An Inconvenient Truth and Cool It
• In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore presents variety of scientific arguments, ranging from the historical correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and global average temperatures to the consequences of warming ocean temperatures and the incidence and magnitude of hurricanes. Which of these arguments are broadly accepted, and which are still the subject of conjecture and scientific debate? Does Gore overstate the conclusiveness of the science of climate change?
• What did you think of the film itself, both for its presentation of science and its interweaving of the policy debate over climate change with Gore’s personal and family stories?
• In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote: “Appearances to the contrary, Mr. Guggenheim's movie is not really about Al Gore.” Rather, it is “a well-made documentary, edited crisply enough to keep it from feeling like 90 minutes of C-Span and shaped to give Mr. Gore's argument a real sense of drama. As unsettling as it can be, it is also intellectually exhilarating, and, like any good piece of pedagogy, whets the appetite for further study.”
• In contrast, writing for Slate, Gregg Easterbrook argued that if “director Davis Guggenheim wanted to film a biography of Gore, he should simply have done so. When Gore isn't being applauded, Guggenheim presents him as alone and melancholy: walking alone, musing alone, standing alone in a darkened barn. The scenes are meant to convey our inability to imagine the burden the former vice president bears. But they make the political part feel contrived, since Gore scarcely suffers solitude; he has a wonderful, loving family and participates in many public causes.” Easterbrook concluded that “as a motion picture, An Inconvenient Truth has a lot to say, but contains little imaginative cinematography that might have made global warming engaging at the suburban cineplex.”
With whom do you agree?
• Easterbrook also opined that “the troubling fault of An Inconvenient Truth [is] its carelessness about moral argument. Gore says accumulation of greenhouse gases ‘is a moral issue, it is deeply unethical.’” Easterbrook responded:
Wouldn't deprivation also be unethical? Some fossil fuel use is maddening waste; most has raised living standards. The era of fossil energy must now give way to an era of clean energy. But the last century's headlong consumption of oil, coal, and gas has raised living standards throughout the world; driven malnourishment to an all-time low, according to the latest U.N. estimates; doubled global life expectancy; pushed most rates of disease into decline; and made possible Gore's airline seat and MacBook, which he doesn't seem to find unethical. The former vice president clicks up a viewgraph showing the human population has grown more during his lifetime than in all previous history combined. He looks at the viewgraph with aversion, as if embarrassed by humanity's proliferation. Population growth is a fantastic achievement—though one that engenders problems we must fix, including inequality and greenhouse gases. Gore wants to have it that the greener-than-thou crowd is saintly, while the producers of cars, power, food, fiber, roads, and roofs are appalling. That is, he posits a simplified good versus a simplified evil. Just like a movie!
Does Gore ignore these countervailing facts?
• Were you persuaded by Gore’s argument that some of the political response to the risks of climate mirrors that of the tobacco industry to the risks of smoking?
• Bjorn Lomborg's thesis in Cool It goes something like this: Global warming is a serious threat, and it is anthropogenic. It will cause a variety of economic, social, environmental, and public health problems, including heat related deaths, disease, water shortages, famine, economic and demographic dislocations, and species extinctions. However, it would be a mistake to make global warming a priority--both domestically and internationally--for several reasons:
(1) There are more immediate problems that we should address first. These include malaria, HIV/AIDs, cholera, starvation, inadequate education, and economic development.
(2) Limiting CO2 emissions will be expensive and the global costs are disproportionate to the global benefits.
(3) In measuring costs and benefits, we should include the benefits of global warming such as fewer heat-related deaths, shifts in arable farmland, increased water supplies as glaciers melt, and access to new minerals and shipping routes in the Arctic.
(4) There are cheaper and more direct ways of addressing many of the predicted effects of global warming and climate change than through CO2 emissions limits. Bans on hunting polar bears, investments in clean drinking water and sanitation in poor and developing countries, construction of sea walls and storm surge barriers, limitation of floodplain development, and encouragement of conservation and energy efficiency are some of the examples Lomborg gives.
(5) The focus should be on improving the quality of life and the environment, not simply on limiting emissions or shifting away from fossil fuels.
