Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Enviromentalists and Oligarchy

A pair of Australian professors have apparently written a book entitled The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, which they discuss in their online opinion piece. There thesis is that while democracy is pleasant to live under, it's simply not possible to get democracies to move fast enough to make the environmental changes they see as necessary. Instead, they praise the party dictatorship (and these days, effective oligarchy) of communist China:
China has become, or is just about to become, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse emissions. Its economic growth suggests that it may soon emit as much as the rest of the world put together. Its environment is in a deplorable state, with heavily polluted rivers and drinking water, serious air pollution, both of which have a heavy burden of illness. Pollution and climate change are reducing productive land in the face of an increasing population which is compelled to import some of its foodstuffs. Its population centres will be candidates for early inundation by sea level rise and the melting of Himalayan glaciers will reduce its water supply.

All this suggests that the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognise that the alternative is famine and social disorder

Let us contrast this with the indecisiveness of the democracies which together produce approximately the other half of the world’s greenhouse emissions. It is perhaps reasonable to ask the reader a question. Taking into account the performance of the democracies in the reduction of emissions over the past decade, do you feel that the democracies are able and willing to reduce their emissions by 60-80 per cent this century or perhaps more importantly by approximately 10 per cent each decade?
Elitist opinion has often found oligarchic solutions to their pet causes attractive. Recall the attempt by wealthy elites to ram through strict eugenic controls at the beginning of the 20th century, with jurists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes arguing that "idiots" had been allowed to breed as they wished too long.

Beyond the vaguely 1960s feel of hearing academics endorse a communist dictatorship over the western democracy which makes their tenured rhuminating possible, it strikes me that environmental causes are perhaps the ideal route for a set of experts to demand long term control of a country. Under the Roman Republic, there was a provision to appoint a tyrant for one year to deal with a national emergency -- say, an invasion of the Catheginians into Italy.

These folks are not asking for a one year reign, though. Now only would the sort of environmental controls they are seeking require total control over the country's economy (and I suspect they'd want to regulate family size and internal migration and community structure as well) but it would take a century or more to know that their reforms were working -- or even that they were really required. Talk about job security or the oligarchs...


Anonymous said...

Decrying the inefficiency of democracies is a hardy perennial. "Oh for a Strong Leader who will do X, Y and Z!"

Of course even a cursory study of history demonstrates how wrongheaded all of this is. Dictatorships present a facade of efficiency to people fortunate enough not to live beneath them, "Say what you will about Mussolini, but he made the trains run on time.", but cold analysis undertaken after dictatorial regimes collapse almost always reveals rampant cronyism and corruption, short term lurches in government policy that often lead to administrative chaos, a strong resistance to change after the regime is firmly in the saddle, and a sacrifice of long term goals for short term advantage for the regime. The longing of more than a few intellectuals for dictatorships of the Left or the Right, is a graphic demonstration of the inability of education to instill common sense.

Pro Ecclesia said...

Watermelons. Green on the outside but red on the inside.

Anonymous said...

Proposing any program or form of government as a solution to global warming is fundamentally stupid, since global warming is already a done deal. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is 40% higher than it was in the pre-industrial world, and if everyone on Earth stopped burning fossil fuels today that extra CO2 would still stay there for millenia. Ergo, the Earth will continue warming.

I read an interesting article in SciAm last year in which they fast forwarded the Earth's climate under the assumption that nothing will be done to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels (a safe assumption, for many reasons). The rosiest scenario is that coal and petroleum will last another 200 years before running out, after which our CO2 emissions pulse will end. All this extra CO2 will eventually be sequestered in the deep oceans via a process that is entirely natural but also extremely slow. It will take some 30,000 years for the Earth's atmosphere to get back to normal (not a long time as geologists look at things), and until then the Earth will be warmer than it has been since the Jurassic, with the high sea levels and missing ice caps that go along with such a climate. But in the end things will, finally, get back to normal. For the Earth, if not for people.


Anonymous said...

It will take some 30,000 years for the Earth's atmosphere to get back to normal

But again, what is "normal?" Is the pre-industrial level of atmospheric CO2 normal in a scientific sense? More importantly, is there an ergodic steady state to the Earth's climate? The geologic evidence doesn't seem to suggest so, even without humans around.

Darwin said...

My suspicion is that if the increased CO2 levels do indeed start trending us clearly towards a Jurassic-type climate (which in itself would be just fine for humans, but the getting there would be messy) such that we're seeing trillions of dollars of economic impact from the climate trend, all of a sudden a lot of ideas for reversing the trend will crop up.

Of course, those kinds of solutions are likely to be highly un-green, whether you're talking about genetically modified plants which are designed to reproduce very, very fast and sequester huge amounts of CO2, or artificially creating an energy reflecting situation in the atmosphere -- along the lines of the global cold-snap that followed Krakatoa.

I suspect that it will be dealt with (especially with the technology of 100 years from now) but the trick would be something up with something that didn't have massive unforseen side effects.

Kyle Cupp said...

What we have here is a conflict of interest.

Anonymous said...

j. christian asks: "But again, what is "normal" [for the atmosphere]?"

Atmospheric CO2 concentration has shown a consistent pattern for the past 800,000 years, which is as far back as scientists can get reliable readings. The CO2 concentration dips below 200 ppm during ice ages, and touches or slightly exceeds 300 ppm during interglacials.

Going farther back in history evidence gets a lot more sketchy, but it is not likely that CO2 concentrations have been much higher than 300 ppm in the last 20M years.

Having said that, it is only fair to acknowledge that most scientists believe that the Earth's primordial atmosphere (i.e., before organic life existed) was almost entirely CO2; and some evidence suggests that CO2 concentration may have been as high as 6,000 ppm as recently as 400M years ago. Make of that what you will.


Anonymous said...

I would give no more credence to scientists expounding on politics than I do on politicians expounding on science.

It's possible to have well-informed opinions. And it's possible not to have them.