De-Politicizing Climate Activism

Or how Greta Thunberg can create more converts.

“Nature is not a temple. It is a workshop, and a human being is the worker in it.”                               _                                                                                                         Ivan Turgenev

Item 1: The outbreak of coronavirus that threatens to create a global pandemic and the tragic sudden death of basketball star Kobe Bryant both remind us that the unexpected can happen quickly and that we humans live in an environment that can at times be ruthlessly hostile.

Nature, fate, providence, or whatever one chooses to call it, works in inscrutable ways. The virus will spread and endanger millions, if humans do not stop it. It has no will or conscience and would inexorably destroy those who are dearest to us, in a matter of days. And, before downing Bryant’s helicopter and killing him, his young daughter and seven others, fate or gravity did not pause for a millisecond to ponder the sadness that it would inflict on hundreds of millions all over the world through such a senseless death.

Modern society is generally free of deadly viruses and helicopters are generally safe to fly. But it took centuries of human progress to get there in both instances. And it will take more human progress and ingenuity to seal the cracks in our vigilance that allowed the coronavirus to emerge and spread, and the helicopter to crash .

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CDC photo by Dr. Fred Murphy.

Item 2: Last week in Davos, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin volunteered that climate activist Greta Thunberg ought to get an economics degree before preaching her message to grown-up policy makers. That is more confidence in university economics departments than most of Miss Thunberg’s critics would be willing to concede. It is true that Miss Thunberg’s message is incomplete, but that is not for lack of economic pedigree. The building blocks that are glaringly missing from her campaign are 1) a better understanding of Turgenev’s aphorism on nature and man, and 2) a trip or two to China, India or other fast developing countries.

Of course, for many of us who grew up in poor or middle-income countries, the spectacle of a privileged teenager from the First World lecturing, nay hectoring, adults about the urgency of climate change can at times be difficult to understand. While she skips school and mingles with the global elite, we remain keenly aware of our relatives, youngsters in our home countries, studying late into the night, sometimes by candle light because electricity is rationed, in a dogged determination to improve their individual lives (“perhaps my grades will be good enough for me to attend college in Europe or America”) and to together raise the standard of living of their societies (“perhaps our better education will lift all of us together”).

No rest for the weary there, no media adulation, no claims of moral or youthful superiority. Just the nose to the grindstone, applied every day for a goal to be achieved, maybe, against highly adverse odds.

Postmodern luxury

Broadly speaking, postmodernism has had no traction in such countries that are still trying desperately to become simply modern. In those places, beyond modernism is not a philosophy. It is a luxury seen as slightly or very decadent, a pet project for the very few, or for the comparatively very rich West. Postmodernism is, by its own admission, not fixed to what it claims to be at a certain point in time. Three of its pillars are ambiguity, irony, and an internal revolution that mindlessly throws overboard today what was elevated just yesterday, because its ethos is one of constant philosophical motion, not in search of a better direction, but motion for motion’s sake. ‘Less is a bore’, proclaimed the post-moderns in derision of the modernist ‘less is more’. Indeed, what is better than perpetual motion to beat back boredom?

It is not surprising therefore that Miss Thunberg’s crossing of the Atlantic on a catamaran is only marginally what it purports to be. Though presented as an example of responsible climate-conscious travel, it is certainly not one that many people would be able to replicate. More importantly, the seaborne trip was attractive to the commentariat because it oozed cool youthful luxury.

Cue here the contemporary definition of luxury, which is often portrayed by advertisers as the enjoyment of nature far away from the teeming masses of common mortals. See for example the television commercials for luxury cars. They invariably feature lone drivers zooming smugly on empty roads in Big Sur, or in the Southwest desert, or stopping in remote heavenly natural settings. In one such commercial, the famous actor/spokesman is gorgeously alone and far far away off-road in what looks like the Rockies or Alaska. He walks on a frozen lake to bore a hole and catch a fish. He has not a worry in the world, least of all, and this part is obviously not in the commercial, that global warming may have thinned and cracked the ice beneath his feet, bringing on a wet and untimely death, with no one nearby to cry to for help, whether or not a gleaming new SUV sits idly on shore. Nature does not care about our luxuries. And if one of us is alone and in a bind, no other human can help.