(6) Investments in research and development today will produce technological inventions and innovations that will enable future generations to respond to the effects of global warming far less expensively than regulations to limit CO2 emissions implemented today.
What is your reaction and response to this thesis?
• Does Lomborg persuasively cast doubt on the IPCC predictions about the magnitude, rapidity, and severity of consequences of global warming and climate change?
• Bill McKibben reviewed Cool It for The New York Review of Books. He concluded his review with the following assessment of Lomborg’s arguments and motives:
Doubtless scientists and economists will spend many hours working their way through Cool It, flagging the distortions and half-truths as they did with Lomborg’s earlier book. In fact, though, its real political intent soon becomes clear, which is to try to paint those who wish to control carbon emissions as well-meaning fools who will inadvertently block improvements in the life of the poor. Just ask yourself this question: Why has Lomborg decided to compare the efficacy of (largely theoretical) funding to stop global warming with his other priorities, like fighting malaria or ensuring clean water? If fighting malaria was his real goal, he could as easily have asked the question: Why don’t we divert to it some of the (large and nontheoretical) sums spent on, say, the military? The answer he gave when I asked this question at our dialogue was that he thought military spending was bad and that therefore it made more sense to compare global warming dollars with other “good” spending. But of course this makes less sense. If he thought that money spent for the military was doing damage, then he could kill two birds with one stone by diverting some of it to his other projects. Proposing that, though, would lose him much of the right-wing support that made his earlier book a best seller—he’d no longer be able to count on even The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Is this fair criticism?
• The Guardian's environmental science bloggers, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli, lamented that they were not part of the group that put together Years of Living Dangerously and praised the filmakers and correspondents: "Climate change really is a made-for-TV story. It has all the drama of Hollywood, with real-life villains and heroes thrown in. We scientists struggle everyday to communicate the importance of climate change to the world. It is great to see communication experts come in and accomplish what scientists alone cannot." Writing in his New York Times environmental blog, Dot Earth, Andrew Revken agreed that "the Showtime team, at least in episode one, deserves plaudits for taking a compellingly fresh approach to showing the importance of climate hazards to human affairs, the role of greenhouse gases in raising the odds of some costly and dangerous outcomes and — perhaps most important — revealing the roots of the polarizing divisions in society over this issue."
Do you agree with these assessments? Does the use of Hollywood and media celebrities enhance the storytelling and make the science of global warming and climate change more accessible to the television viewers? Or does it risk simplifying and trivializing both the science and the political debate?
• Do the writers, correspondents, and producers of Years of Living Dangerously lay a sufficient foundation for their decision to link drought in the Euphrates River watershed and the subsequent civil war in Syria to global warming and climate change? Do they adequately explain the meteorologic and hydrologic bases for drought in the American south and southwest? For a critical review of these segments of the film see Exploiting Human Misery and Distorting the Science: An Environmentalist’s Critique of “Years of Living Dangerously,” by Jim Steele, Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University.
• What do you make of Don Cheadle’s discussion with Katharine Hayhoe and her husband Drew Farley, in which they explore the relationship between science and faith? Can the two be reconciled? Or are the tensions between the two the result of a false (politically motivated) dichotomy?
• Have An Inconvenient Truth, Cool It, and Years of Living Dangerously contributed to the public's understanding of the science, economics, and policy options for addressing the sources of and problems created by global warming and climate change?
Field Notes from a Catastrophe and Beyond Smoke and Mirrors
• Global warming and climate change is a complex subject, and this complexity (combined with the inherent scientific uncertainties) makes the topic easy (a) to ignore; (b) to obfuscate; (c) to demagogue; and (d) to despair over. After reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe and the first part of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, can you explain the likely causes of global warming and their links to human activity in a manner that would be both understandable by educated laypersons and useful in the political arena?
• What are the feedback loops that both authors describe? How do they contribute to the acceleration or exacerbation of global warming? How do these feedback loops affect the choice of current or near-term policy responses to global warming? Please use several specific examples to illustrate your analysis.
• Where are the areas of legitimate scientific uncertainty about the anthropogenic causes and consequences of global warming and climate change? What is the proper policy response to these uncertainties?
