By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
Part 1 of a Multi-Part Series
“Will we be the first species we know that precipitated its own extinction as well as the extinction of however much of the biosphere we take with us – and watched it happen before our eyes and continued to do exactly what we know was causing it?” _ Anonymous
A facile denial of reality sits in the DNA of human nature – and climate change is no exception. The inbred fantasy-culture of endless growth, technology, and a throwaway consumeristic lifestyle fueled by exploiting pollutive fossil fuels has reinforced the illusion that we can do so without destroying the environment and even life itself. The threat to human life and the planet seems to need to be truly imminent before we humans can change our course. By then, however, it will be too late … most of us will be dead.
It is a goal specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to keep average global surface temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. This can only be accomplished if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes at 430 to 480 parts per million (ppm).
The problem is that we are already at 400 ppm and greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase. The transition to renewable forms of energy creation is just happening much too slowly to keep earth’s temperature increases within the 2°C limit. If temperature increases rise above that point, ecological disaster looms on the horizon.
We will explore in this series of articles the psychological biases that prevent the US and indeed the world from a rapid transition to renewable energy as well as present the latest scientific results regarding climate change. We will explore the reasons why so many experts and other well-informed people are pessimistic about averting a climate disaster.
There is also some reason to be optimistic as the technology to convert to renewables exists today. All that is lacking is the political and collective will to implement it. Doing so would not be propitious for some vested economic interests, and they have done everything in their power to aid and abet climate change deniers. A rapid conversion to renewables would mean that their profits would diminish, and they place profits before the well-being of the planet.
The Psychological Basis for Denying Climate Change
In 2003, Daniel Kahneman won the Noble Prize in economic science for his research on psychological biases that distort rational decision making. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is illustrative of his ideas. His research brilliantly illustrates the typical cognitive illusions or thinking biases that people succumb to which undermine critical (i.e., slow) thinking.
A cognitive illusion is a false belief we intuitively accept as true. Intuitive (i.e., fast) thinking is much more vulnerable to illusions. At least two of Kahneman’s cognitive illusions – ‘loss aversion bias’ and ‘assimilation bias’ – infect our thinking leading to outright denial of climate change and related science, passivity or refusal to think about it as other issues loom larger, waiting too long to give priority to climate change mitigation or the acknowledgment of it but avoidance of anything causing disruptive change.
These are just a few of the ‘head in the sand’ attitudes towards the reality of climate change and the fact that it is caused by humans. Human caused climate change is called anthropogenic global warming (AGW). People can easily ignore the fact that C02 atmospheric emission levels are rising at speeds and in a span of time not seen in millions of years because so far climate change has not affected the world’s population on a mass basis.
‘Loss aversion bias’ refers to the tendency of people to avoid making sacrifices now for long-term values and benefits that are unclear. This leads to the cognitive illusion that climate change is a far off problem that requires relinquishments today to avert vague losses in the distant future, something that most humans would prefer not to do.
‘Assimilation bias’ refers to an innate human tendency to come to biased conclusions based on pre-held cultural, social and political prejudices. It explains why right-wing conservatives deny, distort or downplay climate change as false science – a hoax, a conspiracy by climate scientists that destroys jobs and growth – while liberals respect the science of systemic climate change, but take a timid stand.
George Marshall in his thought-provoking book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change quotes Kahneman about the chances that the vast majority of people, businesses and leaders will recognize in a timely manner the catastrophic ecological-human outcomes that their every day behavior is giving rise to and get aggressively behind sustainable A to Z energy lifestyles and policies.
“I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change. … To mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant abstract and disputed threat doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.”
The reality is that ‘disruptive’ technologies, lifestyle changes and stronger regulations, among other things, are critical NOW in order to achieve a “green friendly, tempered capitalism” before Earth’s rising heat content and temperature path become irreversible.
