beyond which humans might experience "deleterious or even catastrophic consequences for large parts of the world's inhabitants." These nine metrics were: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphate cycle, global freshwater use, land systems change, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. While some of the responses to this paper in the discussion pushed back against the parameters of specific boundaries, or argued about the specific thresholds cited in the paper, or suggested the need for more conceptual simplification for policymakers, or argued that "boundaries" allowed policymakers to delay until a crisis was immanent, all of the respondents felt that looking at planetary boundaries was a useful step forward in thinking about the planet as a whole and in thinking about the damage humans cause to their own ability to survive into the future.

In the meantime, geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London have been conceptually elaborating and refining the term "anthropocene" (previously), coined by Paul Crutzen, to describe a new geological era dominated by human impact on the world around us. The International Commission on Stratigraphy is currently working on formalizing the term within geology.

Finally, Ecuador introduced the rights of nature, or "Pachamama", into its constitution. What this means in practice has yet to be determined, although we can gain glimpses of how this process is working, with evidence falling both ways.
posted by outlandishmarxist (25 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice post, you totally caught me on the more inside.
posted by onalark at 12:08 PM on August 30, 2010


Global Warming...Ecological Debt...Planetary Boundaries...Anthropocene...Climate Change

The debate about what to call it seems misguided to me. That's not the problem, the problem is people's inertia to put forth even the smallest efforts to improve the world at large. We should have a movement and call it Global "Don't Shit Where You Eat" Day because that's the issue here.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2010 [6 favorites]


That's not the problem, the problem is people's inertia to put forth even the smallest efforts to improve the world at large.

We're probably 100% in agreement, but I'd like to nitpick with the use of 'people' here. Individuals are by and large going to continue in behavior that doesn't directly affect them. The lack of action on climate change is a failure of government to regulate industry and press corporations to provide solutions and alternatives to fossil fuels.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:20 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


We should have a movement and call it Global "Don't Shit Where You Eat" Day

Genius. I'd love to see the denial campaign. "7,893 Scientists Sign Petition Declaring Shit Safe to Eat!"

I don't know if better messaging would be enough, though. Most people believe what they want to.
posted by callmejay at 12:26 PM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


2bucksplus: "have a movement"

2bucksplus: "Global "Don't Shit Where You Eat" Day"

I see what you did there.
posted by Plutor at 12:37 PM on August 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


The lack of action on climate change is a failure of government to. . . press corporations to provide solutions and alternatives to fossil fuels.

Oh, so all we have to do is change the laws of energy chemistry? We'll get right on that. No problem.
posted by valkyryn at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


The debate about what to call it seems misguided to me. That's not the problem, the problem is people's inertia to put forth even the smallest efforts to improve the world at large.

I respectfully disagree. Framing is enormously important in a huge protracted public debate like this - imagine if we'd been associating climate action with green jobs and not just taxes and costs for 20 years instead of just the last couple or so. And "global warming" implies a problem limited to the weather. This creates distraction in the debate from the trivial (the "Gore igloo" built by James Inhofe's family during the record snowstorm season earlier this year) to the profound (serious consideration of "benefits" to be reaped in Canada, say, by longer growing seasons, without also considering massive disruptions to other aspects of climate, as seen in this year's crop-ravaging floods in Saskatchewan).

Grist's ace staff writer David Roberts wrote an excellent little op-ed riff on this framing problem just a little while ago: "Environmentalism can never address climate change."

Key passage:
Climate change -- or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom -- isn't like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address. The solutions that American environmental politics are capable of producing are not commensurate with the scale and scope of the challenge climate change represents. A clear understanding of that challenge renders comically absurd the notion that it can or should be the province of a niche progressive interest group. It's just too big for that.
"Global warming" scans as a tidy little silo of environmental activism to many (most?) eyes nowadays, about as much to fret about as the likelihood of rain. Do I need an umbrella? Pack a sweater? Life goes on in any case . . .