Common ground

BUT, but, having said all that, it does not automatically follow, as some contend, that Greta Thunberg’s work and message are contrived or false or that they should be ignored. We need to examine them more closely because they are valuable and can be improved.

Every examination must begin with some skepticism. We mention it here not to add to that skepticism but to help overcome it. It is possible, as critics say, that Thunberg and other climate activists are exaggerating the severity of the crisis. After all, another famous Swede, the great Hans Rosling, once had to fend off no other than Al Gore in a tussle about the handling of climate data. Here is an excerpt from Rosling’s book, Factfulness (page 230 of the original hard cover edition):

I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case, data showing that climate change is real, that it is largely caused by greenhouse gases from human activities such as burning fossil fuels, and that taking swift and broad action now would be cheaper than waiting until costly and unacceptable climate change happened. Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.

I insisted [to Al Gore] that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenario and – worse – continuing the line beyond the scientifically based predictions would fall far outside Gapminder‘s mission to help people understand the basic facts. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts, over several more conversations, until finally I closed the discussion down. “Mr. Vice-President. No numbers, no bubbles.”

Notwithstanding the possible exaggeration, if Miss Thunberg’s activism leads to an acceleration in the research and rollout of lower emission energy production, that alone would make her efforts worthwhile. Human advancement does not come solely from the work of scientists; it also results from the pressure of activists who may be more attuned to the actual risks of inaction than a superb engineer or physics researcher may be. Humans have different sensibilities. Some are better at science. Others are better at evaluating danger accurately.

When activists ring alarm bells, others take actions to mitigate the issue that is the cause of the alarm. On the day of reckoning, if nothing terrible happens, it does not follow that the activists were wrong in the first place. It is possible that they were entirely right but that constructive action was taken, as a result of their pressure, to avert the actual feared disaster. This phenomenon is believed to have played out in late 1999 and early 2000, a time of great worries about Y2K computer behavior. None of the dire predictions came to pass, in part because computer systems and software had been upgraded before the fateful date.

In the end, exaggeration is not the same as fabrication. While skepticism about the volume of the message is healthy, accepting the essence of the message can lead to the most constructive of outcomes.

Reasonable people will agree that lower pollution is highly desirable. The challenge however is to find levers that we can act upon to lower pollution without pushing the economy into a recession or worse. Because, if the global economy goes into a prolonged recession, there will be political turmoil and civil unrest on a massive scale. Cleaner air would then be a great benefit for all, but markedly less so in a scenario of widespread conflict or civil strife.

It behooves us therefore to reframe Miss Thunberg’s message in a way that is most constructive towards the common goal. Here are two important steps forward.

Planet Earth will be fine

FIRST, there is no use romanticizing planet Earth. Of course it is our home and we see it as beautiful but every organism is viscerally attached to its home, in particular if it is the only place in which that organism is able to survive. We humans are not impartial observers or judges of planet Earth’s qualities as compared to other planets. We are attached to it because we are on it and because it sustains our first instinct, which is self-preservation.

Planet Earth however does not care about us. It was here billions of years before us and it will be here billions of years after us. It is ultimately indifferent to our actions and to the level of pollution that we create. To put in perspective how little our presence means to planet Earth, consider that it has already existed without us for 4.5 billion years. If that were compressed to 24 hours, we humans have only been here for one minute and 17 seconds, and homo sapiens for a minuscule 3.8 seconds. Nor does Earth care much about other life, be it fauna or flora. On that same timescale, dinosaurs went extinct less than a half hour ago.

