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Can We Have a Sustainable Conversation on Climate Change?

By Keith Kloor

Are we doomed?

Anyone who follows climate politics and climate science can be forgiven for feeling bleak about the future. The blogosphere is full of nightmare scenarios about the imminent collapse of society, not just due to climate change but also by the spectre of peak oil — the idea that oil supplies are going to start declining soon if they haven't already started — and an imminent ecological crash as the population puts demands on the planet's ecosystem that the latter can't handle.  

Of all these, only climate has really gotten the attention of the mainstream media, likely due to the steady stream of climate change-related news, research and commentary. Some popular writers and activists, such as Bill McKibben, think the world has a sliver of a chance to head off climate catastrophe. Others, like Mike Tidwell, aren't sure there's even a sliver, so they're hedging their bets and turning their homes into fortresses.

Neither mindset (we can still avert climate doom — but barely, and prepare for climate collapse) is a philosophy to live by--at least not for the average person. Neither, in my opinion, are these two attitudes going to help build popular support for action on climate change. Sure, there will always be a subset of people who are highly motivated by core concerns and idealism, and others who are motivated just by fear alone. 

But we need a larger and more substantial conversation on the underlying issues related to climate change and the ecological health of the planet. That's because, as the Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon has said, "Real solutions ultimately reside at the level of culture broadly defined--that is, at the level of our deep values and our deep beliefs about how the world around us works." 

Some might find such talk too squishy, given the complex and enormous challenge climate change poses. Maybe Dixon thinks so too, given what he said next (this was all part of a 2009 talk he gave in Germany):

Now one might say: 'Well if that's the case, then solutions will be beyond reach, because these things change only over generations.' But I don't think we should listen to that counsel of despair. I'm convinced that in our world today--partly because of the remarkable communication technologies we have available to us and partly because of the extraordinary analytical capability available to people around the world--cultural change can happen far faster than it has ever happened in human history.

Homer-Dixon expanded on this theme in a radio interview last year, which I wrote about in detail here. He said that "democratic problem solving" facilitated by the Internet could help "raise our collective intelligence," which would better address the "deep institutional and political challenges humankind faces in [the] coming decades."  

An alternate (and to my mind, equally important) perspective was suggested by a reader in the comments on that post:

I think that developing  a public understanding of sustainability at a global level occurs through enhancing understanding at the local level and projecting outward. In the case of disasters such as flood or fire, starting with ”real democracy at the level of community decision making” can get people involved at the local level.  Each step that individuals can take (and should take) locally naturally links to a more regional step. It becomes clear to people that they cannot protect themselves by themselves. I believe that ultimately, global awareness flows naturally from local awareness.

On that note, I want to say that I'm going to work harder to shine a spotlight on those stories of sustainability and climate change — happening at a local and regional level — that speak to the larger global imperative at hand. I encourage readers to bring such stories to my attention and also to suggest avenues for me to follow up on.


By Jonathan Gilligan
on April 29th, 2011

A good book for starting this kind of exploration of sustainability and community at the local level is Thomas Princen’s “The Logic of Sufficiency” (MIT, 2005). Princen writes in the preface that he got tired of going to talks about sustainability that would talk about all the things we have to do to avoid catastrophe without talking about what “principles of social organization” will foster long-term sustainable behavior in communities.

In the first half of the book he begins to sketch out what those principles might be (in a nutshell, they consist of redefining the economy to focus on sufficiency rather than efficiency—-stopping with enough rather than trying to get the most from every resource) and in the second half he examines three case studies of communities that have successfully committed over long periods of time to sustainable behavior, how this was possible, and what costs and challenges they have faced. One thing I like about this book is the detailed case studies, which don’t oversimplify but present rich descriptions of the motives, tensions, and practices surrounding these examples of sufficient living.

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By Tom Fuller (San Francisco CA 94123)
on April 29th, 2011

I look at IPCC’s report AR4 and I struggle to find a mechanism by which collapse will ensue. Sea level rise of 18-59 inches will not destroy civilization or this planet. Temperature rises of 2 to 4.5 degrees Celsius will not destroy this planet. Even accelerated ice melt will play out over a long enough period to give us time to head for higher ground.

Malaria will continue to plague the poor. Drought and flood will continue to strike at vulnerable areas. There will be future periods of many storms.

But realistically, what is it that McKibben or Tidwell think is going to cause collapse? They are not reading the same literature that I am.

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By Geoff Dabelko (Greenbelt, MD 20770)
on April 29th, 2011

Keith,  Alas there is another view, climate change, what climate change?  Or sure, there is change but humans aren’t causing it.  These are part of the conversation that that admittedly resides outside a serious look at the science.  But of course you are talking about the political conclusions/reactions to reading the science. So unfortunately, at least in the United States, these views are part of the discussion.

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By intrepid_wanders
on April 30th, 2011

I really hate to increase your “bleak feeling”, but it is what it is.  California is supposedly pushing very hard on this matter of “climate change” and “sustainability”.  Question is of management.  On the EPA page that you referenced in the last paragraph, did you bother to look at the “projects”?

City Population: 70,580

Alameda’s Local Action Plan for Climate Protection, released in 2008, includes recommendations for government, businesses, and individuals to reduce the city’s emissions to 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Results: Not Found
The requested page was not found on this server.

City Population: 101,371

In 2006, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly approved ballot Measure G, which set a goal of reducing the community’s GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The city completed a Climate Action Plan in 2009 to serve as a guide toward achieving this goal.

