Riding the wave of publicity generated by the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, (a bit of a stretch I say to characterize a scientifically inaccurate, alarmist, albeit influential film about climate change as a peace-making activity), the climate change brigade are certainly pumping up the jam on the airwaves of the intelligentsia. Over the last couple of weeks I have listened to several broadcasts on NPR covering rising CO2, alternative fuels and "cars of the future." Another on the Scientific American podcast dealt with the "ethics" of global warming. This coincided neatly with a piece in the Tribune that was a perspective on the guilt induced by the relentless and largely alarmist media blitz. Now New Scientist is in the act with two thought-provoking articles on the point of going green (?) and the danger of over-doing the fear-mongering.
The Tribune article was a somewhat light-hearted take on the guilt induced by the Go Green movement and how all our activities lead to agonizing over their impact on our carbon footprint. The author's own footprint came out to be a shrieking "LARGER THAN AVERAGE" at a weighty 7.5 tons. Many acts of eco-consciousness can be undone at a stroke by a single plane trip; and yet, in many instances, what choice do we have? Plane trips are sometimes unavoidable.
The real point of this article, which is echoed very much by the New Scientist commentary, is that there is a real danger of over doing the alarum bell ringing on the part of the environmental activists. The consequence will be that the general gender will tune it out, much in the same way that I would tune out the odious, carping of Rush Limbaugh. Then, far from mobilizing people to take action, the movement will have mobilized them into complete inaction. This was the subject of a very interesting and provocative essay by John Lanchester called Warmer, Warmer, published earlier this year in the London Review of Books. Now that makes it sound like I am spending my hours nobly in self-betterment, but I actually came across it quite by accident when looking for something else. The theme of the article addressed the difficulty of dealing with global warming from the individual perspective. Since it appears to be so large (global in fact) and so bad (if you believe what they all say), then the response is really to ignore it (what after all can I as an individual do?) and go on as if nothing was amiss. This only makes the activists even more incensed of course.
Now we have the ethics of global warming to contend with. Piling on the guilt trip, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, a medical practitioner as opposed to a scientist, was expounding on this topic on Scientific American (Science Talk November 7). The dreaded carbon footprint featured prominently - exhibit A in fact. We denizens of the USA boast a footprint of 6 tons per year on the average. I forget what the global average is, but I was told that huge amounts of the world population have a footprint below 0.1 tons. Furthermore, I am told, there is an almost complete mismatch between the carbon producers and those that will suffer the terrible consequences. This is something that I should be feeling guilty about. My reckless and selfish car driving is bringing global-warming-induced disease and devastation to the poor folks of Africa. So their plight is all my fault. I'm sorry but I'm not quite ready to plead guilty and promise to abandon the good life and return to the simple ways of the peasant on that account. Their plight is the responsibility of the corrupt leadership of those nations that has singularly failed to advance their citizens' status by continued misuse of resources both their own and what has been given in aid over the decades. I am sure that the ambition of each citizen would be to burn as much carbon as I do. Look at China, from bicycles to SUVs in a single generation.
My final comment is directed towards one of the NPR Talk of the Nation pieces on climate change. One of the guests was Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Notes From a Catastrophe. A loaded title by any measure. I have read some of her stuff in the New Yorker. Here's one thing that needled me. She has repeatedly said things like the modern car gets no better gas mileage than the Model T Ford. The obvious inference there is that the greedy, lazy car makers have done nothing over the years regarding fuel efficiency, and that they are all embroiled in an evil conspiracy with oil companies to keep cars inefficient. It is not helpful to the case at all because it is completely disingenuous. For one thing, there are fundamental limitations to the efficiency of a heat engine (see Carnot). For another, the modern car is far safer (for safer read heavier), larger and faster. For yet another, the complex emission control systems imposed by environmental legislation cost energy to run, thereby reducing efficiency. Is Ms. Kolbert suggesting the T is really equivalent to the modern car? I'm all for a legitimate debate on the future of transportation, but let's talk constructively.