Capitalism and Climate Change
Climate change and capitalism are inextricably interwoven. In 1775 James Watt’s invention of the steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution, an era in which emissions from first coal and later oil and natural gas powered the advancement of industry while at the same time building up carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and ocean. At about the same time (1776) of Watt’s invention, Adam Smith brought forth the seminal work on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. Not coincidentally, in 1776 the United States declared its independence and devoted itself to the idea of progress based on capitalist economic principles.
What was considered progress for 200 years has now metamorphosed into regress as every last bit of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by coal fired power generating plants, automobile exhaust emissions and other industrial processes hastens the day when the earth will become uninhabitable by humans due to global warming.
In a title not usually expected at a scientific conference, University of California San Diego geophysicist Dr. Brad Werner presented a paper entitled Is the Earth Fucked? at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in December 2012. Dr. Werner explained that the title represented the expression of depression by scientists working in the field of the public’s inability to respond to what scientists are telling them about global warming.
Climatologists and other scientists are now speaking out about climate change becoming a clear and present danger to human civilization. Most of them are more comfortable gathering data and working in their labs than doing political advocacy, but the situation calls for them to risk losing tenure and even arrest in order to tell the rest of us about the situation we are now facing.
Werner explained that civil resistance and disobedience are the best hopes for changing attitudes about climate change because all other variables are “too embedded in the dominant economic system.” Increasing economic activity, raising GDP is the sine qua non for western style capitalistic systems exemplified by the US.
No politician is going to campaign on lowering GDP. Yet that is precisely what we need to do in order to emit fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere at least until such time as renewables can take over from fossil fuels. This means leaving the coal, oil and gas in the ground and not developing those natural resources. Of course the most powerful corporations on the planet are pledged to do just the opposite.
Many scientists simply see economic progress as incompatible with keeping the planet’s rise in temperature below 2°C, a commitment made by most UN member states. Werner says that, if we continue with business as usual, the resultant “progress” as measured by GDP growth will simply chew up the planet resulting in catastrophic environmental damage.
Resistance, Werner argues, especially by activist/scientists behaving in an unexpected way might be able to force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. He says that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
Jason Box is a prime example of a scientist risking his career to inform us about global warming. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
“Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he said, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said.
Even though such actions might threaten a successful and prestigious career, he considers the risk to his personal reputation worth it because he has a 14 month old daughter who will have to live in the climate warmed world we bequeath her.
As mentioned in a previous article, the Rosebud Sioux have said that approval of the Keystone pipeline, which would traverse their tribal lands, would be considered an act of war, and they would fight it tooth and nail. President Cyril Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said, “Did I declare war on the Keystone XL pipeline? Hell yeah, I did. I pledge my life to stop these people from harming our children and grandchildren and way of life. They will not cross our treaty lands. We have so much to lose here.”
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, sees that capitalism in and of itself is the chief contributor to global warming. “Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”
Naomi Klein has placed her hope for fighting climate change in efforts like those of the Rosebud Sioux, which are happening around the world, which she calls “Blockadia.” In her book she states:
Blockadia also stretches into multiple hot spots in Canada … For instance, in 2013 … a remarkable standoff was playing out in the province of New Brunswick, on land claimed by the Elsipogtog First Nation, a Mi’kmaq commuinity whose roots in what is now eastern Canada go back some ten thousand years. The people of Elsipogtog were leading a blockade against SWN Resources, the Canadian subsidiary of a Texas-based company, as it tried to conduct seismic testing ahead of a possible fracking operation. The land in question has not been handed over by war or treaty and Canada’s highest court has upheld the Mi’kmaq’s right to continue to access the natural resources of those lands and waters – rights the protesters say would be rendered meaningless if the territory becomes poisoned by fracking toxins.
Celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo are also becoming part of Blockadia as fracking impacts on their beautiful estates. In a recent email, Ruffalo stated:
A ban on fracking in Maryland would set a strong example for elected officials around the country, one that promotes informed choices based on sound, independent science and places constituent safety and well-being first. What happens in Maryland impacts all of us.
