On green imagery

The film director Werner Herzog is rarely short of something interesting to say. He didn’t disappoint in a recent interview at BFI Southbank, in which he spoke about the importance of creating new images to tackle climate change.

Interviewer: You once said that the creation of new images in the world was one of the most central things to sustaining human life on the planet.

Herzog: In a way, yes, because if we don’t start to adapt, through language and through images, to new and unforeseen situations, we will be somehow stunted in our growth. We will not be adaptable to challenges that are coming at us at a very rapid rate. I think it has to do with human ingenuity and human intelligence. And it ultimately translates in our language skills and how we refresh and recreate language day after day after day, and create images that are adequate and are not at a standstill for 50, 60, 70 years. There are certain images that are totally at a standstill and are just without meaning. … [I]t’s a dangerous thing. Without image and language adaptations, we will not really be able to adapt to unforeseen challenges, like global warming, which is just one problem.’

Herzog is the best kind of public philosopher. His reference to global warming got me thinking: what image adaptations do we need to tackle a problem of this order? [Read more…]

Watchmen in times of change

I’ve been a fan of Watchmen from the early ’90s, when Mark Pollard let me read his sacred twelve. I’ve since then purchased the graphic novel myself, read it several times (it requires several readings), and generally developed a love of the work. I approached Zack Snyder’s Watchmen with mixed feelings. I had heard we were going to get the real Watchmen – not some hosed-down version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s creation, but the whole beautiful, dark, gritty, brutal, angry, sad animal. I also knew that, even though the movie ran to 160 minutes, some stuff would have to go. Still, something inside me said that even a diminished version of Moore’s Watchmen could have a massive impact on the big screen.

I was impressed by the movie. I think that it has lots of flaws, but also some big ideas, and lots to say about how we should understand change.

[Read more…]

Global warming debate heats up – or changes tone?

Dr John S. Theon, onetime supervisor of NASA scientist and originary proponent of the anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming thesis, Dr James Hansen, dropped a bombshell into the global warming debate yesterday by declaring himself a global warming sceptic. Theon (now retired) claims that Hansen was never muzzled by the US government, as he claimed to be, and asserts that the models used by climate scientists to forecast global warming are ‘useless’.

Not surprisingly, Theon’s claims have provoked a furore in the blogsphere, the ubiquity of which suggests that the global warming meme has passed out of fashion with the commentariat. How much this will slow the international march towards emissions cap and trade systems and green power strategems remains to be seen. Despite (reportedly) growing dissensus to the majority view, the climate change lobby now has the ear of government in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. More significantly, President Obama is poised to unveil an innovative sets of proposals to ‘repower America’, which will have far-reaching implications for US consumers, industry and industrial innovators. Facing the prospect of the worst reccession in 60 years, many heads of state and business leaders may well surmise that a green revolution is exactly what is needed to reinvigorate markets and kick start the flagging global economy.

This indicates a salient point that is mostly overlooked in the continuing global warming debate, on the internet at least. Defenders of the anthropogenic global warming thesis who claim that the debate is over are dead wrong insofar as they mean the scientific debate. Science is never settled – argument stops only when interlocutors lose interest in the topic and move on to other themes. This is unlikely to happen with respect to global warming anytime soon. Having said this, it would appear that the debate concerning global warming has changed in both tone and substance in recent months, to the point that questions of climate science are less the central issue. Increasingly, debate is taking a positive and pragmatic turn, as political leaders and opinion makers consider the problem of global warming (whatever its provenance) in the context of associated problems such as energy dependence and economic crisis. Only months ago, Al Gore, for example, was ratcheting-up anxiety levels by presenting anthropogenic global warming as an existential crisis threatening human civilization. While Gore has lost none of his conviction, since Obama’s election he has taken to framing the problem as a positive challenge to repower and reinvent the US. Here is an excerpt from Gore’s address to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 28, 2009:

‘For years our efforts to address the growing climate crisis have been undermined by the idea that we must choose between our planet and our way of life; between our moral duty and our economic well being. These are false choices. In fact, the solutions to the climate crisis are the very same solutions that will address our economic and national security crises as well.’

The productive tone of this new discourse is to be welcomed. For too long, our talk of global warming has been cast in quasi-religious, apocalyptic tones, in which an immense range of scenarios and possibilities are reduced to the simple of option of damnation or salvation. By casting the problem in a positive, constructive light, we place the greater burden of our salvation on our own shoulders, which is precisely where it should lie. God will not save us from global warming – nor will Obama and Gore. It is we – meaning each and every one of us – who must take on this responsibility, each in our own small way.

The problem is not one of stopping global warming, or of simply learning to adjust. The problem concerns how to recreate (and repower) society for the 21st century, so that we leave a greener, happier, and healthier world for the century after that.

Timid targets: reflections on the Rudd government’s emissions trading white paper

The Australian Rudd Government has realeased its White Paper on greenhouse gas reduction targets up to 2020. Lenore Taylor in The Australian describes it as a ‘safe course’ in the context of present economic circumstances.

‘In a move that outraged conservationists and only partially appeased industry, Kevin Rudd made an unconditional promise to reduce Australian emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.

But if other major emitters – including developing countries such as India and China – signed on to substantial emissions reductions in a UN agreement due to be finalised in Copenhagen late next year, Australia could cut its greenhouse pollution by up to 15per cent by 2020.’

As Greenpeace Australia Pacific states, a 5% cut would be meaningless. Is this a failure of Australian political leadership – or common sense in the context of an uncertain economic environment, with the major players as yet uncommitted to a global climate deal?