• Analyze a biological process, an area of the world, or a field of study that is likely to be profoundly altered by climate change. Examples include: species adaptation, migration, evolution, and extinction; water supply and management; sea level rise and its predicted effects on human populations and public health; drought, aridity, agriculture, and food supply; and international resource disputes and national security.
• The corporate opposition to emissions limitations and other measures to reduce the production of greenhouse gasses is understandable (or is it?). Why is there growing public opposition—both in the United States and in other industrial countries—to greenhouse gas regulation? Are we willfully ignorant, economically short-sighted, inter-generationally selfish, or just plain stupid? Or are there other, legitimate reasons to explain the state of global climate change politics today? (This question will work equally well for subsequent assignments.)
• What is your opinion of Field Notes and and Beyond Smoke and Mirrors as journalism and as science? What would you say if you were asked to review the two books for the San Francisco Chronicle or some other publication?
The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and Massachusetts v. EPA
• David Victor levies a number of criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol. These include:
(1) A system based on capping emissions in each participating country is impossible to administer because there are too many variables, including real vs. predicted economic output, changes in comparative fuel prices, and changes in technology.
(2) National emissions limitations are unenforceable in an international setting.
(3) Tradable emissions credits, which essentially create a property right to pollute, are impossible to monitor and enforce internationally—especially among nations that lack regulatory capacity and a strong rule of law.
(4) Authorization of countries will low (or negative) economic growth to sell emissions credits to countries that exceed their own limits results in “paper” reductions in greenhouse gases, but causes a real world net increase in emissions over that which would have occurred without emissions trading.
(5) Credits awarded for the creation or enhancement of carbon sinks (e.g., tree-planting forest protection) are subject to manipulation and abuse.
(6) The industrialized nations (including those that ratified the Kyoto Protocol) are unlikely to enforce emissions limitations that would raise domestic economic costs and thereby put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the nations that are not subject to emissions limits (or are subject to lower limitations).
Do you agree with these criticisms? Do you agree with Victor that (individually or in combination) they create insuperable barriers to an effective global cap and trade system?
• Is an internationally mandated carbon tax a better alternative? How would such a tax be set? Should there be differing tax rates for developed vs. developing vs. underdeveloped countries? Do you agree with Victor that problems of monitoring and enforcement are likely to undermine (and perhaps defeat) this strategy?
• Do you agree with Victor’s proposed alternatives to the Kyoto approach, which he outlines in the final chapter? Wouldn’t the hybrid system that he advocates suffer from the same problems that he identifies in the Kyoto Protocol?
• The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Massachusetts v. EPA in the midst of the debate (both domestic and international) over global climate change and its consequences. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—which is comprised of scientists from around the globe and operates under the auspices of the United Nations—had recently concluded that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” IPCC, Summary for Policymakers, in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yet, the Bush Administration had withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, and the Environmental Protectin Agency had taken the poistion that it was without statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
In his opinion of the Court, Justice Stevens cited earlier IPCC reports, which had concluded inter alia that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of . . . greenhouse gases [which] will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface." IPCC, Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment, p. xi (1991). Is it appropriate for the Supreme Court to rely on this type of extra-record evidence? Should scientific consensus about the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change influence either EPA’s decision whether to regulate CO2 emissions from new motor vehicles or the judicial review of that (non-)decision?
• What aspects of the law of standing divide the majority and Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent? Leaving aside the intricacies of the Supreme Court’s standing jurisprudence (which some of you have studied and others have not), do you agree with the Court’s conclusion that this case is justiciable? How persuasively does Justice Stevens respond to the Chief Justice’s argument that the decision whether and how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions is fundamentally a policy—and therefore political—decision? Are you concerned that the Court’s decision could inappropriately influence the President’s negotiations with other nations about how to respond to the threats posed by greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change?
• How are the plaintiffs injured by unregulated CO2 emissions from new motor vehicles? Why should the burden of proving injury be on the plaintiffs in cases such as this? What is the significance of the Supreme Court’s reliance on the parens patriae theory of standing articulated in Georgia v. Tennessee Copper? Why do you think that none of the parties or amici curiae who filed briefs in support of the Massachusetts and the other petitioners cited Tennessee Copper?