The time to ban fracking is now.
Some scientists believe that what happened on Easter Island will happen to life on earth as a whole. Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change. Fenner said that climate change is likely to be the cause of our extinction. “We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said. More people means fewer resources, and Fenner predicts “there will be a lot more wars over food.”
Polynesian people settled on pristine Easter Island around the middle of the first millennium AD. The population grew slowly at first and then exploded. As the population grew the forests were wiped out and all the tree animals became extinct with devastating consequences. Around 1600 the civilization began to collapse, and had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century.
Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond said the parallels between what happened on Easter Island and what is occurring today on the planet as a whole are “chillingly obvious.”
Where We’re Going With This
We will address the positive and negative forces at work and the wide range of solutions needed to come to grips with the fact that life on earth as we know it is in danger. This is complicated by the fact that, despite all the communication about AGW, a vast number of people still don’t really comprehend – or don’t want to comprehend – how exponentially FAST the whole climate change process is taking place relative to geological time. This fortifies the belief in a surprising number of people that nothing dangerous is really happening … and if so, there’s lots of time to solve the problem. Or possibly they are convinced that the worst effects of climate change will not happen until after they’re dead in which case they don’t care.
The reality is that ‘disruptive’ technologies, lifestyle changes and stronger regulations among other things are critical NOW in order to achieve a ‘green friendly, tempered capitalism’ before Earth’s rising heat content and temperature path become irreversible.
With no pretentions of having final answers to the developing environmental peril facing earth-species, we will highlight:
- Ongoing rise in global CO2 emissions and planet-warming
- Far too slow transition to renewables as main energy source
- Real progress by Germany and Scandinavia which contrasts with only a small amount of progress by China, India and the U.S. toward at least 70% renewable energy sources and hydropower by 2050
Big problems require big solutions! Will our human cognitive biases nurtured by personal prejudices, politics, money interests, helplessness and hopelessness prevent us from taking the necessary rational steps towards planetary ecological balance and sustainable living … in time?
The odds aren’t looking good!
Next time: The Scientific Basis of Climate Change
Will Falk says
Thanks for asking the tough questions, John and Frank. A question that Ive grappled with for years is whether or not this culture will ever undergo a voluntary transformation to a truly sustainable way of living. I don’t think so. What does this mean? Well, I believe we have to work from the assumption that there will only be a few of us truly willing to stop the destruction. How does this change our solutions? What tactics do we employ if most of humanity will never be on our side? The good news is life wants to live, but we have to topple the physical processes murdering the planet. Time is short.
What exactly are you hinting at, maybe that freedom itself is a luxury we can’t afford, and that only a dictatorship can implement sustainability? That is certainly something that has occurred to me, although like anyone with liberal values, I question the use of any event as a pretext for expansion of authority. After all, China AFAIK is the only nation state to incorporate matters of human population into state policy. Ironically, China seems to have a lock on materials consumed by the solar cell industry. I used to roll with the punches of “energy independence” framing as I figured at least it had some goals in common with those of us who would prefer energy sustainability, but now the age of fracking is upon us (and Harper’s Canada has gone full petro-state). The mask is off and it’s clear now that energy independence (among nations) and energy sustainability are vectors pointing in opposite directions. And of course there’s the good news in Frank Thomas’ reply concerning Scandinavia, Germany, California, etc., which are still basically democratic polities.
John Lawrence says
Freedom in America comes down to the freedom to shop and that needs to be curtailed somewhat although, as Frank points out, some European countries with liberal values have made great strides in the conversion to renewable energy sources without reverting to dictatorships. I would say that in those countries they have placed the values of combating climate change above the values of the totally free market system in that their corporations don’t run the country like ours do. Also wealthy people cannot buy tons of ad time to try and convince people that climate change is a hoax. There is a separation between monied interests and government with government prevailing. Not so here.
