Will Brazil elect Marina Silva as the world’s first Green president? (The Guardian)

Born into a poor, mixed-race Amazon family, Marina Silva is on the verge of a stunning election win after taking over her party

in São Paulo

The Observer, Saturday 30 August 2014 23.08 BST

Marina Silva

Marina Silva at her campaign HQ. As an environmentalist and a black woman from a poor Amazon family, she carries the hopes of more than one minority in Brazilian politics.  Photograph: Sebastião Moreira/EPA

It started with the national anthem and ended with a rap. In between came a poignant minute’s silence, politicised football chants and a call to action by the woman tipped to become the first Green national leader on the planet.

The unveiling in São Paulo of Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva’s platform for government on Friday was a sometimes bizarre mix oftradition and modernity, conservatism and radicalism, doubt and hope: but for many of those present, it highlighted the very real prospect of an environmentalist taking the reins of a major country.

In a dramatic election that has at times seemed scripted by a telenovelawriter, Silva has tripled her coalition’s poll ratings in the two weeks since she took over from her predecessor and running mate, Eduardo Campos, who was killed in a plane crash. Following a strong performance in the first TV debate between candidates, polls suggest she will come second in the first-round vote on 5 October and then beat the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, in the runoff three weeks later.

This is a spectacular turnaround for a candidate who did not even have a party a year ago, when the electoral court ruled that she had failed to collect enough signatures to mount a campaign. It was also the latest in a series of remarkable steps for a mixed-race woman who grew up in a poor family in the Amazon, and went on to become her country’s most prominent advocate of sustainable development.

The distance Silva – known as Marina – has come from her remote forest home was evident at the launch of her programme for government in the affluent Pinheiros district of São Paulo. About 250 people – mostly from her Sustainability Network party and its allies in Campos’s Brazilian Socialist party (PSB) and other groups – gathered under the chandeliers of the swanky Rosa Rosarum venue, where waiters in white gloves served canapes, while they waited for their leader.

“Now is the time for Marina. We’re all very excited,” said Sigrid Andersen, a university professor and member of the Sustainability Network in Paraná state, before their candidate’s arrival. “I think she will turn the country towards sustainability in every sector. She tried to do that when she was environment minister, but didn’t have the strength. If she wins this election, she’ll have more power to push that agenda.”

The surge in the polls has been exhilarating for supporters. A month ago, as running mate to Campos, the PSB ticket struggled to hit double digits. Within a week of succeeding him, Silva more than doubled the support rate, pushing her into contention for second place and a runoff vote against Rousseff. On Friday, her ratings jumped again. A Datafolha poll showed Silva was now neck and neck with the president at 34% in the first round and would win comfortably with 50% of the vote if it went to a second round, compared with 40% for Rousseff.

Silva’s face stares out from the covers of magazines and the front pages of newspapers, under headlines such as “Marina Presidente?”, “How far can Marina go?”, “The Marina Effect”. One cartoonist depicted her as a Neo-type character from The Matrix who appears to be fighting the campaign in almost another dimension from her rivals.

When the candidate arrived, she stepped out from her van and immediately disappeared into a scrum of cameras and reporters. Local media have described the 56-year-old as frail and noted her low weight and height – details that are almost never mentioned for male candidates.

Women are hugely under-represented in Brazilian politics, but it is not because of her gender that Silva could break the mould. That has more to do with the colour of her skin and ideas.

Silva is a mix of Brazil‘s three main ethnic groups. Among her ancestors are native indians, Portuguese settlers and African slaves. While she is usually described as predominantly “indigenous”, friends say Silva categorises herself as “black” in the national census. In Brazil’s white-dominated political world, this is exceptional.

“It will be super-important for Brazil to have a black president, as it was in the US with Obama. It would signify a big advance for our country against discrimination,” said Alessandro Alvares, a member of the PSB and one of the few non-white faces in the room.

Silva’s political colours could prove still more controversial. For more than a decade, she has been known as the country’s most prominent Green campaigner, having first worked on sustainability at the grassroots with the Amazon activist Chico Mendes, who was later murdered. She later served as environment minister in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration from 2003 to 2008, when she put in place effective measures to slow the deforestation of the Amazon. In her address to Friday’s meeting she stressed that Brazil could double its output of crops and meat without further clearing of the rainforest.

“If elected, Marina will be the greenest president in history, the first black president in Brazil and the first to be born in the Amazon,” said Altino Machado, a journalist based in Acre state, who first met Silva more than 30 years ago when they both attended a theatrical group. “She has proved her credentials as an environmentalist and protector of the Amazon. She also has a very strong ethical code and is totally free from any taint of corruption, which is extremely rare in politics in Brazil, where scandals happen all the time.”

Marina Silva at the launch of her election campaign programme on Friday.

Marina Silva at the launch of her election campaign programme on Friday. Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The clean, green image played well with university students, women and other young voters when Silva first ran for president in 2010. Although she was then with the Green party, which had only a tiny campaign machine, little funds and scant TV time, Silva came third with 20m votes – more than any green candidate has secured anywhere in the world before or since.

This time, she is aiming for a winning share of the electorate and has widened her message accordingly. She has also chosen a running mate – Beto Albuquerque, a congressman from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul – who has close ties to agribusiness.

Listening to Silva speak as the leader of a mostly elite, mostly white, urban crowd in Latin America’s biggest city, it is remarkable to think of her very different origins in the Amazon. The would-be president grew up in the forest in a poor, illiterate family of rubber tappers. She survived malaria and hepatitis, worked as a housemaid and didn’t learn to read until she was 16. With the support of radical Catholic priests she became involved in social issues, entered university and became a student and union activist.

In her childhood, she once harboured ambitions to become a nun. Now she is a twice-married mother of four, but still comes across as serious and severe to the point almost of asceticism. Parts of her speech are stabbed out in a series of finger jabs. Mostly though, it is delivered with the intensive haste of a teacher who has to get through a lot of material in the last class of term. Or a woman on a mission. It is intense: despite the occasional joke and pause for applause, she lacks the easy bonhomie of former president Lula.

Crowd-pleasing has never been what Silva is about. Throughout her career, she has put her principles above the priorities of her political allies. This is one of the reasons why she is now effectively on her fourth party. It has also led to criticism that she is selfish, autocratic, a loner and too much of an idealist to get things done. A more generous interpretation is that she is an outsider who has never been able or willing to conform to the norms of the cosy world of Brasília.

That is clearly part of her appeal to an electorate that is tired of business as usual. Many of those who support her were among the protesters who joined the million-strong demonstrations of more than a dozen cities last year.

But, now in a coalition, Silva is making compromises. Her 250-page programme for government, which was launched on Friday, attempts to reconcile the very different outlooks of the Sustainability Network and the more pro-business PSB. The result is a something of a hodge-podge, with something for street protesters (10% of GDP to healthcare within four years), financial markets (greater autonomy for the central bank) and her core supporters.

On the environmental front, the programme calls for greater energy diversity, which will mean the promotion of wind and solar power; more ethanol production; the maintenance of hydrogeneration (which currently supplies more than three quarters of Brazil’s electricity); and the scaling back of thermal power and exploitation of mine oil deposits located in “sub-salt” strata deep under the Atlantic.

The change could be dramatic, but for the moment, it lacks specifics. In her 20-minute speech in São Paulo, Silva criticised the thinking behind the Belo Monte dam, which will be the biggest in Latin America once it is finished, but stopped short of saying either it or any of the other controversial hydropower projects in the Amazon would be halted.