Planet Earth is in fact worse than indifferent towards us. It is actively trying to kill us, every day. You may want to save the planet but the planet shows no interest in saving you. On the contrary, it throws at you every day, as if to taunt you or to test your defenses, impossible cold or hot weather, deadly microbes, contaminated water, poisonous fruit, predatory animals and deadly insects, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes etc. In fact, the only thing standing between you and what would be a mass-murdering monster if only it had a consciousness and a will, is our common mutually-supporting humanity.

See the coronavirus. See Bryant’s untimely death. Humanity was there to avert these tragedies but there were small cracks in our defenses: the foolish ingestion of an organism that spawned the coronavirus, the rare confluence of unusual factors that led to the helicopter accident.

If we are able to withstand this ruthless onslaught by Planet Earth on our lives, if we have shelter and medicine and vaccines and air conditioning and hurricane warnings, tsunami alerts and so forth, it is because and only because of our human ingenuity and industry and the resulting wealth that produces more human ingenuity and industry. Man is the worker in the workshop that is Nature.

Although human ingenuity created fossil fuel emissions, the solution is not only conservation but also more human ingenuity. There have been in our history many episodes of Malthusian pessimism, of Paul Ehrlich alarmism. But in the end, we have not run out of resources or of food and water due to overpopulation. Instead we developed new technologies and learned to use resources more efficiently. In short, the suppression of human industry is less conducive to a solution than the emancipation of human ingenuity.

Activism in emerging nations

SECOND, speaking of human ingenuity and human control, consider Greta Thunberg’s activism in developing nations. There is little to consider here because unfortunately, Miss Thunberg does not carry her message loudly enough to countries like China. This seems more than a little odd because most experts agree that, without curtailing emissions in China, there will be no appreciable improvement in the atmosphere, no lasting solution to the climate change crisis.

Miss Thunberg’s focus on pressuring Western policymakers reminds of the joke of the late-night pedestrian who searches for his keys across the street from where he dropped them because that is where the street light happens to be. It is safer to criticize politicians of rich developed countries. It is safer to speak in Davos than in Beijing but it is a low-risk approach that will not yield an outsized return, in terms of impact on climate policy.

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Source: populyst, derived from UN population data, medium variant.

Rich country politics, demographics and technology are already on track to reduce fossil-fuel emissions by substantial percentages. Politicians are developing programs, most of which could be counterproductive. But working-age populations in richer countries are either growing very slowly, or stagnating or declining. Europe is a case in point with the working-age population set to fall from 492 million in 2015 to 409 million by 2050, a steep 17% decline that is synchronous with the aging of the population. Meanwhile, as we know, there are thousands of scientists and entrepreneurs working on green technologies. The West is not home-free but there is an evolving dynamic of policy, demographics and technology that is moving us in the right direction.

It is a different story in developing nations such as China, India, or the sub-Saharan countries where populations are growing and/or where emissions are high or are expected to rise significantly. According to Our World in Data, Asia accounted for 53% of global CO2 emissions in 2017, while North America and Europe together added up to 35%. China alone represented 27% of global emissions, more than the USA and the EU-28 combined. Africa was a very small 3.7% of global emissions but this figure could rise significantly as the adult population booms (see chart above) and economic activity accelerates.

To be fair, China’s emissions are larger because it has become the manufacturing hub for the rest of the world. These emissions can therefore be seen as primarily driven by demand consumption in the United States and Europe. All the same, the purpose of climate activism in China would not be to criticize gratuitously or to create embarrassment but to incentivize the introduction of lower-polluting manufacturing processes. Indeed, interested parties in China itself are keen on becoming global leaders in these processes.

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Miss Thunberg says that she does not fly on airplanes, a stance that she and her admirers view as a marker of climate-minded virtue. But, as noted above, not flying is also a luxury. In order to really have the desired impact on climate policy, Miss Thunberg should fly to Asia and get on the ground among the teeming masses in Beijing, or Delhi or any capital of a large fast-developing country. The West has much work to do to lower emissions but it is not where the future of this crisis resides.