As to energy independence and energy sustainability, we will be energy independent and sustainable after converting to renewable energy sources as we have no lack of sun, wind and other renewable sources here. It’s just a question of having the political will to do so. This is not a very promising prospect though as the political will is maintained by those with the money to hire lobbyists to influence government at all levels – mainly large corporations with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry.
Frank Thomas says
Excellent questions! The ironic reality is that we are NOT really murdering the planet. We are murdering OURSELVES! The planet has survived 5 “murderous” extinctions and will survive the next one.
The good news is that Scandinavia and Germany and to some extent California are showing a “bottoms-up” transitional (non-denial) determination in both scale and speed to be 70% free of polluting fossil fuels by 2050. They are rationally and scientifically setting the transition standard based on facts that HUMANS are the primary CAUSE and ultimate SOLUTION to the environmental peril confronting mankind.
A few years ago I found a brochure on the Internet for my local utility’s net metering program. Net metering is the metering of net usage, which is to say usage minus energy production by the consumer with solar panels and the like. I was shocked that a low ceiling was placed on the number of participants. I just now revisited the blog post I wrote at the time riffing on my disgust with that. Clicking the link to the original brochure came up 404, so I half hoped the brochure was obsoleted by a more liberal net metering policy. A search on the subject led me to Wikipedia’s article on solar power in Michigan, which pretty much dashed those hopes. It seems state policy on the matter is at war with itself; establishing both a ceiling on decentralized energy and a floor on alternative energy. That combination has cronyism written all over it. Students of Michigan politics also, no doubt, remember the tragedy that was the defeat of Proposal 3.
bob dorn says
Great piece of work! You two are on top of the central issue when you write “economic progress (is) incompatible with keeping the planet’s rise in temperature below 2°C.”
People, Americans certainly, can’t quite grasp the consequences of the consumer’s way of life.
The attempts to wrap consumption into the 6 o’clock news is just one example of how corrupted and manipulated we are. I heard major news broadcasters mourn for 3-4 minutes Black Friday’s slight decline in sales this year — one counseled that our failure to buy at record rates really isn’t all that disturbing because we can make up for the shortfall, now, as the season has been extended, another said joblessness might the result in the fall of sales. Do we really care if Walmart or Nordstrom suffers? Is that worth the nation’s extended attention?
So… multiply all that promotion with worldwide new car fever and steak and bake grill houses and fast food joints we drive our cars to and it isn’t long before it becomes obvious that winning over the populations of nations to a simpler and more direct way of living is going to be a hard sell.
Action’s what’s needed. The boycotts protesting Ferguson are making that point.
John Lawrence says
You are right, Bob. The consumerist lifestyle is mainstream America, and it is in direct conflict with what needs to be done to save our ecological system. GDP can’t be the GOD of economic statistics. What our value should be is that everyone have the basics – food, clothing, housing, education – and after that we should actually seek to lower fossil fuel energy use which corresponds roughly to a lowering of GDP in order that we are able to decrease GHG emissions.
Our efforts and our jobs should be at converting to renewable energy sources as quickly as possible. After that goal has been accomplished, the constraints on consumerism can be lifted as increased economic activity and GDP will not be harming the planet in terms of GHG emissions.
bob dorn says
Short hand for the rising cost of living and the heating of the atmosphere is… globalism. Transporting through vulnerable pipelines fracked oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast for transshipment to Europe aboard diesel-burning tankers is simply grotesque.
Transport is one of the unnecessary features of globalism. Transporting oranges from Israel doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, for just one small example. We can live without an orange when it’s off season here. Besides, fruit is picked green and acquires its semblance of maturity through gases that change the skin color. You’re paying for shit food and making Agribusiness happy.
If all this seems too improbably evil for American corporations to conceive, think of why SDGE and its parent company fight tax breaks for people who install solar power in their homes. In the land of the free the corporative mentality is to fuck up any localized, small-scale clean energy production, so that the real money can be made by transporting — and thus losing over the many miles it is shipped– coal and gas-driven electricity.