I think the Rudd government’s decision to start slow on cutting national emissions is a political and economic miscalculation. Rudd is securing the short term stability of the Australian economy at the cost of dangerously imperiling its future after 2020.

Ben Cubby in the Sydney Morning Herald points out that lack of resolve on the issue of emissions reduction targets means that the Australian government continues to send the wrong signals to green investors.

‘[A] soft start to emissions trading, together with the modest ambitions for carbon cuts, is unlikely to create a jobs boom’, Cubby writes. Quoting Matthew Warren, the chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, Cubby argues that ‘”[a] soft start [to emissions trading] only works if it is backed with aggressive investment signals in energy efficiency and clean technology. … These [signals would] deliver the biggest emissions cuts in the first years and prepare the Australian economy for the changes to follow”.’

Cubby is right. What Rudd’s modest target regime fails to account for is how Australia is to prepare itself for the major cuts it needs to make after 2020. Rudd seems to be proceeding on the expectation that the world will not be attempting to cut CO2 emissions by 80% or more after 2020.

What if this is a historical mistake?

Rudd is forgetting that the road to 2020 is just a run-up to a far greater leap. Top scientists claim that if society as we know it is to survive this century, we need a deep cut in global nett carbon emissions of 80% or more from 1990 levels. How is Australia to make this change smoothly and efficiently if it hasn’t trained and prepared itself for a massive infrastructural leap into a sustainable future? A slow start to emissions cuts means that industry and consumers do not get ready for the shift in gear. We need government policy that works to inspire and create the investment decision and business infrastructure that will shift Australia into a green economy post-2020.

Building bridges

Two towns sat on opposite sides of a river in the shadow of some mountains. The glaciers set into the mountains glistened in the morning sun.

For years, traffic had passed between the towns by way of small boats. But one day, a consortium of men built a low toll-bridge across the river. It soon absorbed all the traffic from the boats. The toll was expensive, but the bridge was safer than the boats, so people used it. Before long, a continuous stream of people crossed the bridge from one town to the other. The consortium of men became rich, the economies of both towns expanded, and everyone was happier as a result.

For a while it seemed the good life would go on forever. Then the glaciers began to melt. The river rose higher in its bed.

Empedocles was a citizen of one of the towns. When he heard that the glaciers were melting, he went to the consortium of men.

‘Look’, he said. ‘The glaciers are melting. Soon the river will rise above the toll-bridge and no one will be able to cross the river. What will happen to the markets then? We must phase out the bridge and build a new fleet of boats to ferry traffic across the river. This is our crisis today. We must rise up like the river to meet it!’

The rich men laughed at Empedocles.

‘Do you know how much it costs to build a fleet of boats?’ they said. ‘Where will all this money for this come from? From the taxpayer, of course! And who will want to live by the river when the taxes are so high? You talk about saving economies, Empedocles, but you don’t know the first thing about economics. We do. We shall stick with the toll-bridge and preserve the status quo. Who would believe that the river would rise above the bridge in any case?’

Undefeated, Empedocles went away and built a boat. Soon he’d launched a small business ferrying people back and forth across the river.

The sun shone and the glaciers melted and river rose higher in its bed. Before long, it was overflowing the bridge. More people were using Empedocles’s ferry service across the river, worried about losing stock in the water as they carted it across.

The rich men said to themselves: ‘Empedocles was right. The river is going to overflow the bridge. We must diversify our business in order to capture other markets. We must invest in boats, not bridges – the future is in boats!’

The rich men changed their thinking. They built a whole fleet of ferry boats. Empedocles’s small, reasonably priced and reliable ferry service could not compete with them. Soon the consortium had monopolized the ferry-boat system, and Empedocles was driven out of business.

Once again, the rich men laughed at him.

‘You changed to boats while we stayed with bridges’, they observed. ‘Thus we became richer while you struggled to open up this new market. It was only when we no longer saw money in bridges that we shifted to boats – and now your ferry-boat system has made us richer than ever. You should have followed our example, Empedocles. You should have invested in bridges while the waters rose’.

Empedocles smiled in return. ‘I have always invested in bridges’, he said. ‘While you were protecting your investments, I built a bridge to the future’.

Responses to climate change: an argument

This is a risk analysis of the potential costs of action and inaction on climate change. On YouTube, it is billed as the most terrifying video you’ll ever see.

The castaway’s dilemma

Regarding the slow but inevitable transformation of national economies from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’ productive systems, the level of dissemblance and denial among political leaders today is painful to watch. It is no longer possible for respectable politicians to try to deny the role of industrial societies in causing climate change. Yet neither (apparently) can responsible economic mangers (and what is a political leader today but the de facto CEO of a giant business corporation?) throw caution to the wind and restructure the economy along carbon neutral lines – at least not until it is clear that everyone else is doing the same thing (incurring the same costs and gambling on the same benefits). In the evolution of the global political debate over how to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, the question is not yet: ‘How are we going to change?’ It remains: ‘Who is going to change first?’

Our situation is analogous to that of a group of castaways huddled aboard a sinking raft, which has washed against a reef surrounding a tiny atoll. A shark patrols the lagoon between the reef and the shore. The castaways know that the first of them to dive into the water and swim for shore will get eaten by the shark. The raft is sinking, and sooner or later all of them will end up in the drink, but no one wants to go first. The best strategy would be to swim for it together. But who could trust the others to dive into the water at the crucial time? Perhaps all they can do is sit tight on the sinking raft and wait for it to go down. Then they will be forced to swim for their lives.

Is this not a fair depiction of our current situation? If so, we should start a conversation about how we are going to deal with it.