• How well does Justice Stevens respond to Chief Justice Roberts’ argument that EPA’s decision not to regulate CO2 emissions from motor vehicles is not a significant cause of global climate change therefore the petitioners’ injuries are not “fairly traceable” to the United States’ regulatory inaction?
• How persuasively does Justice Stevens respond to the Chief Justice’s contention that a judgment in favor of the petitioners would not be likely to redress their injuries, because there are numerous other sources of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that dwarf the effects of CO2 emitted by new motor vehicles produced in or imported into the United States?
• Turning to the merits of the case, did the Court correctly decide that EPA erred in concluding that it lacked authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 as a pollutant? What sections of the statute are most relevant to this question?
• In his opinion of the Court, Justice Stevens takes a “textual” or “plain meaning” view of the statute, preferring the literal words of the act rather than the more contextual approach advocated by Justice Scalia. For example, in rejecting EPA’s argument that Congress did not intended to regulate as “air pollutants” only those pollutants that endanger public health or welfare from their presence in the ambient air that we breathe—rather than those pollutants such as CO2 and other greenhouse gas pollutants that cause problems in the upper atmosphere—Justice Stevens explains:
The statutory text forecloses EPA's reading. The Clean Air Act's sweeping definition of "air pollutant" includes "any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical . . . substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air . . . ." § 7602(g) (emphasis added). On its face, the definition embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe, and underscores that intent through the repeated use of the word "any." Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons are without a doubt "physical [and] chemical . . . substances which [are] emitted into . . . the ambient air." The statute is unambiguous.
• Do you agree with the Court’s interpretation of the statute? How well does Justice Stevens respond to Justice Scalia’s “common sense” argument that a literal reading of the word “any” would bring “everything airborne, from Frisbees to flatulence,” within the regulatory requirements of the Clean Air Act?
• Do you agree with the Court that the statute is so clear on the question whether CO2 is an “air pollutant” that judicial deference to EPA’ interpretation of the statute under the Chevron doctrine is inappropriate? How well does Justice Stevens respond to Justice Scalia’s argument that section 202(a)(1) of the Clean Air Act vests the decision whether to regulate CO2 emissions in the judgment of the Administrator?
• Are you persuaded by the Court’s rejection of the policy reasons offered by EPA in support of its decision not to regulate CO2 emissions under section 202 of the Clean Air Act? Why are the new fuel economy standards not an adequate substitute for regulation of CO2 emissions? Why should the Court not give at least some deference to EPA’s choice of regulatory strategy on this point?
• The Court remanded the case to EPA to decide, in light of the decision that CO2 is an air pollutant, whether to regulate CO2 emissions under section 202 of the Act. What facts would create a nondiscretionary obligation to regulate CO2? What facts and policy considerations might justify a decision not to regulate?
The Climate War and As the World Burns
• Why did the Obama Administration fail to pass climate change and energy reform legislation? Should it have placed this issue higher on its legislative agenda (i.e., ahead of health care reform, economic stimulus, Social Security reform, and education)? Did the economic downturn and high levels of unemployment make enactment of climate change legislation impossible? Or was climate change the victim of opponents’ attacks on science and appeals to the “low information” voter?
• Is enactment of climate change and energy reform legislation politically infeasible for the foreseeable future? If so, how should the Obama Administration respond? Does EPA have adequate legal authority and political will to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on its own?
• What lessons--both regulatory and political--can we learn from the successful efforts to control acid rain emissions and to protect stratospheric ozone? Do similar economic and political coalitions (potentially) exist for climate change legislation? What combination of climate, hydrologic, demographic, economic, and other changes are likely to be necessary to produce such a coalition?
• What is the future relationship between the United States’ domestic global warming and energy policy and the continuing international negotiations to move beyond the Kyoto Protocol? Eric Pooley writes of the Catch-22 that has so far stymied effective climate change legislation: “The U.S. would not ratify a treaty unless the developing nations pledged to reduce emissions, while the developing nations refused to commit unless the developed world went first.” Is this dilemma likely to persist? If so, how do we break the deadlock?
