Conversations with Climate Skeptics

Climate is right up there with religion and politics as topics to be avoided at polite gatherings, but I still find myself talking with climate skeptics while passing time beside beer coolers at various events.  Regardless of the setting or the beer, I typically hear variations of the same 6 reasons for skepticism:

  1. The biosphere is too complex and science too uncertain, so we should wait to act until we know for sure.
  2. Human ingenuity will solve any problems if impacts of climate change become consequential, so we should wait to act until then.
  3. Mitigation is impossible because it requires global collaboration among self-interested actors such as corporations and nation states, so we can’t solve the problem even if we wanted to.
  4. Mitigation solutions require actions by governments, which are inefficient and corrupt, so we should not try.
  5. China, India, and other nations are building many new coal-fired power plants, so mitigation by others won’t matter.
  6. Climate scientists have made mistakes in the past, so climate science can’t be trusted.

I can offer rational counter arguments for each, but, like god and politics, beliefs about climate are tightly bound up with a person’s identity.  Facts, logic, and rational argument don’t make a dent.  If I have enough time, beer and trust to penetrate the skeptic’s core values behind their arguments, I typically find one of four issues:

  1. Skeptics are risk tolerant and willing to risk the chance of future catastrophe for faster progress today.
  2. Skeptics are willing to accept that wealthy countries will fare better than the world’s poor should climate change occur.
  3. Skeptics have faith that it is all part of God’s plan, who will intervene if it is part of that plan.
  4. Skeptics are so anti-government that anything associated with government is tainted. Climate science and climate mitigation involve government, are thusly tainted, and must be avoided.

What really gets me frustrated is when skeptics critique climate science–as if the skeptics had insights that climate scientists don’t.  Many skeptics devote considerable time Googling climate science mistakes and are quick to confront me with some tidbit I can’t explain (I have stopped trying, see next blog). They cite specific mistakes of climate scientists as proof that the climate science is wrong.  In so doing, skeptics conflate scientists with the process of science, forgetting that science is built on the premise of making mistakes and learning from them.

For the most part, the people I’m speaking with are bright, articulate, and successful professionals.   These very same people scoff at non-expert opinions about their own professional content.   They expect others to defer to them regarding the topics in which they work every day to gain and enhance expertise.  Yet, they presume to know climate science better than climate scientists (for the record, I am not a climate scientist).

Pogo was right: we have seen the enemy and it is us.  Humanity’s biggest challenge is our arrogance and ignorance.

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Leadership in an Age of Black Swans and Emergent Systems

Leadership for sustainability requires courage to admit we do not know what we do not know: that unknown unknowns exist. Socrates, the celebrated father of Western philosophy could admit it, “I know that I know nothing,” so perhaps the rest of us can too.

Modern society’s basic institutions—science, government, market, military—cannot anticipate, control, or manage the risks caused by the unknown unknowns of wicked, adaptive, dynamic systems.  So leaders (i.e., all of us) must find courage to try, fail, and adapt.

Among the countless causes of unknown unknowns, two are particularly relevant to leadership for sustainability: black swans and emergent systems.

Black swans are so rare that their appearance cannot be expected, let alone predicted.  9/11/2001 presents a classic and horrific example: The US spent billions of dollars to protect against missile attacks only to be unprepared for commercial airlines piloted by suicide attackers.  CFC provides another sobering example.  When invented, these stable, safe coolants were declared a miracle because they revolutionized the food industry and cities like Huston Texas with refrigerators and air conditioners.  No one could have predicted CFCs would destroy atmospheric ozone, increase ultraviolet radiation, and result in dramatic and unpredictable cancer, blindness, and genetic mutation.  New technologies can transform humanity’s development trajectory—for better or worse—as can volcanoes, earthquakes, evolution, and asteroids.  The black swans are out there.

So are emergent systems.  Climate change, collapsing ocean fisheries, doubling agriculture production, plummeting water tables, and an exploding global middle class are just a few of the drivers creating entirely new bio-cultural systems characteristic of the Anthropocene.  We cannot predict how these systems will behave or respond to our actions, not just because the systems are constantly evolving and thus too dynamic for science to model, but because humanity now dominates so much of Earth’s systems that any changes we make creates an entirely new system.

