I'm in Paris now, preparing to speak tonight about climate change. It is a parallel venue, not mainstream, called Place 2 B, but even here I am afraid my message is going to be controversial. You see, I think there are deep problems with the standard climate change narrative, which has equated "green" with carbon reduction.
One obvious problem with that is that horrible things can be justified with CO2 arguments, or tolerated because they have little obvious impact on CO2. This ersatz 'green' argument has been applied to fracking, nuclear power, big hydro, GMOs, and the conversation of forests into wood chips for biofuel. Now you might say these are specious arguments that depend on faulty carbon accounting (is nuclear power really that carbon friendly when you account for the immense amount of energy needed to mine the uranium, refine the uranium, procure the cement, contain the waste, etc.?) but I am afraid there is a deeper problem. It is that when we base policy on a global metric, i.e. by the numbers, then the numbers are always subject to manipulation by those with the power to do so. Data can be manipulated, factors can be ignored, and projections can be skewed toward optimistic best-case scenarios. This is an inherent problem with basing policy on a metric like tons of CO2 or GGEs (greenhouse gas equivalents).
Secondly, by focusing on a measurable quantity we devalue that which we cannot measure or choose not to measure. Such issues such as mining, biodiversity, toxic pollution, ecosystem disruption, etc. recede in urgency, because after all, unlike global levels of CO2 they do not pose an existential threat. Certainly one can make carbon-based arguments on all these issues, but to do so is to step onto dangerous ground. Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, "OK, we're going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down." You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you want to stop the mine -- because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.
I am certain we will not "save our planet" (or at least the ecological basis of civilization) by merely being more clever in our deployment of Earth's "resources". We will not escape this crisis so long as we see the planet and everything on it as instruments of our utility. The present climate change narrative veers too close to instrumental utilitarian logic -- that we should value the earth because of what will happen to us if we don't. Where did we develop the habit of making choices based on maximizing or minimizing a number? We got it from the money world. We are seeking to apply our numbers games to a new target, CO2 rather than dollars. I don't think that is a deep enough revolution. We need a revolution in means, not only a revolution in ends.
In other words, what we need is a revolution of love. When we as a society learn to see the planet and everything on it as beings deserving of respect -- in their own right and not just for their use to us -- then we won't need to appeal to climate change to do all the best things that the climate change warriors would have us do. And, we will stop doing the awful things that we do in the name of stopping climate change.
Ironically, many of the environmental issues that seem unrelated to climate change, we are learning, actually do contribute to it. Take hydroelectric dams: they flood forests and wetlands, displace communities, and disrupt riverine ecosystems. But at least they provide climate-friendly electricity, right? Well, no. It turns out that dams and artificial reservoirs emit huge amounts of methane from the rotting vegetation that they generate, and reduce rivers' ability to capture carbon.
Finally, let us admit that our knowledge of Earth's climate homeostasis is quite rudimentary. While we assume that, say, digging gold out of a mountain has little effect on climate, other cultures disagree. A Brazilian friend of mine who works with indigenous tribes there reports that according to them, mining is a much bigger threat to the planet than CO2, because when metals are removed from the tropics and moved to the temperate zones, the planet's energetics are disrupted. Even taking gold away from a sacred mountain can have devastating effects. A Zuni man I met told me that they believe that the worst thing is to take so much water that the rivers no longer reach the sea -- because how then can the ocean know what the land needs?
Let us not be too quick to dismiss such ideas as superstitious fantasy. Time and again, indigenous people have proven that their "superstitions" encode a sophisticated understanding of ecology. While such ideas as "insulting the water" and "stealing the golden soul of the mountains" seem baldly unscientific, we may need to start taking them seriously.
I will end with a prediction. I predict that we will succeed in drastically reducing fossil fuel use, beyond the most optimistic projections -- and that climate change will continue to worsen. It might be warming, it might be cooling, it might be intensifying fluctuations, a derangement of normal, life-giving rhythms. Then will we realize the importance of those things that we'd relegated to low priority: the mangrove swamps, the deep aquifers, the sacred sites, the biodiversity hotspots, the virgin forests, the elephants, the whales... all the beings that, in mysterious ways invisible to our numbers, maintain the balance of our living planet. Then will we realize that as we do to any part of nature, so, inescapably, we do to ourselves. The current climate change narrative is but a first step toward that understanding.
Image by Grant McDonald. Creative Commons