Similarly, she was cautious about accepting the “Green champion” role that many conservationists around the world would like her to play if she became president.

“Sustainable development is a global trend that can be seen in China, India and elsewhere. If I win, of course I want to make Brazil a symbol of that trend. It won’t just be us, but we have enormous potential,” she said.

Gaudêncio Torquato, professor of political communication at the University of São Paulo, said Silva was showing more flexibility because otherwise she would never be able to govern. “The discourse of sustainability needs to incorporate the daily life of the country. The country would be ungovernable if a fundamentalist vision of politics were implemented.”

But many still see the would-be president as confrontational. Several senior members of the PSB resigned when she was selected as candidate. Business leaders, particularly in the powerful agricultural and energy sectors, see her as anti-development.

“The biggest criticism that agribusiness has in relation to her is her radicalism. She’s made environmental issues a dogma, a religion,” wrote Kátia Abreu, the acerbic head of the ruralisa lobby in Congress. “Throughout her life, she has always stood strongly for environmental activism and displayed strong hatred towards the agricultural sector. She cultivated this animosity in a purposeful way, treating us with aggression.”

Some fear Silva would be socially conservative as a result of her evangelical faith, and the opposition to abortion and gay marriage that comes with it.

But associates say she is not dogmatic on these issues. One of the loudest cheers of the launch meeting followed an affirmation of support for the rights of the lesbian and gay community.

Germano Marino, the president of the Acre Homosexual Association and a member of the ruling Workers’ party, told the Observer he would vote for Silva despite her evangelism.

“I think she is what society needs. Principally I believe she can open the dialogue for us to have more equal rights. Marina has never had a position against homosexuals,” said Marino, who worked with Silva for five years when she was a senator in Acre. “I’m going to vote for her because I believe in her and people have the right to choose their own religion.”

Victory is far from certain. With more than a month left before the election on 5 October, there is abundant time for another twist in the campaign. Voter sympathy following the death of Campos may wear off. Attacks from rivals will increase. And the other candidates should benefit from their superior financial backing and TV time.

But, for now at least, all the momentum is with Silva and her diverse group of supporters. As she heads towards the first-round vote on 5 October, she has generated support among environmentalists, financiers and street protesters; mixed feelings among gay voters and anti-market leftists; and outright hostility from many in the agribusiness and energy industries.

So what does Silva stand for? The traditional political labels of left and right do not quite fit, nor do the ethnic categories of black and white. Green is certainly an important part of the mix, though how diluted will probably not be clear until this unusually colourful campaign comes to an end.

A crise hídrica em São Paulo (Envolverde)

22/8/2014 – 04h28

por Heitor Scalambrini Costa*

represa cantareira 300x150 vale esta A crise hídrica em São Paulo

Contra fatos não há argumentos. O que acontece atualmente com relação ao desabastecimento de água em São Paulo se enquadra na retórica de que uma mentira repetida muitas vezes acaba virando verdade.

O governo paulista insiste em negar que se as obras necessárias tivessem sido realizadas poderia ser menos dramática a atual situação. E insiste ainda em responsabilizar São Pedro pelo caos evidente. A culpa não é da seca! A seca é parte do problema, pois desde sempre se soube que ela poderia vir.

Os gestores públicos também negam que existe racionamento, afirmando que o abastecimento de água está garantido até março de 2015, apesar de, na prática, o racionamento existir oficialmente em dezenas de municípios.

Em visita ao interior de São Paulo, no inicio de agosto [2014], pude constatar uma situação que ainda não tinha me dado conta. A gravidade da crise hídrica atinge não apenas a região metropolitana da capital, como a imprensa dá a entender ao enfatizar o colapso do sistema Cantareira, mas atinge todo o Estado mais rico da União.

Dos 645 municípios paulistas, a Sabesp (Companhia de Saneamento Básico de São Paulo) é responsável por fornecer água a 364, quem somam um total de 27,7 milhões de pessoas. Nos outros 281 municípios (não abastecidos pela Companhia), o abastecimento de água a 16 milhões de pessoas fica a cargo das próprias prefeituras ou de empresas por elas contratadas.

Se, por um lado, a companhia estadual de abastecimento nega haver adotado rodízio de água em qualquer um dos municípios atendidos por ela, inclusive na capital, tal afirmação é logo desmentida pelos usuários que relatam interrupções no abastecimento, principalmente à noite.

Nos municípios não atendidos pela Sabesp, medidas restritivas estão sendo tomadas por centenas de empresas e gestores locais devido à crise. Em Guarulhos, na grande São Paulo, o abastecimento de 1,3 milhões de moradores é atendido por um serviço municipal, o SAAE (Serviço Autônomo de Água e Esgoto), e seus moradores passam sem água um em cada dois dias.

Em 18 municípios, cerca de 2,1 milhões de pessoas estão submetidas ao racionamento oficial no estado de São Paulo, correspondendo a 5% da população total, segundo levantamento do jornal Folha de São Paulo (11/Ago). Além do racionamento, medidas de incentivo à economia de água têm sido adotadas, indo desde multas para reprimir o desperdício a campanhas com rifas de carro e TV para quem poupar e reduzir o consumo voluntariamente.

O que chama a atenção de todos, além da dimensão estadual da crise hídrica em São Paulo, é a insistência dos gestores em negar a existência do racionamento na área de atuação da Sabesp – mesmo contestados pelos moradores, que sofrem na prática com o rodízio provocado pela companhia, com cortes crescentes no fornecimento de água.

A contrapartida do poder é a ação responsável. E o governo paulista tem se mostrado irresponsável com o seu povo, além de incompetente e medíocre para resolver questões básicas para a sua população. É hora de assumir a gravidade da situação e dos erros cometidos, e, naturalmente, fazer as obras urgentes e necessárias para garantir o fornecimento seguro deste bem fundamental à vida.

Chega de hipocrisia, chega de culpar São Pedro que não pode se defender.

* Heitor Scalambrini Costa é professor Associado da Univ. Fed. de Pernambuco. Graduado em Física pela UNICAMP. Doutor em Energética na Univ. de Marselha/Comissariado de Energia Atômica-França.

** Publicado originalmente no site IHU On-Line.

The Climate Swerve (The New York Times)

CreditRobert Frank Hunter


AMERICANS appear to be undergoing a significant psychological shift in our relation to global warming. I call this shift a climate “swerve,” borrowing the term used recently by the Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt to describe a major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly.

The first thing to say about this swerve is that we are far from clear about just what it is and how it might work. But we can make some beginning observations which suggest, in Bob Dylan’s words, that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” Experience, economics and ethics are coalescing in new and important ways. Each can be examined as a continuation of my work comparing nuclear and climate threats.

The experiential part has to do with a drumbeat of climate-related disasters around the world, all actively reported by the news media: hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and wildfires, extreme heat waves and equally extreme cold, rising sea levels and floods. Even when people have doubts about the causal relationship of global warming to these episodes, they cannot help being psychologically affected. Of great importance is the growing recognition that the danger encompasses the entire earth and its inhabitants. We are all vulnerable.

This sense of the climate threat is represented in public opinion polls and attitude studies. A recent Yale survey, for instance, concluded that “Americans’ certainty that the earth is warming has increased over the past three years,” and “those who think global warming is not happening have become substantially less sure of their position.”

Falsification and denial, while still all too extensive, have come to require more defensive psychic energy and political chicanery.