• Would a carbon tax (or some other means of forcing emitters to internalize the costs of greenhouse gas emissions) be a better political approach to the problem than the “cap and trade” strategy that has been the legislative focus to date? Would taxation be a more effective means of reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions? Should the tax be on fuels, emissions, production (Btu, VAT, or finished goods) or consumption?
• Is Pooley’s account of the political debates over climate illuminating and persuasive? Do you agree with his “great actors” approach to this history, or does the focus on a few individuals (e.g., James Hansen, Al Gore, Fred Krupp, and James Rodgers) omit important factors?
• What did you think of the book as reporting and as literature? The New York Times book review editor, Michiko Kakutani wrote that “Mr. Pooley deftly explicates the political maneuvering surrounding the controversial concept of “cap and trade” (a mandatory and declining limit on carbon emissions, combined with a system of tradable emissions permits) and does a suspenseful job of recounting the walk-up to last year’s extremely close vote in the House (219 to 212), passing a climate change bill.” She also called The Climate War “detailed, if sometimes longwinded.” Do you agree?
• “As the World Burns” brings the saga of the climate change legislation to its conclusion. Does Ryan Lizza’s analysis differ in significant aspects from Pooley’s recounting of the story?
• Lizza quotes Al Gore as saying: “The influence of special interests is now at an extremely unhealthy level. And it’s to the point where it’s virtually impossible for participants in the current political system to enact any significant change without first seeking and gaining permission from the largest commercial interests who are most affected by the proposed change.” Do you agree?
• Lizza also concludes: “American Presidents who have attempted large-scale economic transformation have always had their efforts tempered—and sometimes neutered—by powerful economic interests. Obama knew that, too, and his Administration had led the effort to find workable compromises in the case of the bank bailouts, health-care legislation, and Wall Street reform. But on climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own.
“As the Senate debate expired this summer, a longtime environmental lobbyist told me that he believed the 'real tragedy' surrounding the issue was that Obama understood it profoundly. ‘I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,’ the lobbyist said. ‘Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.’”
Is this an accurate and fair criticism of the President?
AEP v. Connecticut, Kivalina v. ExxonMobile, and
Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA
• According to the Supreme Court in AEP v. Connecticut, was it the Clean Air Act’s authorization of EPA regulation of greenhouse gas pollutants or EPA’s actual regulation of GHG emissions from new and modified stationary sources and new motor vehicles that displaces the federal common law? If the latter, why should less than comprehensive regulation leave no room for common law actions?
• Do you agree with the Ninth Circuit's decision in Kivalina v. ExxonMobile that the Clean Air Act--at least as interpreted by the Supreme Court in American Electric Power--preempts all federal common law actions to address greenhouse gas emissions, including those for damages? The Clean Air Act does not authorize suits for damages. Thus, how could that statute--or regulations to implement the statute--displace actions brought to compensate for the harm caused by global warming and climate change?
• Does the decision in American Electric Power preempt claims based on state law? Is there anything in the Clean Air Act (or EPA’s regulations) that address this question?
• What are the relative benefits and costs of having federal common law and state remedies augment those set forth in the Clean Air Act? Would there be good reasons for Congress (or EPA by regulation) to preempt federal common law and state-based (statutory or common law) claims?
• In light of the Court’s standing analysis in Massachusetts v. EPA, it is surprising that there were four votes in American Electric Power to deny the plaintiffs’ standing. Are there significant difference between the two cases that could have caused the Court to grant standing in the first case, but to deny standing in the second? Or, do the four votes against standing simply mean that the four dissenters in Massachusetts refuse to accept the decision in that case? If this is correct, though, why did Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion in AEP only garner two votes?
• At oral argument, both Justices Scalia and Kennedy expressed some ambivalence on the question of standing. Justice Scalia suggested to the counsel for the defendants that it was not worth making the argument that the plaintiffs lacked standing, because it would be better to have the case argued in federal court:
JUSTICE SCALIA: So we . . . may be just spinning our wheels here.
MR. KEISLER: Well, I don't -
JUSTICE SCALIA: Indeed, you know, tapping the case to State judges instead of federal judges. I would frankly rather have Federal judges do it, probably.