Results: Web Page Moved (or not found)

You tried to access a web page at this location:

It appears that you’ve found a broken link. To find the information that you seek right now, try:

Office of Energy and Sustainable Development (keyword=‘sustainable’)
search on ‘content’
search on ‘10058’
search on ‘climateactionplan’
search on ‘Planning content 10058 climateactionplan’
General Search (enter any search phrase)
If all else fails, please email us at for further assistance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Thank you,
Office of Energy and Sustainable Development

Los Angeles
City Population: 3,833,995

Los Angeles’ Green LA action plan details steps for city departments to reduce GHG emissions and outlines a process to facilitate emissions reductions by private businesses and residents. The plan, released in 2007, proposes reducing the city’s emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

That one works, and so does Menlo Park:

Menlo Park
City Population: 30,087

The Menlo Park plan includes a GHG inventory, emissions reductions strategies for both municipal operations and the community as a whole, and options for GHG reduction targets that the city could adopt. The plan was published in 2009.

Hmmm…2 out of 4 projects in all of California with dead links on the EPA website… I am shocked.  Such amazing management of such a serious problem.  Did someone inform the Union of Concerned Scientist of Berkley of the Dead Links wink

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By Alexander Harvey
on April 30th, 2011

I followed the links and listened to the Homer-Dixon radio piece.

I am not sure what to make of it. From my point of view it was all very general with quite a bit of stating the obvious where he was specific I found his views in some ways enlightened but in other ways somewhat blinkered. His broadening of the issues relating flooding in Pakistan to land use issues was worth saying but hardly new, but I was dissapointed when it came to IDP issues not to find focus on the greater part both in terms of numbers and long term structural displacement due to conflict both internal and external.

He chose to draw a contrast between US fascism and German national socialism that I found quite bizarre and frankly alarming. It appeared that he saw economic depression as a sufficient common cause that just happened to play out differently in the two countries. I cannot quote exactly but he suggested that it was “touch and go” that the US didn’t go down the route to fascism, and a “strong posibility” that right wing elements could have captured power. In his view, by fortune a great leader emerged and saved the day. Apparently in Germany Hitler provided a set of “options and solutions” to the people leading to war and the holocaust.

Now to me, this is junk history.

His take on Climate Change strikes me as being as confused as his notion of crisis. He choses to go down the “its all horribly complex” route of climate thinking and for him critical and chronic seem blurred together. I am not sure what whipping up the fog of complexity is meant to achieve besides paralysis and research opportunities. He is correct that we may benefit from having plans to deal with various sorts of crises, but we may need them anyway. A good candidate for a world food crisis is the humble strato-volcano.

For sure, the climate could come up with some “surprises” but given that we have little or no apparent intent to do anything about the unsurprising consequences I cannot see the need to focus on what we cannot forsee, or even how that be possible

The fossil fuel emissions issue is I think quite a simple concept to grasp. That the consequences of doing something about it seem appalling is not that mentally taxing either.

He considers the IPCC to be inadequate. I think he must mean this in the same way that a hammer is inaquate for mending a pocket watch. He also seems to thing that Climategate and the IPCC are related as opposed to conflated which he and others do.

Now he does have some good ideas but they seemed to get a bit mauled as they pass through. He gets resillience, but here at least he doesn’t quite make the link to redundancy although inefficiency was mentioned (by the interviewer at least). The ideological mismatch between resilience on one hand and efficiency, the maximisation of profits, and free markets seems stark to me and I am not quite sure how he would square it away.

In terms of climate policy I think raising the fog of resilience is a bit of a red herring because of its ideological difficulties. Regulating and monitoring emissions could be achieved by distorting markets but ensuring compliance to a strategy of system resilience without central control of production, storage, and trade, of the type common only during times of national emergency or under a planned economy, is not something I have had explained to me.

That he seems to favour panlateral climate solutions maybe his fondness for complexity, he acknowledges that bilaterals will happen but holds out little hope for them. I wonder how many signatures would really be required on a fossil fuels reduction treaty? Possibly two and an annex for those who wish to add theirs when they see the light of third degree.

That China and the US are pondering this and many other matters I have little doubt, that they see a future wherein they stich things up, the same. When? For climate not before 2017 for being no fools they need to have it squared Obama but signed by a Republican.

Now Homer-Dixon does seem more to my liking on matters to do with social interaction but I do not share his optimism that technology is going to provide the cohesion that seems to have been draining out of society at an increasing rate.

You quoted his: “We are not going to make genuine progress solving our largescale environmental, climate, economic, and social problems unless we can mobilize people, and coordinate their problem solvoing capacity, through new democratic processes.”

Well there is a counsel of despair. Democracy is dead, and not yet reborn.

I should like to know who the “we” are? Perhaps they are the uber-democrats! I am not sure he realises just how close to totalitarian agitprop that is, in content and style. Let’s say it brought back memories, and made me laugh.

Elsewhere he is long on all the challenges we face. Which I take to be all the challenges we are failing to face. He offers us interesting diversions which may assist our continuing to do so.

Perhaps somewhere he addresses whether it be not our lack of “collective intelligence” but of will.

Perhaps there is a challenge we can face. That climate policy is “chocolate covered cotton”.  Plentiful in supply, easily mouthed, but impossible to swallow.

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By Jack Hughes (New Zealand)
on May 1st, 2011

I don’t “feel bleak about the future”.

Instead I feel very positive and confident about the future.

I have seen amazing human progress in my own lifetime:

* Men walking on the moon
* iPod nanos
* Gay weddings
* Less racism
* More democracy
* Obesity winning out over starvation
* Octagenarians in every street

Oddly the biggest problem now is a zeitgeist of weary pessimism - fuelled by an outbreak of Munchausens in the Media.

This deadbeat zeitgeist won’t last forever and I look forward to a more upbeat focus on the positive.

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By Lichanos (Teaneck, NJ)
on May 4th, 2011

@Jonathan Gilligan

...stopping with enough rather than trying to get the most from every resource…

How much is “enough,” and how do we know it?  And who knows it?

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