But polls don’t fully capture the complex collective process occurring.

The most important experiential change has to do with global warming and time. Responding to the climate threat — in contrast to the nuclear threat, whose immediate and grotesque destructiveness was recorded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — has been inhibited by the difficulty of imagining catastrophic future events. But climate-related disasters and intense media images are hitting us now, and providing partial models for a devastating climate future.

At the same time, economic concerns about fossil fuels have raised the issue of value. There is a wonderfully evocative term, “stranded assets,” to characterize the oil, coal and gas reserves that are still in the ground. Trillions of dollars in assets could remain “stranded” there. If we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sustaining the human habitat, between 60 percent and 80 percent of those assets must remain in the ground, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, an organization that analyzes carbon investment risk. In contrast, renewable energy sources, which only recently have achieved the status of big business, are taking on increasing value, in terms of returns for investors, long-term energy savings and relative harmlessness to surrounding communities.

Pragmatic institutions like insurance companies and the American military have been confronting the consequences of climate change for some time. But now, a number of leading financial authorities are raising questions about the viability of the holdings of giant carbon-based fuel corporations. In a world fueled by oil and coal, it is a truly stunning event when investors are warned that the market may end up devaluing those assets. We are beginning to see a bandwagon effect in which the overall viability of fossil-fuel economics is being questioned.

Can we continue to value, and thereby make use of, the very materials most deeply implicated in what could be the demise of the human habitat? It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke, in which an armed robber offers a choice, “Your money or your life!” And Benny responds, “I’m thinking it over.” We are beginning to “think over” such choices on a larger scale.

This takes us to the swerve-related significance of ethics. Our reflections on stranded assets reveal our deepest contradictions. Oil and coal company executives focus on the maximum use of their product in order to serve the interests of shareholders, rather than the humane, universal ethics we require to protect the earth. We may well speak of those shareholder-dominated principles as “stranded ethics,” which are better left buried but at present are all too active above ground.

Such ethical contradictions are by no means entirely new in historical experience. Consider the scientists, engineers and strategists in the United States and the Soviet Union who understood their duty as creating, and possibly using, nuclear weapons that could destroy much of the earth. Their conscience could be bound up with a frequently amorphous ethic of “national security.” Over the course of my work I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue.

The climate swerve is mostly a matter of deepening awareness. When exploring the nuclear threat I distinguished between fragmentary awareness, consisting of images that come and go but remain tangential, and formed awareness, which is more structured, part of a narrative that can be the basis for individual and collective action.

In the 1980s there was a profound worldwide shift from fragmentary awareness to formed awareness in response to the potential for a nuclear holocaust. Millions of people were affected by that “nuclear swerve.” And even if it is diminished today, the nuclear swerve could well have helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

With both the nuclear and climate threats, the swerve in awareness has had a crucial ethical component. People came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren.

Social movements in general are energized by this kind of ethical passion, which enables people to experience the more active knowledge associated with formed awareness. That was the case in the movement against nuclear weapons. Emotions related to individual conscience were pooled into a shared narrative by enormous numbers of people.

In earlier movements there needed to be an overall theme, even a phrase, that could rally people of highly divergent political and intellectual backgrounds. The idea of a “nuclear freeze” mobilized millions of people with the simple and clear demand that the United States and the Soviet Union freeze the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons.

Could the climate swerve come to include a “climate freeze,” defined by a transnational demand for cutting back on carbon emissions in steps that could be systematically outlined?

With or without such a rallying phrase, the climate swerve provides no guarantees of more reasonable collective behavior. But with human energies that are experiential, economic and ethical it could at least provide — and may already be providing — the psychological substrate for action on behalf of our vulnerable habitat and the human future.

Global Warming Deniers Are Growing More Desperate by the Day (Moyers & Co.)

August 6, 2014

Fox News aired a report by the Heartland Institute purporting to "debunk" a top climate change report while obscuring the background of the organization, which previously denied the science demonstrating the dangers of tobacco and secondhand smoke. (Image: Media Matters)

Fox News aired a report by the Heartland Institute purporting to “debunk” a top climate change report while obscuring the background of the organization, which previously denied the dangers of tobacco. (Image: Media Matters)

This post originally appeared at Desmogblog.

The Heartland Institute’s recent International Climate Change Conference in Las Vegas illustrates climate change deniers’ desperate confusion. AsBloomberg News noted, “Heartland’s strategy seemed to be to throw many theories at the wall and see what stuck.” A who’s who of fossil fuel industry supporters and anti-science shills variously argued that global warming is a myth; that it’s happening but natural — a result of the sun or “Pacific Decadal Oscillation”; that it’s happening but we shouldn’t worry about it; or that global cooling is the real problem.

The only common thread, Bloomberg reported, was the preponderance of attacks on and jokes about Al Gore: “It rarely took more than a minute or two before one punctuated the swirl of opaque and occasionally conflicting scientific theories.”

Personal attacks are common among deniers. Their lies are continually debunked, leaving them with no rational challenge to overwhelming scientific evidence that the world is warming and that humans are largely responsible. Comments under my columns about global warming include endless repetition of falsehoods like “there’s been no warming for 18 years,” “it’s the sun,” and references to “communist misanthropes,” “libtard warmers,” and worse…

Far worse. Katharine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center and an evangelical Christian, had her email inbox flooded with hate mail and threats after conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh denounced her, and right-wing blogger Mark Morano published her email address. “I got an email the other day so obscene I had to file a police report,” Hayhoe said in an interview on the Responding to Climate Change website. “They mentioned my child. It had all kinds of sexual perversions in it — it just makes your skin crawl.”

One email chastised her for taking “a man’s job” and called for her public execution, finishing with, “If you have a child, then women in the future will be even more leery of lying to get ahead, when they see your baby crying next to the basket next to the guillotine.”

Many attacks came from fellow Christians unable to accept that humans can affect “God’s creation.” That’s a belief held even by a few well-known scientists and others held up as climate experts, including Roy Spencer, David Legates and Canadian economist Ross McKitrick. They’ve signed the Cornwall Alliance’s Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, which says, “We believe Earth and its ecosystems — created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.” This worldview predetermines their approach to the science.

Lest you think nasty, irrational comments are exclusively from fringe elements, remember the gathering place for most deniers, the Heartland Institute, has compared those who accept the evidence for human-caused climate change to terrorists. Similar language was used to describe the US Environmental Protection Agency in a full-page ad in USA Today and Politico from the Environmental Policy Alliance, a front group set up by the PR firm Berman and Company, which has attacked environmentalists, labor-rights advocates, health organizations — even Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society — on behalf of funders and clients including Monsanto, Wendy’s and tobacco giant Phillip Morris. The terrorism meme was later picked up by Pennsylvania Republican congressman Mike Kelly.

David Suzuki: The War on Climate Scientists


Fortunately, most people don’t buy irrational attempts to disavow science. A Forum Research poll found 81 percent of Canadians accept the reality of global warming, and 58 per cent agree it’s mostly human-caused. An Ipsos MORI poll found that, although the US has a higher number of climate change deniers than 20 countries surveyed, 54 per cent of Americans believe in human-caused climate change. (Research also shows climate change denial is most prevalent in English-speaking countries, especially in areas “served” by media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, who rejects climate science.)

It’s time to shift attention from those who sow doubt and confusion, either out of ignorance or misanthropic greed, to those who want to address a real, serious problem. The BBC has the right idea, instructing its reporters to improve accuracy by giving less air time to people with anti-science views, including climate change deniers.

