Monday, March 19, 2007

Environmentalism: It's fashionable and easy!

Goldman Sachs has been one of the most aggressive firms on Wall Street about taking action on climate change; the company sends its bankers home at night in hybrid limousines. --The New York Times, Feb. 25

Written without a hint of irony--if only your neighborhood dry cleaner sent his employees home by hybrid limousine--this front-page dispatch captured perfectly the eco-pretensions of the rich and the stupefying gullibility with which they are received.

Remember the Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore global-warming pitch at the Academy Awards? Before they spoke, the screen at the back of the stage flashed not-so-subliminal messages about how to save the planet. My personal favorite was "Ride mass transit." This to a conclave of Hollywood plutocrats who have not seen the inside of a subway since the moon landing and for whom mass transit means a stretch limo seating no fewer than 10.

Leo and Al then portentously announced that for the first time ever, the Academy Awards ceremony had gone green. What did that mean? Solar panels in the designer gowns? It turns out that the Academy neutralized the evening's "carbon footprint" by buying carbon credits. That means it sent money to a "carbon broker," who promised, after taking his cut, to reduce carbon emissions somewhere on the planet equivalent to what the stars spewed into the atmosphere while flying in on their private planes.

In other words, the rich reduce their carbon output by not one ounce. But drawing on the hundreds of millions of net worth in the Kodak Theatre, they pull out lunch money to buy ecological indulgences. The last time the selling of pardons was prevalent--in a predecessor religion to environmentalism called Christianity--Martin Luther lost his temper and launched the Reformation.

What is wrong with this scam? First, purchasing carbon credits is an incentive to burn even more fossil fuels, since now it is done under the illusion that it's really cost-free to the atmosphere.

Second, it is a way for the rich to export the real costs and sacrifices of pollution control to the poorer segments of humanity in the Third World.

If Gore really wants to save the planet, he can try this: Turn off the lights. Ditch the heated pool. Ride the subway. And spare us the carbon-trading piety.

In other news, reports on A Climate of fear:

Apocalyptic talk about global warming has stirred the sediment of old fears - the mushroom cloud has returned to haunt us. But, Thornton McCamish writes, the last great fright was a little different from the new one.

At the leading edge of climate pessimism, the prognoses were frankly apocalyptic. "Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic," predicted James Lovelock, a renowned environmental scientist.

Some don't buy any of this "climate porn", as a UK think tank recently described such talk. Al Gore's movie is "bullshit from beginning to end", according to Ray Evans, a former Western Mining executive and author of the Lavoisier Group's Nine Facts About Climate Change (2006). For Evans and many others, man-made climate change panic is a bugaboo, perhaps even a hoax.

Either way, the debate over climate change is now about fear. How afraid should we be? It's a valid question, because a sensible reaction to any threat begins with fear. Fear can help propel us towards solutions, as it did in the case of ozone-depleting CFCs. But we don't want to respond to a threat with asymmetric alarm.

The last disaster that never came

Unfortunately, allowing the old threat of nuclear war to haunt our anxiety about climate change is not going to help, for the simple reason that the nuclear holocaust never happened. This happy fact tends to foster a blithe optimism about the past: look — nuclear doomsday was a beat-up! This is false logic, of course. The fact that we survived the nuclear threat doesn't mean it was always inevitable that we would. But people believe it, nonetheless, and you can see why they'd want to.

The end is not nigh

The closest to midnight the doomsday clock has ever come was two minutes. That was 1953, when the USSR tested a hydrogen bomb. In hindsight, that was probably a beginner's overreaction to the sheer novelty of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Like everyone else, the clock soon became accustomed to the status quo. Over the next couple of decades, doomsday eased out to nine and even 11 minutes to midnight.

And we now circle back to Hollywood, and as the Daily Mail reports today, Scientists blame Hollywood for increased fears over global warming.

Leading climate change experts have thrown their weight behind two scientists who hit out at the "Hollywoodisation" of global warming.

"There is always a danger of crying wolf. We have to be careful as scientists that we present the facts and don't exaggerate things because it can undermine credibility in the long term."

Professor Hardaker warned against the "Hollywoodisation" of weather and climate seen in films such as the 2004 smash hit film The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts terrifying consequences after the melting of the Arctic ice shelf.

Such films, he said, only work to create confusion in the public mind. "I don't think the way to make people pay attention is to make them afraid about it," he said. "We have to help them understand it and allow them to make choices - because the impact of climate change is going to mean we have got some quite difficult choices to make both in policy and as members of the public.

"Unless we can understand the science behind it, we can't be expected to get our heads around making these difficult choices." Presenting events such as the shutting off of the Gulf Stream, creating a cooling effect, and the rise of temperatures together could be "confusing", he said, unless it is made clear that the former is far less likely than the latter.

He said the scientists should avoid being forced to make wild predictions about the future in response to climate change sceptics such as those seen in Channel 4's recent programme, Global Climate Swindle.

The jury is out on global warming. The best argument right now for conservation is to reduce costs, conserve energy, and stem the importation of foreign energy sources, particularly from the Middle East. Secondary, but also critical positive consequences from reduced environmental degradation and air pollution is greater health, and thus lower health care costs. For these reasons alone, Americans should be - and are - strong proponents of conservation and alternative energy research.

However, these things take time.

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