Denial is a typical response to unknown and uncontrollable risk: we see it in attacks on climate science. Apathy is another typical response to unknown unknowns: we see it in the political blame game that paralyzes our nation and in most of us individually when we shrug our shoulders and mutter “what can I do?”  Transformation is the needed response: a new beginning, built on a new foundation.

So, what can we do? As a society we need to accept failure, and probably encourage it, because now we seem paralyzed.  As a nation we might think about redirecting a few billion from the military budget to address the risks of climate change, which even military analysts recognize as perhaps the greatest threat to US security every faced.



(essay inspired by reading: Beck, U. (2010). World risk society as cosmopolitan society: ecological questions in a framework of manufactured uncertainties. In E. A. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz & C. Jaeger (Eds.), Human footprints on the global environment: Threats to sustainability (pp. 47-82). Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press)

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Who Do You Screw?

Watch this short video and then come back.

Aren’t the Aussies clever? Certainly, this video makes its point—we are screwing the future.  But sadly, the video ignores an even bigger issue that makes the challenge of sustainable development particularly vexing:  China needs massive amounts of cheap energy to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and to maintain the social/political stability needed to navigate the delicate and narrow path towards sustainable development.

While the producers of the video were pleading not to screw the tens of millions of Aussie grandchildren by burdening them with climate change, they were ignoring the pleas of hundreds of millions of Chinese that are getting screwed right now.

Damn tough problem.  Damn good opportunity for leaders to step up.

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Not an Either-Or Question: Climate Mitigation AND Adaptation

It is now difficult to imagine a future where climate chaos won’t be flooding cities, raising food prices, killing humans, decimating biodiversity, and generally wreaking havoc. We will soon experience the consequences of carbon dioxide levels in excess of 450 parts per million and the much-discussed 2-degree-C increase in temperature.


1)   80% of the CO2 emissions needed to reach 450 are already locked-in.  Investors cannot afford to re-tool existing power plants, factories, hot water heaters, buildings, and automobiles until these investments have been used long enough to pay for the cost of buying them.  We will have passed 450 by the time we can install green replacements.

2)   Political and economic realities in China, India, and other developing nations necessitate continued, rapid economic growth. Billions of people aspire to middle class lifestyles.  Reducing poverty quickly enough to stave off social instability and maintain government legitimacy will require lots of cheap energy, which is why thousands of proposed coal fire plants will be built.  For those of us who already made it to the middle class, we are on shaky moral ground if we tell billions of our fellow humans they should forego flush toilets, light bulbs, and refrigerators.

3)   The revolution of shale gas and tight oil in the USA will provide abundant and cheap fossil fuels, enough to make the USA a net energy exporter for decades.  In the short term, cheap gas might decrease USA’s CO2 emissions as gas replaces more carbon-dense coal in electricity generation; but in the long term, cheap energy drives down the competiveness of renewables and delays when they will exist in sufficient quantity to impact climate mitigation goals.

The chaos get’s exponentially worse if temperatures increase much above 2 degrees Celsius, so mitigation strategies are still essential.

Bottom line.  We can no longer delay investing in climate resiliency, climate adaptation, and related strategies that blunt the worst impacts of climate chaos.

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Two Reasons I Cried in Shanghai

I admit it: I am a sustainability nerd.  Instead of shopping during my one free afternoon in Shanghai, I instead toured its Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Chinese celebrate urbanization—how refreshing—so most Chinese cities have similar exhibits. This one teemed with elementary school age children, studious college students, aspiring Chinese planners, and few curious westerners—many of us were taking notes!

Humanity’s battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in our cities.  More than 70% of us will be urban by 2050, because that is where wealth, health, and opportunity are found.  We will double our urban infrastructure between now and then, creating a tremendous opportunity for sustainable development.

Shanghai “gets it.”  They understand the latest and greatest urban planning theory, green-building techniques, smart-growth, transit-oriented-development, green-infrastructure, and low-impact-development.  They have clearly stated, top-down authority to pursue these practices as evidenced in the following statement at an exhibit on the third floor titled “Ecological City”

“Shanghai …will put into practice the Scientific Outlook on Development, focus on innovation driven transformation and development, and firmly embrace the concept of development led by ecological civilization and optimized by environmental protection. Through implementing the pollution reduction missions of the 3-year environmental action plans, with the highlights of total pollution load reduction, quality improvement, risk prevention, and development optimization, Shanghai will continuously strengthen environmental protection and ecological conservation, accelerate the creation of resource conservative and environmentally friendly city, and promote the green growth and low-carbon development for the harmony between human and nature. … By 2020, a clean, safe, and healthy ecological environment will be basically realized in the city. A low carbon development path suitable for a mega-city will be created. The environment foundation favorable for building the well-off society in an all-around way will be established.”