Solutions exist, but every delay makes them more difficult and costly.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

David Suzuki, co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.

The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games (Immanence Blog)

August 18, 2014 by Adrian J Ivakhiv

The following is a guest post by Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. It continues the Immanence series “Debating the Anthropocene.” See herehere, and here for previous articles in the series. (And note that some lengthy comments have been added to the previous post by Jan Zalasiewicz, Kieran Suckling, and others.)


 The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games

by Clive Hamilton

In his post “Against the Anthropocene”, Kieran Suckling makes two main arguments. The first is that the choice of “Anthropocene” as the name for the new epoch breaks with stratigraphic tradition; he feels uncomfortable with a change in tradition, not least because he suspects the break reflects a hidden political objective. The second is that similar names have been invented for the era of industrialism in the past, names that have gone out of fashion, and the Anthropocene will go the same way.

Many scientists and social scientists have entered the debate over the Anthropocene. Each of them seems to want to impose their own disciplinary framework on it. Thus one respondent to Kieran’s post wrote that it is “difficult to get a handle on the term ‘Anthropocene’ because it means very different things to different people”. This is true, but it is true because most people have not bothered to read the half dozen basic papers on the Anthropocene by those who have defined it, and therefore do not know what they are talking about.

The problem is that those who want to colonise and redefine the Anthropocene completely miss the central point being made by Earth system scientists like Paul Crutzen, Will Steffen and Jan Zalasiewicz. I have elsewhere explained why those who have not made the gestalt shift to Earth system thinking cannot help but get the Anthropocene wrong. The Earth system scientists are saying that something radically new has occurred on planet Earth, something that can be detected from the late 18th-century and which is due predominantly to a serious disruption to the global carbon cycle. This disruption has set the Earth system on a new, unpredictable and dangerous trajectory.

Ecologists who have not made the leap to Earth system thinking have been the worst offenders. But a few social scientists and humanities people have been joining the fray, bringing their constructivist baggage. Kieran, I fear, is one of them.

In response to Jan Zalasiewicz’s comment that Paul Crutzen came up with the term at the right time, Kieran misunderstands him, asking: “Why was the time right? Is there something about western psychology and history that made this time right?” So he treats the development of a body of scientific evidence as if it were merely an emanation of social and psychological conditions. It’s a reading that has all of the epistemological and political faults of the “social construction of science”, an approach that today is deployed most effectively by climate science deniers.

Kieran’s disquisition on the historical use of terms like “the age of man” compounds this mistake. It suggests that he has missed the fundamental point – thefundamental point – about the new epoch: that the functioning of the Earth systemhas changed, and that it changed at the end of the 18th century; or, if we want to be absolutely certain, in the decades after the Second World War. I sense that Jan Z’s gentle reminder was lost, so let me stress it. He wrote: “The Anthropocene is not about being able to detect human influence in stratigraphy, but reflects a change in the Earth system” (my emphasis). The core of the problem, I think, is that most participants in the debate do not actually understand what is meant by “the Earth system”.

So whatever historical interest it may have (and personally I find it fascinating), the fact that Cuvier, Buffon, de Chardin and several others have deployed terms like “the age of man” has no bearing whatsoever on the current debate, which is about a physical transformation, a rupture, that has actually occurred. Arguing that it’s all been said before – “I can show that your claim to have come up with something decisively new is historically inaccurate” – is a standard rhetorical strategy known as deflation. But it carries the same danger we were warned of as children when our parents read us the story of the boy who cried wolf. Whatever historical precedent, and whatever environmental alarm bell may have been rung in the past, the wolf has arrived.

Deflationary moves that characterise the Anthropocene as merely the latest attempt by anthropocentric westerners to impose an “age of man” frame on the world – that it is a fad that will wane as all the others have – betray an essential failure to grasp what the Earth scientists are telling us is now happening in the Earth system. When the IPCC tells us we are heading for a doubling or, more likely, a trebling of CO2concentrations it is not a fad. When the world’s scientific academies warn we are heading into a world of 4°C warming, changing the conditions of life on the planet, they are not saying it because it’s fashionable. And if the Anthropocene is another example of western linguistic imperialism, changing the name will not exempt the poor and vulnerable of the South from its devastating effects.

No, I’m sorry, this is serious now. After all the attacks on climate science and the well-funded, systematic campaign to discredit climate scientists, people of good will have an absolute obligation not to play around with the science. The constructivist games of the 80s and 90s are an intellectual luxury we can no longer afford.


Let me now comment on Kieran’s argument that the Anthropocene is wrongly named because it deviates from naming tradition. He writes that epochs are never named for the causes of change but for the changed composition of the species present in each epoch, era or period. When we examine the helpful lists he provides linking eras, periods and epochs to their characteristic biota, the word that appears uniformly is “appear”. Eukaryotes appear, reptiles appear, fish appear, mammals appear, and so on.

When he calls for consistency in naming, then, we should name the Anthropocene not after the cause of the new epoch (techno-industrial anthropos) but after the new forms of life that have appeared. The problem is that no new forms of life have yet appeared. It seems very likely they will, but it would be impractical to wait 100,000 years before we knew what to name the latest epoch. By then all of the members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy will be dead (they who already in my imagination are like the wizened judges of the Court of Chancery hearing Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House).

So we are stuck with an anomaly; why this should cause anxiety, except to those wedded to tradition, I do not know. We are practical people; if we cannot apply the old principle to naming a manifestly new and important geological epoch then we must choose a new principle.

Kieran’s solution to the problem is to name the epoch after the radical homogenization of the planet’s species (along with the extinction of many). He suggests the “Homogenocene”. But here he only smuggles in a new criterion, replacing the appearance of new species with a change in the distribution of existing ones. If we were to accept Kieran’s argument then, as Jan points out, why not name the epoch after the overwhelmingly dominant feature of homogenisation, the spread of humans across the globe. According to Vaclav Smil, humans and their domestic animals now account for a breath-taking 97 per cent of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates. On Kieran’s own criterion, we would name the new epoch … the Anthropocene.

Finally, it will help if I tell the story of the naming of the Anthropocene, for an innocent reader of Kieran’s piece may draw the conclusion that there was some kind of secret meeting at which a group of western scientists committed to an anthropocentric worldview conspired to promote their ideology by choosing a name that embodies it. Kieran asks: “What belief system(s) drive the shift … to a name based on the power of one species, a species that happens to be us?”

The answer is more prosaic and goes like this. In 2000 Paul Crutzen was at a scientific meeting in Mexico. As the discussion progressed he became increasingly frustrated at the use of the term “Holocene” which he felt no longer described the state of the Earth system, which he knew had been irreversibly disrupted and damaged by human activity. Unable to contain his irritation he intervened, declaring to the meeting: “It’s not the Holocene, it’s … it’s … it’s … the Anthropocene.”

That was it. He just blurted it out; and it stuck. Paul Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist. Given his training it is no surprise that as his brain struggled for the right word it would come with one that linked the state of the Earth to the activities of humans, anthropos. If there had been a savvy sociologist sitting at the table, she might have said: “Wait a minute Paul. It’s not humans in general who got us into this mess, but western industrial ones. So let’s call it the Capitalocene or the Technocene.”

