faustian bargain

Climate derange

Reading an article co-authored by a genuinely clever dude I know, Tom Swann, I had a few of my thoughts on climate change crystallise. Or maybe they glaciated. Apparently Harvard University doesn’t want to divest from fossil fuels because doing so would be a political position and universities should be apolitical. Many would disagree with that last idea. Regardless, if you call climate change a political issue you are actually just wrong. Certainly it has a political dimension in that after the scientific consensus was reached (decades ago), there needed to be a political response (cough).

But in a different sense I actually think global warming and the urgent attention it warrants are not political, in the traditional sense. The fear for someone like the mephistophelian Harvard president, Drew Faust, is that by divesting, Harvard will be alienating political conservatives in favour of a politically liberal position. They don’t want to do a deal with the devil.

But I think the mistake is in calling climate change deniers conservatives1)Yes, disbelief in anthropogenic climate change is correlated with political conservatism, but read the rest of this.. People who prioritise the short term business interests of some large firms, or the efficiency of the overall market, or an organisation’s right to invest in whatever portfolio they think will get the best returns in the medium term, are generally considered conservative. That’s when they prioritise these things over other competing short term interests. But climate change doesn’t really fall into that category. The overall integrity of the global system is dependent on a relatively stable climate. And the economic interests subsumed within that system, all share the common desire to mitigate global warming. So even economic conservatives, even leaders of corporations, want to act on climate change — if they’re sane.

I argue that if they don’t, then they’re not even coherent in terms of their own professed ideology. The conservative approach to the world’s climate is, obviously, to not continue a radical experiment with it that exposes their own interests to catastrophic risks. Only a radical, perverse progressive would wish to see a continued, unchecked alteration to the systems of the biosphere whose operations we don’t understand well enough to manipulate. But really, no position on the traditional political spectrum wants climate change to happen2)Incidentally, it doesn’t even matter if you’re sceptical of the IPCC reports or other elements in the vast climate change conspiracy out there. Even I’m sceptical of climate forecasts, in terms of how accurate any forecast can be (still they’re the best we’ve got); but I do think the science behind the climate’s having changed is as certain as anything could be in environmental science and the science that suggests climate change is human induced is very strong, as no other plausible cause has been found. But even if you’re more of a sceptical champion than I, the precautionary principle nonetheless suggests that you should cease any drastic intervention in a system you don’t understand very well, especially when the potential downside risks are catastrophic.. Therefore, only a severe level of incomplete information could account for it — and relevant information is in abundance. Climate change ignorers are wrong not only on the environmentalist’s grounds but according to their own putative values as well.

Even Rupert Murdoch — most people’s go-to for an old, white, cynical, decrepit, rich guy — seems barely confident in his professed ignorance of climate science3)I know this whole thing is a bit po-faced. Of course people generally “believe” whatever will result in them having more money. People who get paid to have wind farms on their property don’t get sick — the cure for wind-farm-itis is $. And people who make money out of industries that would be harmed by climate change mitigation tend not to think climate change is a problem. But this still doesn’t mean that their ideology is coherent. There’s nothing in the political conservative handbook that says you should fuck the environment, just that you should pretend the environment doesn’t exist while you make sweet-sweet cashish. And this is where political ideologies break down, they’re clustered around  views on a bunch of issues that shouldn’t even necessarily go together, see Jonathan Haidt’s work.. In this video, the usually somewhat lucid Murdoch seems virtually lobotomised when forced to string together some words on the mythically out jury of anthropogenic climate change. I think a certain derangement is necessary for such pronouncements, because even a vested interest like News Corp has interests in preserving the productivity and stability of the planet. The one thing you expect to get from a deal with the devil is more knowledge.

There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust where the protagonist tries to translate the scriptures into his native German. He begins with John 1, “In the beginning was the word” — but stops short, finding the translation inadequate:

Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd,
Impossible, for me to rate the word so highly
I must try to say it differently
If I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find
I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’.
Let me consider that first sentence,
So my pen won’t run on in advance!
Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours?
It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’
Yet even while I write the words down,
I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found.
The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact.
And firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’

Words, mind, power and acts. It is by the acts of divestment, of funding clean energies, of switching power companies, of changing super funds, of forgoing air travel, of voting for sane minds, that people of any political persuasion can preserve a future in which their ideologies can continue to bring them satisfaction.

Footnotes

1. Yes, disbelief in anthropogenic climate change is correlated with political conservatism, but read the rest of this.
2. Incidentally, it doesn’t even matter if you’re sceptical of the IPCC reports or other elements in the vast climate change conspiracy out there. Even I’m sceptical of climate forecasts, in terms of how accurate any forecast can be (still they’re the best we’ve got); but I do think the science behind the climate’s having changed is as certain as anything could be in environmental science and the science that suggests climate change is human induced is very strong, as no other plausible cause has been found. But even if you’re more of a sceptical champion than I, the precautionary principle nonetheless suggests that you should cease any drastic intervention in a system you don’t understand very well, especially when the potential downside risks are catastrophic.
3. I know this whole thing is a bit po-faced. Of course people generally “believe” whatever will result in them having more money. People who get paid to have wind farms on their property don’t get sick — the cure for wind-farm-itis is $. And people who make money out of industries that would be harmed by climate change mitigation tend not to think climate change is a problem. But this still doesn’t mean that their ideology is coherent. There’s nothing in the political conservative handbook that says you should fuck the environment, just that you should pretend the environment doesn’t exist while you make sweet-sweet cashish. And this is where political ideologies break down, they’re clustered around  views on a bunch of issues that shouldn’t even necessarily go together, see Jonathan Haidt’s work.