What's needed is a wholesale reframing, something that gets at the scale of both the crisis and the reform/renewal opportunity. For want of something a little less diluted, I use sustainability in my own work, because it's non-controversial, action-oriented, forward-looking and already accepted, albeit in distorted or weakened form, in the boardrooms and speeches of business and political leaders. My preferred definition is Bruce Sterling's:

Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish.

Already we are not talking about the weather, or some far-distant pristine environment, or some trumped-up controversy. We're talking about things we need to do to make our common future successful. Much, much better place to begin this conversation.
posted by gompa at 12:43 PM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh, so all we have to do is change the laws of energy chemistry?

Yeah that's exactly what I meant, thanks for lending a keen eye and a sharp wit.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:45 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Instead of "Global Warming", I like the terms Brian Baird (D-WA) uses:

Global overheating and Ocean acidification

Two reasons why this is better:

1) Warming, mmm, everyone loves being warm. When your car overheats, that's bad.
2) More people take high school chemistry than climate modeling. The link between CO2 in the atmosphere and carbonic acid in the oceans is undeniable. And when every shellfish and coral reef disintegrates, it'll be one hell of a problem.
posted by anthill at 12:53 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, swimming in acid sounds bad.
posted by anthill at 12:55 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


The problem with the phrase "Global Warming" is that it suits people to take it very literally and unless every day is hotter than the next we get:

"January was colder this year than last year, so global warming can't be happening, therefore I don't have to do anything to stop it."
posted by jontyjago at 1:01 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Related story from today's WaPo:

"Environmental groups face their future in climate-change debate"

Key passage:
"What was revealed by the last year or two was that the energy industry hasn't even had to break a sweat yet in beating this stuff off. Our side did absolutely everything you're supposed to do . . . but got nowhere," said author Bill McKibben, who co-founded the climate-focused group 350.org.
Hate to bag on McKibben because he's been at this longer and with more passion than almost anyone, but his own 350.org has always struck me as part of the problem. Named for a bit of scientific esoterica known only to those already strongly engaged in the conversation (the no. of parts per million of CO2 deemed necessary by NASA's James Hensen to avoid dramatic climate change). Sets a goal that even strongly sympathetic fellow travellers think is impossible this century. Wholly based around the awareness-engagement-action movement-building model of previous silo'd environmental and human rights campaigns. Etc., etc.

I sometimes wonder if guys like McKibben aren't a big part of the problem. They are as deeply invested in the partisanship of the climate debate, in their way, as guys like Inhofe are. They frame the thing, ultimately, as another in a long line of progressive consciousness raisings. They're somewhat old dogs, and they don't seem to be very adept at learning any new tricks.
posted by gompa at 1:01 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, so all we have to do is change the laws of energy chemistry?

Right, just like regulations governing ozone depletion changed the laws of chlorofluorocarbons, oh wait, they actually forced industries to develop alternatives, which they insisted was impossible (or at least economically unfeasible) up to the point that the laws were passed and then got on with once they had no alternative. Name one substantial environmental gain that's been made without regulatory pressure forcing the issue.
posted by nanojath at 1:02 PM on August 30, 2010 [6 favorites]




We're probably 100% in agreement, but I'd like to nitpick with the use of 'people' here. Individuals are by and large going to continue in behavior that doesn't directly affect them.

This is why, when thinking of the whole climate change debate, I look back to the Bush years and ~$4/gal gasoline, pause, and wonder if they had something right going there.

If we could find a way to spread an accessible, friendly, not crazy or weird, yet persistent message about the limited nature of the resources that run our economy, get folks to realize that when/if (more when) it runs out, or reaches 0, zero, nil in quantity, that there's going to be some hard as heck work to do (i.e. you will not be able to drive your car any more, no matter how fuel efficient it is; food is going to have to be found elsewhere, electric may not work, etc.), perhaps we can make some ground on the climate change issue, as these two (climate and resource limits) should NEVER be divorced.