Frank Thomas says
Your concerns about the relationship between inflated, manipulated consumerism, GDP growth and related energy inefficiency are right on. You awaken a long-time-sensitive subject of mine.
Having lived in Europe for 34 years now and worked as a consultant for Dutch international firms, it has been impressed upon me that historical European and U.S. GDP growth rates have not been that far apart. GDP growth is a function of : Consumption, Private Investment, Public Investment and Net Exports (= exports minus imports). Consumption in European countries averages 58% of GDP versus 70% of GDP for U.S. Hence. U.S. is far more dependent on Consumption as a driver of GDP growth and jobs.
Yet, despite the European much lower Consumption level (but much higher Savings level), over the years European average GDP growth rates have been in the order of 2.6% vs. 3.2% for the U.S. … hardly a big difference. WHY?
Well, higher Savings in Europe get funneled into Private Investment and higher Taxes get funneled into more Public investment. The Europeans are not so reliant on Consumption to drive GDP growth because the other major component of GDP growth, Net Exports, is in general not a negative figure whereas in the U.S. it’s a Huge negative figure. We outsource jobs and are more dependent on cheap imports to compensate for low middle class wages. For some decades, this has been contributing to our substantial trade deficits which are lessening somewhat now due to exports of “fracked” gas and all the internal pollution that brings with methane leaks.
So to achieve a reasonable GDP growth, the U.S. economic model is forced towards a heavy reliance on Consumption and low Savings and ever lower Taxes (mostly for the rich). This generates much more trivial spending on”gidgets that are energy intensive. It also sets greater limits on Private and Public Investment as stimulators of GDP growth( again, except for top 5%) despite slightly higher GDP growth rates than in Europe — much of which is devoured in voraciously high Defense Spending in the order of 5% of GDP vs. 1.5% in Europe. European economies have more funds for infrastructure investments. Europe also is redistributing wealth in form of generally well-managed social coverages on a much broader scale. So income/wealth disparity between top 10% and bottom 90% is about one-half that of U.S. This significant factor plus culture of greater Savings offsets higher progressive European Taxes and contributes to a rather stable 58% of GDP Consumption level in mature EU countries… even in serious recession times.
What’s the connection of all this to Energy use?
Well, European lower Consumption levels and high taxes on gasoline mean that average vehicles have long been +40% smaller and +40% more energy efficient than in the U.S. Also, the European average home is 25-30% smaller but not necessarily less attractive or functional. Air-conditioning is much less with exception of Southern countries. Given the much smaller land territory for over 500 million people, energy-efficient public transport, bicycle use are broadly developed on a far more inclusive scale. Wealth redistribution insures a respectable, fair middle class wage which is the key motor in any nation’s Consumption and GDP growth rates. High Savings rates keeps the materialistic consume, consume, consume paradigm in balance as well as quality of life values and energy efficiency.
These are two entirely different economic models going at a speed and harmonious balance comparable to the hare and turtle race. Is it any surprise that Europe’s consumption of energy is less than half that of America on a per capita basis … same story for CO2 emissions.
So, in my humble view, Europe psychologically, socially, economically is much better prepared to adapt to likely slower future GDP growth rates due to rising costs of increasingly scarce natural resources and intermittent higher clean energy costs during transition to sustainable fuels (which will reverse when green energy economies of scale set in as they have in Germany for wind energy).
I sense Europe is well-situated to go green much more aggressively and efficiently without having any drastic downward pressures on GDP growth or job growth. Of course, more European public pump priming through infrastructure investments is necessary now given the lingering recession. But there’s room to do that while U.S. sits passively in an ideological status-quo quagmire regarding investments in our obsolete infrastructure, public transport, and pre-college education systems.
