Sandy’s silver lining – a chance for a new narrative on climate change

The cloud that was Sandy was so vast, that it was statistically likely to have a silver lining.  That silver lining is the fact that Americans can now talk about climate change without embarrassment.  They might even start talking about global warming.

But what should they say?  This is critical.  To an outsider the USA seems to be a divided nation.  So that even if both sides are ready to talk about climate change, there will be much disagreement and debate and action will be deferred.  It would be important, therefore, if they say something which they can agree on.

Recently climate scientist wrote that we need a new “narrative” about climate change.  (I don’t like the word “narrative” because it looks like a trendy word trying to seem clever and right on.  But to give it credit, I think it does have some substance).  In fact, getting that narrative right is one of the most important tasks we have ahead of us.  The narrative, or the story which shapes our worldview, influences significantly how we behave and what policies we adopt to address climate change.  In the short term it perhaps does not matter so much: at this desperate stage, with methane bubbling out of the arctic, we should grasp at anything to cut emissions.  But in the longer term, in matters of strategy and direction, it is critical.

That narrative has to redirect our efforts in a very precise way: I see it like a barge passing along a narrow canal.  There are a few inches of leeway between safe passage and a collision.  The narrative also has to work for a large majority of people, reflecting both their personal and their corporate interests.  The effort to cut emissions has to be in unison, because the challenge is so great.

I think the narrative has to weave together several strands.  Here are three:

The first strand of the narrative must appeal to the very best of American (and human) enterprise, creativity, innovation, drive, passion, non-nonsense roll-up-your-sleeves, grit.  Because this is what we need if we are to come up with viable solutions for the predicaments we face – the “silver buckshot” of solutions will need the brightest minds and toughest entrepreneurs.  Happily these are the qualities of which much right-wing ideology is built.  The narrative has to evoke these qualities and everyone can agree on them.

This narrative is conducive to people working hard and is therefore also consistent with the puritan mindset and acceptable to the people of Wall Street.  It should generate economic activity and something we will be able to call growth.

A second requirement of the narrative is that it has to be consistent with human nature and not try to run against its grain.  If it is all about denying or crushing our natural desires, then it will fail.  It needs to help satisfy or vent those desires and not bottle them up.  So it has to be about doing rather than not doing, about opening rather than obstacle, about forward rather than back, advancement rather than retrenchment, and so forth.  It has to be horribly positive, but that’s something we have to swallow.  And genuinely so, because anything fake is quickly seen through.

So far so good, but if I look out of the window I see that the ship is edging towards the right … and there’s a problem in the boiler room!

The problem is that so far this narrative is also consistent with the techno-optimist view of the world.  This is something to be avoided.  The techno-optimist view of the world says that we just need to invest lots of money into clean technology and the economy will grow and we will develop fantastic new gadgets to allow us to live just like we want and not cause any harm to the planet.

Unfortunately techno-optimists ignore three important things.  First, they overlook the rebound effect.  All that green growth will generate great wealth.  But what will we spend all that wealth on?  We are going to spend it on weekend trips to the moon, eating okapi steaks, and going skiing in Dubai.  Moreover, as our “standard of living” gets higher and higher, it becomes socially and morally ever harder to retreat.

Second, techno-optimists ignore the skewed distribution of wealth.  Yes, the richest on the planet will be able to enjoy their weekend trips to the moon, oakapi steaks and skiing in Dubai all using state-of-the-art zero carbon technology.  But we are learning that wealth doesn’t average out.  Like molecules of oil which cluster around themselves and wont mix with water, wealth congeals around the wealthy and leaves the rest as poor as they were before.  So the remaining 7 or 8 billion poor will still aspire to the moon-oakapi-skiing dream, but will have to make do with grubby high carbon alternatives.  The original techno-optimist narrative is a nice story but I don’t see it fitting 9 billion people.

Third, the techno-optimist narrative ignores other species.  It is unashamedly anthropocentric.  It believes in GMOs and geo-engineering.  It uses science to accommodate humans’ unfettered desire for lebensraum without blinking at the holocaust of other species that entails.  Maybe that is scientific hubris; maybe it is just pragmatism.  But it is worth looking to see if there is a narrative which is more accommodating to other fauna and flora.

So, where we got to is that we are harnessing all that great human enterprise and innovation to cut emissions, and this is happening in a way which goes with the grain of our instincts, but we are tilting towards a dangerous techno-optimist narrative.

How do you retain all that right-wing drive and enterprise without veering down the techno-optimist route?

This is where a third strand is needed to the narrative.  It is vital to have aspirations and ambitions because they fuel the entrepreneurial qualities we need.  But the pot at the end of the rainbow simply cannot be material.  If the reward for our efforts is to have the wealth to fly where and when we want and to eat what and as much as we want and to have houses as big as we want, then the enterprise will fail.  Thus, the third strand of the narrative has to turn our material aspirations into spiritual and intellectual aspirations.  It has to remove from our aspirations and the economy the huge demand for material and energy resources.

Yet it should not remove from our aspirations the desire to engage and transact with other people, since we want economic activity (at the very least in order to have the support of the right).

I see this all like the equivalent of building cathedrals in the middle ages.  Somehow, whether by accident or design, people found themselves willing to devote their lives to the economic activity of building vast cathedrals.  I don’t have the figures but I imagine that a significant portion of the economic activity of Chartres, Cologne or Orvieto went into putting up the cathedral.  You put together a plan to build a cathedral over the next hundred years or so and get everyone to rally round and get involved.  And suddenly you are achieving your goals and you have a very brisk economy.  In the same way we have to get people to aspire to something to which they will devote lots of economic activity.  But it can’t be made of stone and cement.  It can’t be about travelling a lot either.

I won’t write a list here of aspirations which fit the bill.  But it’s a hugely important piece of homework to figure out what those aspirations are to be if we want to cut emissions, avoid the techno-optimist nightmare and still enjoy a robust economy.

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