Who knows, perhaps that intervention would have changed the course of history right then. But it didn’t happen, and we have the term we are now debating. Crutzen and his various co-authors would agree with the savvy sociologist that it has been techno-industrialism with its origins in Europe that brought on the new epoch. They have argued persistently that the Anthropocene began with the growth of industries powered by fossil energy towards the end of the 18th-century and accelerated with the hyper-consumerism of the post-war decades.

The real adversaries here are not Crutzen et al. but those scientists, mostly ecologists who do not ‘get’ Earth system science, who are making all sorts of erroneous and confusing claims about the Anthropocene’s origins lying in the distant past, thousands of years before European industrialisation. If anyone is trying to displace responsibility for the mess we are in then they are the culprits. It is they who want to blend the Anthropocene into the Holocene and thereby make theanthropos of the Anthropocene a neutral, blameless, meaningless cause, so that the radical transformation that we now see is the result merely of humans doing what humans do, which nothing can change. No wonder political conservatives are drawn to the early Anthropocene hypothesis.

How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen (The Atlantic)


Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here’s how we can move beyond the impasse. 

Josh Cochran

Not long ago, my newspaper informed me that glaciers in the western Antarctic, undermined by the warmer seas of a hotter world, were collapsing, and their disappearance “now appears to be unstoppable.” The melting of these great ice sheets would make seas rise by at least four feet—ultimately, possibly 12—more than enough to flood cities from New York to Tokyo to Mumbai. Because I am interested in science, I read the two journal articles that had inspired the story. How much time do we have, I wondered, before catastrophe hits?

One study, in Geophysical Research Letters, provided no guidance; the authors concluded only that the disappearing glaciers would “significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” But the other, in Science, offered more-precise estimates: during the next century, the oceans will surge by as much as a quarter of a millimeter a year. By 2100, that is, the calamity in Antarctica will have driven up sea levels by almost an inch. The process would get a bit faster, the researchers emphasized, “within centuries.”

How is one supposed to respond to this kind of news? On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren. How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?

In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.

Worse, confronting climate change requires swearing off something that has been an extraordinary boon to humankind: cheap energy from fossil fuels. In the 3,600 years between 1800B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, it inaugurated an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity. Artificial lighting, air-conditioning, and automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, swaddle us in our giddy modernity. In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.

In the best of times, this problem—given its apocalyptic stakes, bewildering scale, and vast potential cost—would be difficult to resolve. But we are not in the best of times. We are in a time of legislative paralysis. In an important step, the Obama administration announced in June its decision to cut power-plant emissions 30 percent by 2030. Otherwise, this country has seen strikingly little political action on climate change, despite three decades of increasingly high-pitched chatter by scientists, activists, economists, pundits, and legislators.

The chatter itself, I would argue, has done its share to stall progress. Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.

As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes clear in The Bet, it wasn’t always this way. The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate. Sabin’s book takes off from a single event: a bet between the ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon a decade later. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which decried humankind’s rising numbers, was a foundational text in the environmental movement. Simon’s Ultimate Resource (1981) was its antimatter equivalent: a celebration of population growth, it awakened opposition to the same movement.

Activist led by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, protest the building of the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, February 2013. (AP)

Ehrlich was moderately liberal in his politics but unrestrained in his rhetoric. The second sentence of The Population Bomb promised that “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death within two decades, no matter what “crash programs” the world launched to feed them. A year later, Ehrlich gave even odds that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” In 1974, he told Congress that “a billion or more people” could starve in the 1980s “at the latest.” When the predictions didn’t pan out, he attacked his critics as “incompetent” and “ignorant,” “morons” and “idiots.”

Simon, who died in 1998, argued that “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will extricate us from our ecological dilemma. Moderately conservative in his politics, he was exuberantly uninhibited in his scorn for eco-alarmists. Humankind faces no serious environmental problems, he asserted. “All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” (All? Really?) “There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.” Relishing his role as a spoiler, he gave speeches while wearing red plastic devil horns. Unsurprisingly, he attracted disagreement, to which he responded with as much bluster as Ehrlich. Critics, motivated by “blatant intellectual dishonesty” and indifference to the poor, were “corrupt,” their ideas “ignorant and wrongheaded.”

In 1980, the two men wagered $1,000 on the prices of five metals 10 years hence. If the prices rose, as Ehrlich predicted, it would imply that these resources were growing scarcer, as Homo sapiens plundered the planet. If the prices fell, this would be a sign that markets and human cleverness had made the metals relatively less scarce: progress was continuing. Prices dropped. Ehrlich paid up, insisting disingenuously that he had been “schnookered.”

Schnookered, no; unlucky, yes. In 2010, three Holy Cross economists simulated the bet for every decade from 1900 to 2007. Ehrlich would have won 61 percent of the time. The results, Sabin says, do not prove that these resources have grown scarcer. Rather, metal prices crashed after the First World War and spent most of a century struggling back to their 1918 levels. Ecological issues were almost irrelevant.

The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. The American landscape first became a source of widespread anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the fretting came from conservatives, both the rural hunters who established the licensing system that brought back white-tailed deer from near-extinction and the Ivy League patricians who created the national parks. So ineradicable was the conservative taint that decades later, the left still scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. At the University of Michigan, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day, in 1970, as elitist flimflam meant to divert public attention from class struggle and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.” By the 1980s, businesses had realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.

Climate change is a perfect issue for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible.

The result, as the Emory historian Patrick Allitt demonstrates in A Climate of Crisis, was a political back-and-forth that became ever less productive. Time and again, Allitt writes, activists and corporate executives railed against each other. Out of this clash emerged regulatory syntheses: rules for air, water, toxins. Often enough, businesspeople then discovered that following the new rules was less expensive than they had claimed it would be; environmentalists meanwhile found out that the problems were less dire than they had claimed.


Throughout the 1980s, for instance, activists charged that acid rain from midwestern power-plant emissions was destroying thousands of East Coast lakes. Utilities insisted that anti-pollution equipment would be hugely expensive and make homeowners’ electric bills balloon. One American Electric Power representative predicted that acid-rain control could lead to the “destruction of the Midwest economy.” A 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, backed by both the Republican administration and the Democratic Congress, set up a cap-and-trade mechanism that reduced acid rain at a fraction of the predicted cost; electric bills were barely affected. Today, most scientists have concluded that the effects of acid rain were overstated to begin with—fewer lakes were hurt than had been thought, and acid rain was not the only cause.

Rather than learning from this and other examples that, as Allitt puts it, “America’s environmental problems, though very real, were manageable,” each side stored up bitterness, like batteries taking on charge. The process that had led, however disagreeably, to successful environmental action in the 1970s and ’80s brought on political stasis in the ’90s. Environmental issues became ways for politicians to signal their clan identity to supporters. As symbols, the issues couldn’t be compromised. Standing up for your side telegraphed your commitment to take back America—either from tyrannical liberal elitism or right-wing greed and fecklessness. Nothing got done.

As an issue, climate change is perfect for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible. Carbon dioxide, its main cause, is not emitted in billowing black clouds, like other pollutants; nor is it caustic, smelly, or poisonous. A side effect of modernity, it has for now a tiny practical impact on most people’s lives. To be sure, I remember winters as being colder in my childhood, but I also remember my home then as a vast castle and my parents as godlike beings.