A few moments later, Justice Kennedy was equally forthright:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, we all . . . know that you sometimes have to peek at the merits to see if there's standing. There's a little cheating that goes on.
Does this result-orientation on the question of standing surprise you? What does it say about the Supreme Court’s fidelity to the idea that the requirements of standing are mandated by Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution and that without standing the federal courts have no jurisdiction to decide the case? Perhaps this is an unfair question.
• Has EPA responded to the decision in Massachusetts v. EPA--and Congress's failure to enact specific greenhouse gas legislation--in a responsible manner? Does EPA’s endangerment finding made under sections 111 and 202 of the Clean Air Act trigger mandatory regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under other sections of the Act--e.g., by listing greenhouse gasses as criteria pollutants under section 108 and by promulgating National Ambient Air Quality Standards under section 109?
• Is the “tailoring rule” promulgated by EPA consistent with the Clean Air Act’s definition of major stationary source and major emitting facility? Why is the tailoring rule needed? Does EPA’s resort to this rule suggest that the 1970 Congress that enacted the Clean Air Act did not contemplate that it would apply to CO2 and other greenhouse gas pollutants?
• Does the narrowness of Justice Scalia's opinion of the Court in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA present problems for future regulation of greehouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act as currently written? Does the opinion give you any reason to rethink your analysis of Massachusetts v. EPA?
Beyond Smoke and Mirrors (Parts II & III)
• What mix of energy sources is desirable for the United States to address global warming? How do we make the transition from our current energy mix to the desirable one, and what is a realistic timeframe for this transition?
• To what extent are market forces likely to induce the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that is dominated by less-polluting energy sources? To what extent will government intervention (in the form of emissions limitations and energy taxes) be needed to stimulate this transition?
• Do you agree with Burton Richter’s assertion that “the best policies in market economies are those that allow the private sector to make the most profits by doing the right things rather than the wrong things?” What does he mean?
• Should we pursue the least expensive, least controversial steps before embarking on major structural changes to the energy grid or to energy pricing? Incremental strategies might include increasing CAFE standards, incentives for residential and commercial energy conservation, new appliance and lighting efficiency standards, and subsidies or rebates for installation of solar panels or painting rooftops white.
• Should the United States promote the construction of new nuclear power plants? If so, how should we address the problems of operational safety (along with the public’s perception of the risks of nuclear power production) and long-term disposal of nuclear waste? Do you agree with Richter’s argument that long-term storage is safe? Do you agree with his proposal to separate the uranium from the other components of nuclear waste, reprocess the uranium, and store only the longest-lived components (plutonium, iodine-129, technetium-99, and the transuranics)?
• How do we address the political power and economic attractiveness of coal? Is carbon sequestration a viable solution to the problem of CO2 emissions.
• What are the local environmental risks and consequences of renewable energy development? For example, hydroelectric dams alter the ecology of rivers and impair fish habitat, water quality, and recreational uses. Solar and wind power facilities may alter sensitive desert ecosystems. Geothermal extraction may alter aquifers that support both natural geysers and groundwater supplies. How do we decide where to locate new renewable energy projects?
• Richter concludes: “In all the talk about renewable energy, what seems to have been forgotten is that the enemy is greenhouse gas emissions and the hero to rescue us is low- or no-emission electricity, not just renewable energy.” Do you agree?
• How do we induce the other large greenhouse gas producing countries--e.g., China, Russia, India, and Brazil--to agree to cut their own emissions? Without worldwide participation, are U.S. greenhouse gas initiatives both futile and economically damaging to our domestic economy?
• In light of the political difficulties of regulating greenhouse gas emissions, do the geoengineering strategies to combat global warming described in Earthmasters become more attractive and viable? If so, how do we address the risks that Clive Hamilton describes? What regulatory process can be established to decide, for example, who is permitted to iron fertilize the oceans, at what locations, and in what quantities? What would be the relationship between ocean fertilization or albedo enhancement and the carbon offset programs that operate under the auspices of the Kyoto Protocol?
