Saturday, August 06, 2011

Climate Change and better Social Equality--Comment on "Spirit Level"

In March, I read Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level , Why Greater Equality makes Stronger Societies.   It is a marvelous book, presenting what I thought was very correct thinking on a broad social issue of the greatest importance.   It contains some discussion of climate change policy, however, that was not adequate, I thought, to the similar gravity and importance of the global warming danger.     I wrote this letter to the authors, who did not, at least to date, reply.

Dear Professors Wilkinson and Pickett,
                Have just read your "Spirit Level" (U.S. edition, as of 1/2011) with the greatest admiration, and entire support for your call for movement toward more equal, more social and more trusting societies, starting with ours in the United States.  But your perceptive presentation would be strengthened by reconsidering the section on climate change (p. 215 ff.) 
                 This chapter title explicitly links equality and sustainability, and the closing sentence of the opening section says, "...governments may be unable to make big enough cuts in carbon emissions without also reducing inequality."   Unfortunately this is not true--it is quite possible to end carbon emissions from coal, petroleum and natural gas by replacing them as energy sources with nuclear and renewable energy and with energy efficiency, regardless of the degree of equality in a society.  For entirely different reasons, but with no reference to social equality at all, France achieved close to this for electricity production in the 1970s, to give one example.   Secondly, this statement links carbon emission elimination with the broader, and entirely meritorious social equality agenda in a way which will tend to retard urgently needed action against carbon.  
                The text shows little feel for the quite particular structure of the climate protection issue.   Although you give due weight to its gravity, you lump curbing fossil carbon emissions in with the broader subjects of energy in general, sustainability and an overall respect for the environment.   It is doubtless true that more equal societies, less committed to competitive material consumption, would consume energy less gluttonously and would treat the environment better.  However, global warming damage to the climate from the use of fossil carbon energy, although it is massive and likely of greater long range importance than other forms of environmental abuse put together, is a separate and discrete matter. 
                Advancing to modern societies that are more equal and cooperative is both a deeply historical and deeply political issue, but climate change is not like that.   It is authentically new and sui generis, and has its own structure (which follows from the way carbon dioxide performs in the atmosphere), quite different from traditional issues.  In the United States, the right is tragically and abusively turning climate protection into a left-right political issue, but it is of the greatest importance that the left not cater to this by acting reciprocally.  This is not a matter of whether a family follows the best socialist or the worst capitalist principles, but rather whether it responds to the fact that its house is burning down.    
                Greenhouse damage is caused not by the use, extravagant or otherwise, of energy, but by the use of specifically fossil energy, a distinction which should not be lost from sight, although much energy today is still fossil energy.   Climate protection depends on ending the use of fossil energy,  and the core way to do this is to replace it with renewable and nuclear energy.   Energy conservation and efficiency have important roles to play in going off fossil energy, but it is only cutting the emission of CO2 that counts for climate change.   
                Technical means to replace fossil energy are available, and more and better ones are coming from researchers.   Since the share of electricity in overall energy consumption is steadily rising, a main focus is rightly on the generation of electricity, where and wind, solar and nuclear power (cf.   Sweden, Japan and California) are making major inroads, along with the high-capacity and intelligent transmission grids which will be necessary.   A summing of numerous local schemes, or a concentration of resources on a few massive ones, such as solar power from the Sahara, both remain possibilities to generate the requisite large volumes of non-fossil energy for existing uses, and early future one such as electricity to replace petroleum in the transportation sector (which includes the doomed Chelsea tractors!)
                Creating  a large non-fossil energy production capacity will be an expensive investment (though not overwhelming -- say, for the United States on the scale of one war like Iraq).  A moderate rise in energy costs will be necessary during the investment period, although it will be reducible for families and firms by energy efficiency and conservation steps.   But in the longer range, after the durable capital machinery has been put into place, marginal energy costs will drop since the sun and wind as energy sources are free and reactor fuel is a small component of nuclear power. 
                Although those working in the energy sector will have to innovate and exert themselves strenuously, during and after the conversion to non-fossil energy it is quite likely that there will be few if any perceptible changes in the daily life of ordinary people.  Driving a hybrid car is effectively identical to driving a gasoline one, and the same will be true of full-electric automobiles, which should quickly replace petrol powered ones.
                Climate change is an immediate and very grave threat for the human race and the habitability of the earth, but the danger arose from the application of industrial technology, and technical fixes are available for it.  The remedy cannot be applied too quickly--the nature of the problem, with carbon continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere and remaining there for long durations, means that time is of the essence.   Disseminating sufficient understanding of the problem in the general public/political circles to secure the necessary carbon taxation or other funding and to apply the large tech fix is proving difficult enough--in fact, desperately difficult.  Therefore, it is of the greatest importance that climate protection not be linked and made hostage to other issues no matter how meritorious, especially not broader social and cultural restructurings, inevitably slow, which would have the effect of delaying the technical and investment measures which are necessary to deal with global warming.  
                I hope that you will reconsider your coverage of this subject in your excellent book, perhaps consulting specialists in the matter.
                Sincerely yours,

              Peter Lydon