In concrete terms, Americans encounter climate change mainly in the form of three graphs, staples of environmental articles. The first shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been steadily increasing. Almost nobody disputes this. The second graph shows rising global temperatures. This measurement is trickier: carbon dioxide is spread uniformly in the air, but temperatures are affected by a host of factors (clouds, rain, wind, altitude, the reflectivity of the ground) that differ greatly from place to place. Here the data are more subject to disagreement. A few critics argue that for the past 17 years warming has mostly stopped. Still, most scientists believe that in the past century the Earth’s average temperature has gone up by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rising temperatures per se are not the primary concern. What matters most is their future influence on other things: agricultural productivity, sea levels, storm frequency, infectious disease. As the philosopher Dale Jamieson points out in the unfortunately titled Reason in a Dark Time, most of these effects cannot be determined by traditional scientific experiments—white-coats in laboratories can’t melt a spare Arctic ice cap to see what happens. (Climate change has no lab rats.) Instead, thousands of researchers refine ever bigger and more complex mathematical models. The third graph typically shows the consequences such models predict, ranging from worrisome (mainly) to catastrophic (possibly).

Such charts are meaningful to the climatologists who make them. But for the typical citizen they are a muddle, too abstract—too much like 10th-grade homework—to be convincing, let alone to motivate action. In the history of our species, has any human heart ever been profoundly stirred by a graph? Some other approach, proselytizers have recognized, is needed.

To stoke concern, eco-campaigners like Bill McKibben still resort, Ehrlich-style, to waving a skeleton at the reader. Thus the first sentence of McKibben’sOil and Honey, a memoir of his climate activism, describes 2011–12, the period covered by his book, as “a time when the planet began to come apart.” Already visible “in almost every corner of the earth,” climate “chaos” is inducing “an endless chain of disasters that will turn civilization into a never-ending emergency response drill.”

Bill McKibben says we must “start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers … who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace.”

The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences—something he believes is already occurring. “After a long era of getting big and distant,” he writes, “our economy, and maybe our culture, has started to make a halting turn toward the small and local.” Not only will this shift let us avoid the worst consequences of climate change, it will have the happy side effect of turning a lot of unpleasant multinational corporations to ash. As we “subside into a workable, even beautiful, civilization,” we will lead better lives. No longer hypnotized by the buzz and pop of consumer culture, narcotized couch potatoes will be transformed into robust, active citizens: spiritually engaged, connected to communities, appreciative of Earth’s abundance.

For McKibben, the engagement is full throttle: The Oil half of his memoir is about founding 350.org, a group that seeks to create a mass movement against climate change. (The 350 refers to the theoretical maximum safe level, in parts per million, of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a level we have already surpassed.) The Honey half is about buying 70 acres near his Vermont home to support an off-the-grid beekeeper named Kirk Webster, who is living out McKibben’s organic dream in a handcrafted, solar-powered cabin in the woods. Webster, McKibben believes, is the future. We must, he says, “start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much more damage in the process.”

Poppycock, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in effect replies in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. A best-selling, telegenic public intellectual (a species that hardly exists in this country), Bruckner is mainly going after what he calls “ecologism,” of which McKibbenites are exemplars. At base, he says, ecologism seeks not to save nature but to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism.

To Bruckner, ecologism is both ethnocentric and counterproductive. Ethnocentric because eco-denunciations of capitalism simply give new, green garb to the long-standing Euro-American fear of losing dominance over the developing world (whose recent growth derives, irksomely, from fossil fuels). Counterproductive because ecologism induces indifference, or even hostility to environmental issues. In the quest to force humanity into a puritanical straitjacket of rural simplicity, ecologism employs what should be neutral, fact-based descriptions of a real-world problem (too much carbon dioxide raises temperatures) as bludgeons to compel people to accept modes of existence they would otherwise reject. Intuiting moral blackmail underlying the apparently objective charts and graphs, Bruckner argues, people react with suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy—the opposite of the reaction McKibbenites hope to evoke.

The ranchers and farmers in Tony Horwitz’s Boom, a deft and sometimes sobering e-book, suggest Bruckner may be on to something. Horwitz, possibly best known for his study of Civil War reenactors, Confederates in the Attic, travels along the proposed path of the Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline intended to take oil from Alberta’s tar-sands complex to refineries in Steele City, Nebraska—and the project McKibben has used as the rallying cry for 350.org. McKibben set off on his anti-Keystone crusade after the climatologist-provocateur James Hansen charged in 2011 that building the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate. If Keystone were built, Hansen later wrote, “civilization would be at risk.” Everyone Horwitz meets has heard this scenario. But nobody seems to have much appetite for giving up the perks of industrial civilization, Kirk Webster–style. “You want to go back to the Stone Age and use only wind, sun, and water?” one person asks. A truck driver in the tar-sands project tells Horwitz, “This industry is giving me a future, even if it’s a short one and we’re all about to toast together.” Given the scale of the forces involved, individual action seems futile. “It’s going to burn up anyhow at the end,” explains a Hutterite farmer, matter-of-factly. “The world will end in fire.”


Whereas McKibbenites see carbon dioxide as an emblem of a toxic way of life, economists like William Nordhaus of Yale tend to view it as simply a by-product of the good fortune brought by capitalism. Nordhaus, the president of the American Economic Association, has researched climate issues for four decades. His The Climate Casino has an even, unhurried tone; a classic Voice of Authority rumbles from the page. Our carbon-dioxide issues, he says, have a “simple answer,” one “firmly based in economic theory and history”:

The best approach is to use market mechanisms. And the single most important market mechanism that is missing today is a high price on CO2 emissions, or what is called “carbon prices” … The easiest way is simply to tax CO2 emissions: a “carbon tax” … The carbon price [from the tax] will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices.

Nordhaus provides graphs (!) showing how a gradually increasing tax—or, possibly, a market in emissions permits—would slowly and steadily ratchet down global carbon-dioxide output. The problem, as he admits, is that the projected reduction “assumes full participation.” Translated from econo-speak, “full participation” means that the Earth’s rich and populous nations must simultaneously apply the tax. Brazil, China, France, India, Russia, the United States—all must move in concert, globally cooperating.

To say that a global carbon tax is a simple answer is like arguing that the simple answer to death is repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Alas, nothing like Nordhaus’s planetary carbon tax has ever been enacted. The sole precedent is the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty banning substances that react with atmospheric ozone and reduce its ability to absorb the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Signed by every United Nations member and successfully updated 10 times, the protocol is a model of international eco-cooperation. But it involves outlawing chemicals in refrigerators and spray cans, not asking nations to revamp the base of their own prosperity. Nordhaus’s declaration that a global carbon tax is a simple answer is like arguing that the simple answer to death is repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Does climate change, as Nordhaus claims, truly slip into the silk glove of standard economic thought? The dispute is at the center of Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time. Parsing logic with the care of a raccoon washing a shiny stone, Jamieson maintains that economists’ discussions of climate change are almost as problematic as those of environmentalists and politicians, though for different reasons.

Remember how I was complaining that all discussions of climate change devolve into homework? Here, sadly, is proof. To critique economists’ claims, Jamieson must drag the reader through the mucky assumptions underlying cost-benefit analysis, a standard economic tool. In the case of climate change, the costs of cutting carbon dioxide are high. What are the benefits? If the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises only slightly above its current 400 parts per million, most climatologists believe, there is (roughly) a 90 percent chance that global temperatures will eventually rise between 3 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most likely jump being between 4 and 5 degrees. Nordhaus and most other economists conclude that humankind can slowly constrain this relatively modest rise in carbon without taking extraordinary, society-transforming measures, though neither decreasing the use of fossil fuels nor offsetting their emissions will be cheap or easy. But the same estimates show (again in rough terms) a 5 percent chance that letting carbon dioxide rise much above its current level would set off a domino-style reaction leading to global devastation. (No one pays much attention to the remaining 5 percent chance that the carbon rise would have very little effect on temperature.)