Otherwise, common thought is going to be the current norm, as climate change is slow enough for those in power or powerful enough to adapt to.

If the world works hard now, there will hopefully be a lesser amount of possible work in the future. I can only hope.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 1:47 PM on August 30, 2010


Right, just like regulations governing ozone depletion changed the laws of chlorofluorocarbons, oh wait, they actually forced industries to develop alternatives, which they insisted was impossible (or at least economically unfeasible) up to the point that the laws were passed and then got on with once they had no alternative

I agree that the response to climate change will have to have a large basis in regulation of industry and consumption but the above isn't true. Chemcial companies and heir associated governments opposed regulation of ozone depleting chemicals up to the point when they had alternatives, then as the companies came up with alternatives they and their respective governments one by one changed their positions to favour global regulation of CFCs and at the same time have that regulation favour their own alternative for CFCs. The global adoptopn of the Montreal Protocol and the signficiant reduction is CFC emissions is an interesting case study regarding international adoption of an environmental treaty but what it tells us is complex, for example, that there are strong links between the political acceptability of regulation and of technological and commercial development, and that existing interests can effect huge influence over the process (perhaps no surprise). The commercial responses of large companies will strongly influence both the willingness of national governments to act and upon the direction that action goes. This will not necessarily be led by the environmental science and it will not necessarily be in the best interests of the environment. (This is a topic that is worth digging into in far more depth, the whole response to the MP throws up lots of lessons that might be relevant for the international response to climate change, but unfortunately I am in dire need of some sleep.)
posted by biffa at 1:54 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've begun to despair about my culture, at least, caring about it. The last time we had a leader who took any of this shit seriously, he got his electoral ass kicked by a huckster selling the message that we can have everything we want all the time and that we are the greatest people in history. I don't see that very much has changed.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:06 PM on August 30, 2010




I think 'climate change' is good. People need to stop dilly dallying about better names or which groups are harmful and which are helpful and actually work on convincing people it's a serious problem.
Hate to bag on McKibben because he's been at this longer and with more passion than almost anyone, but his own 350.org has always struck me as part of the problem. Named for a bit of scientific esoterica known only to those already strongly engaged in the conversation
I disagree totally. The 350 number isn't 'esoteric'. It's the supposedly 'safe' level of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Which we have way overshot). It makes the goal very clear. How exactly is that "esoteric"?

How exactly are we supposed to rally people behind stuff like "reduce carbon emissions over a 20 year period to 1990 levels" or whatever it is that people were aiming for. It always sounded to me like the solutions proposed wouldn't actually do anything to stop global warming anyway.

You can't just say, "we need to do something about global warming" without saying what "it" is.
I sometimes wonder if guys like McKibben aren't a big part of the problem. They are as deeply invested in the partisanship of the climate debate, in their way, as guys like Inhofe are.
That's because it's a partisan thing. There are people who want to stop global warming, and people who don't. You can't just decide to be conciliatory and then get what you want. Just look at Obama going to DC to be 'bipartisan" only to get sucker punched by the republicans at every opportunity. Do you seriously think the oil companies are going to just going to stop funding global warming deniers at some point? Maybe get tired of raking in cash hand over fist and give up?
posted by delmoi at 4:51 PM on August 30, 2010




The 350 number isn't 'esoteric'. It's the supposedly 'safe' level of CO2 in the atmosphere. (Which we have way overshot). It makes the goal very clear. How exactly is that "esoteric"?

Stop 100 people on any given street in any old city in the world. Ask them what the phrase "350 parts per million" means. Even ask 'em "what does 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide have to do with action on climate change?" How many would have a clue even the basic parameters of what you're trying to discuss? Half a dozen? A dozen at best? You want to spend the next ten years - which is damn near all we have left to really get the ship turned on this - trying to get that number up past 50, or do you want to reframe in terms that people already understand and build from there?

So yes, esoteric, as in "understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest." Like that.

