Climate Futures: A Buyer’s Guide

climate.jpgNo…the title is not about “green tags” or stock picks. It’s about figuring out how the majority of US citizens who simply “don’t buy it”…”it” being the risk posed by climate change to personal health, to all of earth’s living systems, and to our children’s future…will sit up and pay attention to the management of climate risk.
For this to happen, we conservationists, environmentalists, green designers…let them call us whatever they like… need to escape our own denial about the Seriously Bad News all around us. The reality is that only a minority of the US population would, under present circumstance, allow their attitudes and behaviors to be influenced by the climate models, formal risk analysis, or pictures of melting glaciers. The reasons are several and powerful. Consider: A substantial percent of US citizens are illiterate. A great many of us think that the historic photos of humans walking on the moon were Hollywood-staged (a strong clue about the power of superstition and ignorance of technology). Perhaps a quarter of us believe that dinosaurs crowded into a literal Noah’s Ark. Many more of us think that a free market somehow magically synchronizes with nature’s demands (MBAs are taught this in Harvard Business School. If you paid a half million for your degree you might be defensive about someone saying everything you learned is wrong). Privately funded Think Tanks attack grade school curricula that encourage recycling and anything else “green”. And capping it off, broadcast media skip the reporting of facts and plausible alternatives in favor of single-minded political opinion. It’s good for the ratings. And, of course, those who would be most influenced by “science” apparently hold little political power at the Federal level.

This “Bad News” is amplified by a recent epidemic of free market utopianism. Utopianism is based on hope. Challenging hopeful beliefs is likely to be ineffective and could be a self-defeating strategy. Think how it feels when a ‘Freemarketopian’ hollers about government subsidy of renewable energy! Tune out time.
Our exploration starts with the assumption that all the above are going to stay just as they are for a long time. In other words, all are predetermined elements of every future direction we might imagine. Gulp.
What role do we imagine the US Federal Government could play to respond seriously to climate change, were attitudes to shift? Could be as small as research funding or a purchasing policy, or as great as direct technology investment. Let’s assume that the role is in between these extremes and flesh that out later.
Think about today’s high-flying opinion leaders. Those would be the “base” we so often hear of, which is made up of variously overlapping groups of the passionately religious, small town rural residents, “exurbanites”, corporate executives of all stripes, the wealthy or wanna-be rich, and the pundits. What holds them together? What do they fear losing if climate change were taken seriously?
Here’s my starter list of high-level scare factors that keep people in emotionally-led denial. You can probably add a bunch.
· Reduced salaries and benefits for utility company execs.
· Being forced to admit that human kind can affect change on scale previously only attributed to a supreme being.
· Accepting that openly socialistic societies have advantages as well as drawbacks.
· Accepting that pollutant assimilation has limits from the local to the planetary scale.
· Understanding that a whole raft of profitable business models is fundamentally unsustainable over the long term.
What would it take to explode the opinion leader’s heads enough to reveal the invisible to them? The Dustbowl years of the 1930’s provide a fair analogy. Just prior to when that historic drought set in, a very large segment of the US’ population lived on farms: at least 45%. Markets for agricultural products were booming, trees were removed from the most productive farmlands, slash-and-burn style, and prairie soils were ploughed from fence to fence. The most erodable hillsides were laid bare. Along came extended drought and the nation’s food basket crumbled. Farm losses were severe; and, unemployment, and population shifts amplified stock market volatility (a point often overlooked by economists who see the Great Depression solely in economic terms). Rural population loss from the Dust Bowl states continues to this day. An oversimplification, granted, but not a gross mischaracterization.
In the several decades following the Dust Bowl, huge Federal programs were established to make farming on the Great Plains and Midwest lands sustainable. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) participants helped reestablish “windbreaks” of trees and were responsible for the replanting of large tracts of forests. Just as important, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service ASCS), and Soil Conservation Service (SCS) were established and funded by Congress. Because of these three government efforts, soil loss from wind erosion was gradually reduced. When the rains returned almost a decade after the start of the drought, modern industrialized farming practices were developed in lock step with conservation practices. The wind rows are still there. This process, come to think of it, is not that different that what is going on right now in China!
What sort of large scale changes could set off a similar reaction in US governance with regard to climate change? Is there really any chance of that happening soon, what with most climate change impact scenarios being on the scale of half to full century? Yes there is.
It is entirely plausible that the next several years will bring a string of “blockbuster” hurricanes, hitting the Gulf Coast with a collective power (frequency times intensity) greatly exceeding anything experienced since European settlement. Not only does lighting often strike the same tree or building twice (that’s why Franklin invented lightning rods) so might hurricanes strike the same areas year after year. Of course is it also plausible that we could have a few years with nary a hurricane exerting more than Level II force at landfall. The point is simply that plausibility goes either way. How many times does a coastal area get hit in sequence before banks refuse to re-issue loans, before insurance companies draw “red lines” along the shore, before a tourist industry collapses and people migrate away en-masse?
It’s also plausible that the price of oil and gas could go even higher than was seen during the late summer and fall of 2005. Layer upon that a geopolitical event that cuts off imports and you have the makings of a day of sustainability reckoning.
In closing, I’d like to go on record with a warning to all the greens/environmentalists/NGO’s. Saying “I told you so”, even metaphorically, is self defeating in the extreme. Don’t even think about it. The rules of the game, going forward, are to propose constructive solutions. We’re going to get very good at that. Might as well get some practice now.