In our daily lives, we typically focus on the most likely result: I decide whether to jaywalk without considering the chance that I will trip in the street and get run over. But sometimes we focus on the extreme: I lock up my gun and hide the bullets in a separate place to minimize the chance that my kids will find and play with them. For climate change, should we focus on adapting to the mostprobable outcome or averting the most dangerous one? Cost-benefit analyses typically ignore the most-radical outcomes: they assume that society has agreed to accept the small but real risk of catastrophe—something environmentalists, to take one particularly vehement section of society, have by no means done.

On top of this, Jamieson argues, there is a second problem in the models economists use to discus climate change. Because the payoff from carbon-dioxide reduction will occur many decades from now, Nordhausian analysis suggests that we should do the bare minimum today, even if that means saddling our descendants with a warmer world. Doing the minimum is expensive enough already, economists say. Because people tomorrow will be richer than we are, as we are richer than our grandparents were, they will be better able to pay to clean up our emissions. Unfortunately, this is an ethically problematic stance. How can we weigh the interests of someone born in 2050 against those of someone born in 1950? In this kind of trade-off between generations, Jamieson argues, “there is no plausible value” for how much we owe the future.

Given their moral problems, he concludes, economic models are much less useful as guides than their proponents believe. For all their ostensible practicality—for all their attempts to skirt the paralysis-inducing specter of the apocalypse—economists, too, don’t have a good way to talk about climate change.

Years ago, a colleague and I spoke with the physicist Richard Feynman, later a national symbol of puckish wit and brash truth-telling. At the frontiers of science, he told us, hosts of unclear, mutually contradictory ideas are always swarming about. Researchers can never agree on how to proceed or even on what is important. In these circumstances, Feynman said, he always tried to figure out what would take him forward no matter which theory eventually turned out to be correct. In this agnostic spirit, let’s assume that rising carbon-dioxide levels will become a problem of some magnitude at some time and that we will want to do something practical about it. Is there something we should do, no matter what technical arcanae underlie the cost-benefit analyses, no matter when we guess the bad effects from climate change will kick in, no matter how we value future generations, no matter what we think of global capitalism? Indeed, is there some course of action that makes sense even if we think that climate change isn’t much of a problem at all?

As my high-school math teacher used to say, let’s do the numbers. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and roughly three-quarters of that comes from just two sources: coal in its various forms, and oil in its various forms, including gasoline. Different studies produce slightly different estimates, but they all agree that coal is responsible for more carbon dioxide than oil is—about 25 percent more. That number is likely to increase, because coal consumption is growing much faster than oil consumption.

Geo-engineering involves tinkering with planetary systems we only partially understand. But planet-hacking does have an overarching advantage: it’s cheap.​

Although coal and oil are both fossil fuels, they are used differently. In this country, for example, the great majority of oil—about three-quarters—is consumed by individuals, as they heat their homes and drive their cars. Almost all U.S. coal (93 percent) is burned not in homes but by electric-power plants; the rest is mainly used by industry, notably for making cement and steel. Cutting oil use, in other words, requires huge numbers of people to change their houses and automobiles—the United States alone has 254 million vehicles on the road. Reducing U.S. coal emissions, by contrast, means regulating 557 big power plants and 227 steel and cement factories. (Surprisingly, many smaller coal plants exist, some at hospitals and schools, but their contributions are negligible.) I’ve been whacking poor old Nordhaus for his ideas about who should pay for climate change, but he does make this point, and precisely: “The most cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce the use of coal first and most sharply.” Note, too, that this policy comes with a public-health bonus: reining in coal pollution could ultimately avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 children’s asthma attacks per year in the United States alone.


Different nations have different arrangements, but almost everywhere the basic point holds true: a relatively small number of industrial coal plants—perhaps 7,000 worldwide—put out an amazingly large amount of carbon dioxide, more than 40 percent of the global total. And that figure is rising; last year, coal’s share of energy production hit a 44-year high, because Asian nations are building coal plants at a fantastic rate (and, possibly, because demand for coal-fired electricity will soar as electric cars become popular). No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change, you are primarily talking about coal. To my mind, at least, retrofitting 7,000 industrial facilities, however mind-boggling, is less mind-boggling than, say, transforming the United States into “a nation of careful, small-scale farmers” or enacting a global carbon tax with “full participation.” It is, at least, imaginable.

The focus of the Obama administration on reducing coal emissions suggests that it has followed this logic. If the pattern of the late 20th century still held, industry would reply with exaggerated estimates of the cost, and compromises would be worked out. But because the environment has become a proxy for a tribal battle, an exercise in power politics will surely ensue. I’ve given McKibben grief for his apocalyptic rhetoric, but he’s exactly correct that without a push from a popular movement—without something like 350.org—meaningful attempts to cut back coal emissions are much less likely to yield results.

Regrettably, 350.org has fixated on the Keystone pipeline, which the Congressional Research Service has calculated would raise this nation’s annual output of greenhouse gases by 0.05 to 0.3 percent. (James Hansen, in arguing that the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate, erroneously assumed that all of the tar-sands oil could be burned rapidly, instead of dribbling out in relatively small portions year by year, over decades.) None of this is to say that exploiting tar sands is a good idea, especially given the apparent violation of native treaties in Canada. But a popular movement focused on symbolic goals will have little ability to win practical battles in Washington.

If politics fail, the only recourse, says David Keith, a Harvard professor of public policy and applied physics, will be a technical fix. And soon—by mid-century. Keith is talking about geo-engineering: fighting climate change with more climate change. A Case for Climate Engineering is a short book arguing that we should study spraying the stratosphere with tiny glittering droplets of sulfuric acid that bounce sunlight back into space, reducing the Earth’s temperature. Physically speaking, the notion is feasible. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, created huge amounts of airborne sulfuric acid—and lowered the Earth’s average temperature that year by about 1 degree.

Keith is candid about the drawbacks. Not only does geo-engineering involve tinkering with planetary systems we only partially understand, it can’t cancel out, even in theory, greenhouse problems like altered rainfall patterns and increased ocean acidity. The sulfur would soon fall to the Earth, a toxic rain of pollution that could kill thousands of people every year. The carbon dioxide that was already in the air would remain. To continue to slow warming, sulfur would have to be lofted anew every year. Still, Keith points out, without this relatively crude repair, unimpeded climate change could be yet more deadly.

Planet-hacking does have an overarching advantage: it’s cheap. “The cost of geoengineering the entire planet for a decade,” Keith writes, “could be less than the $6 billion the Italian government is spending on dikes and movable barriers to protect a single city, Venice, from climate change–related sea level rise.”

That advantage is also dangerous, he points out. A single country could geo-engineer the whole planet by itself. Or one country’s geo-engineering could set off conflicts with another country—a Chinese program to increase its monsoon might reduce India’s monsoon. “Both are nuclear weapons states,” Keith reminds us. According to Forbes, the world has 1,645 billionaires, several hundred of them in nations threatened by climate change. If their businesses or homes were at risk, any one of them could single-handedly pay for a course of geo-engineering. Is anyone certain none of these people would pull the trigger?