How exactly are we supposed to rally people behind stuff like "reduce carbon emissions over a 20 year period to 1990 levels" or whatever it is that people were aiming for.

You don't. My argument, based on a decade reporting on nothing but this stuff, is that we will never rally people behind the idea of emissions reduction. It's a value proposition that goes stop doing something you like and works fine because at some indeterminate time in the future - possibly beyond your lifetime - it'll have a grave but indeterminate impact somewhere else. It flies in the face of everything we understand about how human beings make collective decisions. But economic renewal? Green jobs? Houses that work off some of their power bill when you're not in 'em and cars that sell power back to the grid while you're at work? Shit yeah, sign me up.

People don't give a shit where their power comes from. They want the lights to come on when they flip the switch. That's your starting point.
posted by gompa at 7:54 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


The world is like a smoker that won't stop even though it knows the risks. Then again, I'm smoker so I would say that.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 8:49 PM on August 30, 2010


I have three points that I want to add to the debate between gompa, on the one side, and 2bucksplus and delmoi on the other.

1) I used to agree with 2bucks and delmoi that it doesn't matter how you conceptualize the issue, what matters is that we act. Of course, it does matter that we act, but it also matters if our actions actually help the situation. Global warming mitigation is about helping species on earth survive, not about mitigating global warming for its own sake. If, say, installing wind farms has a negative impact on land use patterns through desertification, then we have to seriously weigh the trade-off (this is just a hypothetical, so don't argue with me about the specifics). One could talk about rationing, but this too brings with it a whole host of (political, social) problems. I actually find rationing a very compelling solution if we could get people to accept it and not simply oust the government that imposed the rationing. But conceptualizing matters: people are only going to deal with problems that are known.

2) I wonder, however, about blaming Bill McKibben and 350.org. I think about the New Left in the 70s: when we look at histories of this period, they are filled with self-critique and self-denigration. However, how much of this is biased by access to information? We know what went on in these organizations, we know in what areas they showed themselves lacking, partly because they were far more open and accessible than their opponents. To understand the role of the CIA, for instance, in the dissolution of the New Left, involves accessing an organization that is, by its very nature, secretive. Even if we can get all the documents pertaining to their subterfuge and undermining of the New Left, we're never going to get the kinds of confessional self-critiques that the members of the New Left give us, to this day. So the conclusion we end up reaching is, blame the activists. I think the same thing goes for the subtle ways in which industries undermine environmental activism. We're never going to know the extent of industry involvement in the campaign against global warming activism, because these industries are closed organizations. With 350.org, on the other hand, we see most everything that goes on. Is 350 an esoteric concept? I'm not sure. The idea behind it is to make 350 a household concept, in the same way that, while no one really understands how atomic fission takes place, they all understand that it does take place.

3) Back to the problem of concepts, argumentation is not about convincing everybody. It's about convincing enough people to actually modify the system. A lot of people seem to implicitly be arguing for cost/benefit theories - industries and governments will only change when the opportunity costs for changing are low enough. This seems like a kind of naive mechanistic theory of human behavior that, while one could support it by appealing to "tendencies," is not always and everywhere applicable. A simple counterexample is that many people, when made aware of a problem like global warming, will set about (for better or worse) trying to solve it through whatever means they can - developing new technologies, rethinking how cities are organized, rethinking agriculture, appealing to the public, etc. I'm not particularly optimistic. We also have to deal with the laws of physics. But, as someone once said, "Pessimism of thought; optimism of the will."
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:08 PM on August 30, 2010


It's about convincing enough people to actually modify the system

Because somebody who isn't convinced by 'climate change' or 'global warming' is totally going to get their shit together for 'planetary boundaries' and 'ecological debt'.

"Marsha? Marsha! Sell the SUV! God, what were we thinking? We've angered Pachamama!"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:50 AM on August 31, 2010


That's not really the point I was making.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 6:23 AM on August 31, 2010


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