John Lawrence says
Excellent comment, Frank. I wonder then why the European Central Bank is having so much trouble dealing with the economy and why the recession or almost recession and/or lingering financial problems? Is it because of money borrowed from Wall Street? I know they sunk Milan and some other places in Europe. Actually, I think negative GDP growth would be a positive thing (it would mean less GHGs) as long as wealth and income distribution were more even, and everyone had the basics – food, shelter, education.
Frank Thomas says
To answer your question, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB) wants to buy 1 trillion euros ($1.2 trillion) of member state debt obligations to pump more money in European economy to counter lingering recession and to fight deflation. Inflation in the Eurozone is now 0.3%, and there’s grave concern by ECB to prevent this from developing into a serious deflationary spiral – especially with the sharply dropping oil price. The ECB has the responsibility and mandate to maintain price stability. Economic growth in the Eurozone is now forecast at 1% and 1.5%, respectively, for 2015 and 2016 vs. a forecast three months ago of 1.6% and 1.9%. There’s an obvious economic stagnation as people pull on spending.
Problem is the German Central Bank believes that buying secured debt obligations carries high risk that some EU-28 countries will immediately step back from reforming their budgets. Also, there’s uncertainly whether it will really work, and there are problems how to divide the ECB buying action among member countries.
Draghi wants consensus on this controversial policy decision but indicated recently the ECB can go foreward with the purchase of member state debt obligations even if Germany disagrees. Historically, the ECB has made policy decisions by force majeure, and Draghi is prepared to do that now.
Most people believe the pump-priming will be approved before long in an agreeable form. Governmental matters like these are a tedious democratic process here with 28 member states. But it remains a very democratic process. And when decisions are made they are usually efficiently carried out.
Paul Keleher says
An excellent piece on an overwhelming topic. I have many emotional reactions. But I continue to reach the conclusion that the change we seek will come very slowly, only begrudgingly and will remain unsustainable unless and until the way this country does business on a daily basis is changed by constitutional decree. Free-market capitalism is in my view an economic system that encourages exploitation of any and every situation for personal (or corporate) gain. It served its purpose in the early days of this country to aid and abet the exploitation of the natives and blacks in America (both wholly unjust, but this economic model served the interests of the white majority). However, today it no longer serves anyone but the richest 1%, who continue to rape and pillage everyone else!
Each of the 27 existing amendments to the US Constitution articulate a moral imperative regarding the subject it addresses… each is a statement of right and wrong. Yet, no amendment speaks to the morally correct use of money. It’s about time one did! I believe that nothing short of an Amendment to the US Constitution will change the capitalistic (read dominated by greedy self-interest) nature of the US economy.
The good news here is that the framers of the US Constitution recognized that at some point the US Congress itself may impede necessary progress. Article V of the Constitution provides a means by which the States can call a convention for the sole purpose of amending the US Constitution to resolve a particular concern. And what’s more, a movement is already afoot in the US to achieve just that: a States-led constitutional amendment convention via Article V of the Constitution. For further confirmation of this, go to
I would LOVE to see a new Constitutional Convention, but there’s one big thing in the way: the original constitution was, of course, written with only 13 states in mind, but we now have 50 states. Getting 2/3 to agree to anything is very tough.
Paul Keleher says
To date 3 state legislatures: Vermont, California and Illinois, have all passed binding resolutions calling for a convention of the states for this purpose. The NJ senate has passed this resolution and its house will vote shortly. If the NJ house votes in favor, NJ will be state #4. Similar resolutions supported by Wolf-Pac are currently pending before >10 additional state legislatures. 34 are needed to demand a Convention of the States….I’m not saying it will be easy, but it’s on its way.
Additionally, any proposed amendment to come out of an amendments convention must be ratified by 38 state legislatures before it actually becomes a binding 28th amendment to the constitution.) So, it will likely be several years before a constitutional amendment getting money out of politics takes full effect. And only then will the corporate behavior we despise become unconstitutional, and thus be changed.
Whether this process is fast enough to avoid environmental catastrophe is not clear to me.