Even more impressive (to me) was an exhibit on the fourth floor that humanized and personalized the goals and motivations of ecological urbanization for sustainable development. It contained silhouettes of a family, each figure with text describing the family member’s dreams of living in an ecologically-oriented urban future. I took a picture of the girl, below.

shanghai urban planning museum girl

The text reads:

“I want to have a ‘dream home.’  I will sleep under the sky with stars, wake up with bird twitter and fragrance of flowers. I will tell stories to small dogs in the garden and play with many children under the sunshine”

This strategic appeal to family values paints an attractive image for people currently living in a smog-filled, light-polluted, crowd-filled, city of 25 million people with scarce habitat for birds or dogs.

What made me cry?

China clearly gets it. They understand that urbanization is the secret sauce of sustainable development and are relocating an eye-popping 30 million people a year from farms to cities.  They have the political power and technocratic chops to do it right. They are not hamstrung by the political polarization and petty bickering that block smart growth in most US communities. They have the money, the knowhow, and the motivation.  And they have cool museums celebrating this possible future.

But can they do it?  If they can’t, it probably can’t be done—anywhere, which means we’re in trouble (at best it means our future will be considerably less wealthy, healthy, and happy).

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Pain, Bitterness and Sustainability In China

“Sustainability is the reaction to pain,” says Richard Brubaker, sustainability guru in China, who is optimistic about sustainable development because he now sees governments and businesses responding to the pain inflicted by economic growth, pain that includes crises in public health and risks to business profits.

“Eating bitterness” is a Chinese phrase that captures the challenge of delaying gratification—sacrificing today for a better tomorrow. It may also describe a serious challenge in China to the Environmental Kuznets Curve and thus bring into question a fundamental assumption of sustainable development efforts worldwide.  The Environmental Kuznets Curve postulates that as an economy grows, so does the social will and capacity to restore and improve environmental quality.  China has placed most all its bets on promoting economic growth first and has delayed addressing the pain and bitterness growth creates.  It reasons that growth is more critical to promoting the economic capacity a viable nation needs, hoping that a stable and able nation will then be able to fix its environment.

However, the rapid economic growth in China is causing pain and bitterness that are forcing people to question whether the pollute-first-cleanup-later policy is still viable.  History suggests the policy worked for the US and Europe—we hammered our environments and implemented environmental programs later—but the acute and intensifying pain from China’s meteoric growth are raising serious doubts.  The development pathways followed by nations industrializing in the 19th and 20th century when tens of millions pulled their ways out of poverty may not be viable for 21st century developing nations with hundreds of millions of people moving into middle class lifestyles.

Examples of China’s pain and bitterness include: 1 million premature deaths per year from respiratory ailments, an average of 5.5 years shorter lives due to air pollution. Foreign companies now pay a “smog bonus” as hardship pay to entice employees to work in China.  Water is scarce and polluted. 28,000 rivers disappeared in the last 20 years because of depleted aquifers. 95% of rivers have water unfit to drink and some are bursting into flames. Cultural bitterness includes lost languages and cultural traditions, long commutes, and severed communities; as people relocate for employment, traditional communities and families erode.

The western narrative of sustainability seems quaint when viewed from China: carbon footprints, polar bears, and local food.  The Chinese narrative of sustainability is urgent: smog, flaming rivers, and collapsed businesses. Sustainability concerns are much more tangible in China.

China’s future seems at risk. Public sensitivity to sustainability issues is increasing—dramatically.  Younger people who grew up after the Cultural Revolution are more tolerant of the risks of political protest. They are also wired and tech savvy.  They’ve become discerning consumers who buy global brands that are assumed safe because global supply chains impose higher quality controls.  These evolving preferences create huge opportunity and risk for global companies: an expanding market for high value products comes with high quality expectations that can produce brand-killing mistakes.