Few experts think that relying on geo-engineering would be a good idea. But no one knows how soon reality will trump ideology, and so we may finally have hit on a useful form of alarmism. One of the virtues of Keith’s succinct, scary book is to convince the reader that unless we find a way to talk about climate change, planes full of sulfuric acid will soon be on the runway.

Harvard historian: strategy of climate science denial groups ‘extremely successful’ (The Guardian)

Professor Naomi Oreskes says actions of climate denialists are laying the foundations for the government interventions they fear the most

Thursday 24 July 2014 23.12 BST

Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University Professor of the History of Science

Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University Professor of the History of Science. Photograph: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson had a special message for the American Congress on conservation of the environment.

Worried about the “storm of modern change” threatening cherished landscapes, Johnson said: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

The same quote appears at the beginning of the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by science historians Erik Conway and Professor Naomi Oreskes.

Plainly the line – almost half a century old now – was picked to show just how long the impacts of fossil fuel burning have been known in the corridors of the highest powers.

The book explained the efforts since the 1960s of vested interests and ideologues to underplay the risks of pumping ever-increasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One of the most startling revealing aspects of the book was how some of the same institutions and individuals who held out against a wave of scientific warnings about the health impacts of tobacco smoke became integral to efforts to block any meaningful policy response to greenhouse gas emissions.

Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and she has a new book out, again co-written with Conway.

The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future is written from the perspective of a historian living in the year 2393 and looking back at what went horribly wrong in the lead up to the “Great Collapse”.

Here’s my Q&A with Oreskes.

Q: Merchants of Doubt looked at the role of think tanks, vested interests and free market ideologies in attacking the science linking fossil fuel burning to climate change, smoking to cancer, pollution to acid rain and CFCs to the ozone hole. Four years later, has anything changed?

Not really. There are some new faces on the horizon, but recruiting “fresh voices” has been a tactic for a long time. So even the things that may look new are in fact old. The Heartland Institute has become more visible, and the George Marshall Institute a bit less, but the overall picture continues: these groups continue to dismiss or disparage the science, attack scientists, and sow doubt.

They continue to try to block action by confusing us about the facts. And the arguments, the tactics, and the overall strategy has remained the same. And, they’ve been extremely successful. CO2 has reached 400 ppm, meaningful action is still not in sight, and people who really understand the science—understand what is at stake—are getting very worried.

Q: How did you move from being a geologist working in Australia for the Western Mining Corporation to being a scholar of the history of science?

Oh this is a long story. I was always interested in broad questions about science. History of science gave me the opportunity to pursue those broad questions.

 VIDEO: Naomi Oreskes discusses the background to the 2010 Merchants of Doubt

Q: You were filmed for an ABC documentary that pitched a climate change “advocate” against a “sceptic”. You met Australian politician and climate science sceptic Nick Minchin – the key political kingmaker who engineered the leadership challenge that gave the now Prime Minister Tony Abbott the Liberal leadership. What were your impressions of Minchin?

Well, I think he is a basically nice guy who has fallen into a trap: the trap of imprecatory denial. He doesn’t like the implications of climate change for our political and economic system, so he denies its reality. But climate change will come back to bite us all. It is already starting to.

VIDEO: Naomi Oreskes meets former Australian politician and climate sceptic Nick Minchin. Clip from ABC documentary “I Can Change Your Mind About Climate” Produced by Smith&Nasht.

Q: So you worked in Australia as a geologist, toured here to promote Merchants of Doubt and had an academic role at the University of Western Australia, so you’ve seen a bit of how things have played out. How do you think Australia has been influenced by organised climate science denial?

Clearly. One sees all the same strategies and tactics being used there, plus a few additional ones (trotting out geologists to claim there are hidden underwater volcanoes that are responsible for the extra atmospheric CO2.) The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia has been very active trotting out skeptical and denialist claims with little or no basis in evidence. If you go to their web site, they link back to many of the very same groups whose activities we documented in Merchants of Doubt : the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Competitive Enterprise institute, the Heritage Foundation.

It’s the same old, same old: defend the free market, deny the reality of market failure, block action that could actually address those failures. And of course, that is the point of the new book: by denying the reality of market failure, and blocking corrective action, these folks are actually undermining our economies, and laying the foundations for kinds of government interventions that will make them pine for the good old days of a carbon tax.

Q: Oh yes the new book – The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future. You’ve written it from the point of view of a historian writing about the “Period of the Penumbra (1988–2093) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073–2093)”. It doesn’t sound like there are too many laughs?

Not unless we are talking about black humour. Our editor, when he first approached us, said he found it funny in a Dr Strangelovian way. I took that as a huge compliment.

Q: Dr Strangelove – a character that apparently borrowed parts from the real life Edward Teller, the so-called “father” of the H-bomb. Your new book borrows much from real life events and modern science too doesn’t it (it’s a clunky segue, but I’m sticking with it)?

Yes of course. A good deal of the power of that film came from the fact that while it was farce, it was all too true in some ways—or at least, all too plausible. It was conceivable that the world would end not in deliberate, calculated aggression, but in stupidity, mistakes, and men and machines run amok.

Kubrick understood that. Fortunately, we escaped disaster in the Cold War, because enough people realized what was at stake. Erik and I have often discussed that, in this case—climate change—a lot of people, folks like Nick Minchin included—don’t seem to realize what is at stake.

They’ve dismissed the science. They’ve pooh-poohed the mounting evidence that disruptive climate change is already underway. They’ve assumed scientists were over-reacting, and that all environmentalists are watermelons. And that bodes poorly for our future. Because the longer we wait, the more plausible our “collapse” scenario, with its unhappy implications for western democracies, becomes.

Q: But what is it that you think drives the denial industry? How much of it is just pure self-interest? Is it fear of socialism – a kind of post-Cold War paranoia that you identified in Merchants of Doubt? Or is it ideological fervour like the kind you’ve witnessed amongst American Tea Baggers?

I think it’s a complicated mix. Certainly, there are some very cynical individuals and groups who are protecting their own self-interest, with little or no regard to the consequences for others.

There are also those who have bought into the watermelon argument—that environmentalists are green on the outside, red on the inside—and that climate change is just an excuse to bring in socialism by another name.

Then there are also many people who I think believe, or have persuaded themselves, that climate change is just another fad, exaggerated by scientists who just want more money for their research, or environmentalists who over-react to small threats or are unrealistic about where their bread is buttered.

Finally there is the power of rationalization—people whose bread really is buttered by the fossil fuel industry, or people who are heavily invested in the industry in one way or another, and just don’t want to accept that there is a fundamental problem.

Q: Is that a big issue – do you think? That the nuances of the science aren’t that widely understood and so it’s an easy job to confuse people about it?

Yes I think so. That’s one reason why these disinformation campaigns have been so successful. It’s always easy to find some aspect of the science that is uncertain, or confusing, and focus on that to the exclusion of the larger picture

Q: It sounds like an almost intractable situation. Is there something you think should have happened, that didn’t, that might have helped to combat that misinformation?

Well, it certainly would have helped if political leaders had not repeated that disinformation!

Q: What would you do about it?

What I am doing: writing and talking about it, so we can accurately diagnose the problem. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is.

Q: Researching denial and organised misinformation has been your thing for about a decade now. So what’s next?

A book about the solutions? How not to go down the road to collapse?

VIDEO: Naomi Oreskes in a 2014 TEDTalk explaining why people should trust science – just not for the reasons most people think.