Sustainable development requires innovation and collaboration across business, government, and public sectors and perhaps a reconceptualization of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Pain and bitterness are motivating new models of sustainable development in China. We should all be learning from (and hoping for) successes in China.

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Green China?

I just returned from an amazing trip to China with the executive master’s program at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.  We interviewed sustainability leaders in Yunnan and in Shanghai.  Blogs to follow.  I also did some sightseeing.  Check out my video.

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Lessons from Syria Not Good for Action on Climate Change

The Security Council produced a toothless statement that civilians should not be killed and humanitarian aid should be allowed. It took three years for the UN to agree. During which time accumulated unforgivable loss of life and destruction of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

This does not bode well for the mounting and more consequential global threat to life and civilization poised by climate change.

The war in Syria is tangible, visible, and real-time.  No one denied it was happening.  No one denied the horrible consequences.  You could see it unfold on the nightly news.  Such impotence suggests that nation states and global governance have even less power to address the diffuse, invisible, and off-in-the-future threats of climate chaos.

Climate solutions must be found elsewhere. Some of the most likely and encouraging developments are happening through collaboration and leadership by municipalities, businesses, NGOs.  What if mayors ruled the world?

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The Future & 10 Billion

Warning: uncertain times ahead!   The Future and 10 Billion belong to spurts of literature that periodically erupt, spewing warnings that the end is near and that sustainable development is not possible; classics of this genre include Malthus’ Principle of Population, Marsh’s Man and Nature, Carson’s Silent Spring, Ehrlich’s Population Bomb.

10 Billion’s author, Stephen Emmott, directs a research lab for Microsoft.  His synthesis of current conditions and future trends is … dire. His conclusion: “I think we’re fucked.” People are the problem.

In The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Al Gore presents only a slightly more optimistic view: “the currents of change are so powerful that some have taken their oars out of the water, having decided that it is better to surrender…”  People are the problem for him, as well.

Emmott, characteristic of many scientists, offers no hope or solution other than high-tech inventions that create new and clean sources of food, material, and energy.  But he concludes that people are the problem because our insatiable demand will outpace his innovations, hence the unpleasant inevitability of ecological and social collapse.

Vice President Gore claims to be an optimist, raising his concerns  “…not out of fear, but because I believe in the future.”  Still, he offers 359 pages of concerns and only 6 pages of “what do we do now?”  Not surprisingly for a politician, many of his recommendations involve social change and new institutions such as better media, more rational communication, getting the money out of politics, and fixing market signals.

My critique of  Emmott’s and Gore’s genre of literature is that it inspires doom and gloom instead of direction and hope.  People will walk across hot coals in their bare feet if they believe they want to get to the other side.

What we need is leadership from above, from below, and from the middle.  Everyone can lead from where they are.  Everyone can help their team, their organization, their network, their society achieve direction, alignment, and commitment around sustainable development solutions.

People are not the problem, lack of leadership is.  Leadership is the solution.  Leadership is our opportunity.

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Why is the shrill wing of environmentalism so negative?

Some so-called environmentalists remind me of the Tea Party: every response to any government initiatives “No!”  “Bad!” “Don’t!”

Zach Beauchamp’s 5 Reasons Why 2013 Was The Best Year In Human History  uses five mega-trends to suggest humanity’s positive trajectory, and I looked forward to reading the details because I’ve been developing a similar narrative for my own teaching and writing projects.  His arguments, supported by many reputable sources such as WHO an IMF, show that, as a whole, we are healthier, wealthier, less violent, and less discriminating than we have been at any time in human history.  Beauchamp is not making this stuff up, nor is he a shill or an apologist; his conclusions reflect a growing chorus of arguments I’ve documented in an April 2013 essay to honor Earth Day.

But the very first response to his essay asks: “Is this a spoof…? We are in the midst of the greatest extinction period in 65 million years, and unless we radically change our ways, there won’t be anyone around to scoff at how pathologically naive this article is. What a load of rubbish.”

Subsequent yeah-sayers and nay-sayers tag-team to polarize and paralyze the discussion.

Yes we have serious challenges, but clearly we have wonderful opportunities.  Let’s find a way to collaborate.  Let’s strive for solutions, not rhetoric. Let’s be constructive, not negative. Let’s get busy constructing sustainability.

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