• Hamilton distinguishes between two basic types of geoengineering strategies: carbon sequestration and storage (which he calls "sucking carbon") and solar radiation management (which he terms "regulating sunlight'). Each of these categories embraces a range of alternatives (e.g., on-site carbon capture and underground storage vs. ocean ironizing; and rooftop and surface whitening vs. stratospheric sulferization). Are there reasons to think that one geoengineering strategy category is preferable to the other? Is one inherently more risky than the other?
• Hamilton identifies several arguments against geoengineering. These include: (1) the risk of unintended or unforeseen consequences of altering complex ecological systems; (2) distraction from the essential task of limiting greenhouse gas emissions; and (3) reliance on technology to solve problems created by technology (and human hubris). How do you respond to these arguments?
• Are we at risk of stalemate from right-wing climate change deniers and left-wing Luddites?
• James Lovelock, a leading expert on climate change and geoengineering skeptic, as written: “Before we start geoengineering, we have to raise the following question: are we sufficiently talented to take on what might become the onerous permanent task of keeping the Earth in homeostasis?” Do you agree?
• Do the industrialized nations that have been the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions have a moral obligation to compensate the nations and communities that will bear the brunt of climate change? Should the industrialized countries pay for the costs of the various mitigation measures that may be necessary to protect against (or at least to minimize) the worst consequences of global warming and climate change? If so, how would such obligations be implemented and enforced?
• In the Bangladesh chapter of Climate Refugees, the author quotes Atiq Rhaman, director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, as saying that "Although our country produces only 0.3 to 0.4% of total worldwide greenhouse gas omissions--less than the city of New York--we must work to reduce them. It's our moral duty. But at the same time, if the rest of the world does nothing, a major humanitarian disaster will be the result. Who will be to blame for that?" He then states: "For a long time now, I've been proposing the following solution. Each country must take responsibility for--in other words transport and accommodate--a quota of climate refugees proportional to its past and present greenhouse gas emissions."
Is this a facetious (or even fatuous) suggestion? Or does Dr. Rhaman mean it literally or perhaps symbolically? In either event, it is a workable idea?
• In the chapter on the Maldives, Mohammed Ali, director of the Maldives Environmental Research Center, declares that "Kyoto isn't the solution. Industrialized countries must be obligated to develop effective technology to reduce pollution. We hear about the level of greenhouse gases emitted by China and India, but who is all there production for? The developed countries! And so they're exempt from the Kyoto Protocol. It's a hypocrisy. And by setting up their factories in these two countries, companies from developed countries are able to squeak out of the Kyoto obligations agreed to by their governments." Do you agree with this view of the Kyoto Protocol (and the post-Kyoto climate change negotiations)?
• The Maldives are home to a large and lucrative tourist industry. Are they an example of places where private industry may act, if not to control greenhouse gases, then to pay for the costs of mitigation? Are there other high-risk nations (or regions) where this might be true?
• Conversely, are there places described in the book (and elsewhere) where it would be folly to attempt to protect them from the inevitable ravages of climate change? If so, would you include the Halligen coastline of Schleswig-Holstein and Tuvalu in this category? Shishmaref and New Orleans? The Lake Chad ecosystem and the Lonbaoshan? Other regions and regional economies around the globe?
How do we distinguish between areas that are worth attempting to save and those that are not? And who is the "we" in this policymaking equation?
• Based on your own travels or other experiences, what other nations and regions are especially at risk from global warming and climate change? (Perhaps it is easier to ask what nations and regions are not at significant risk.)
• Should the UN General Assembly (or a collection of nations acting by treaty) recognize climate refugees as a protected class? What would be the purposes and consequences of this action? Should the nations of the world (or a smaller subset) create a process for relocating and/or compensating the countries that are most affected by or at significant risk from climate change? What criteria would apply to these decisions? And where would (or should) the money come from to pay these costs?
Or, should climate change be treated like most other drivers of economic, demographic, environmental, and social change where the costs of accrued harm, mitigation, and adaptation are borne by those nations and people who find themselves at the short end of these dynamic and dislocative forces?
The Sixth Extinction
• In his review of The Sixth Extinction for The Guardian, Caspar Henderson writes: "One of the strengths of Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Kolbert's 2006 book on global warming, was vivid reportage from exotic locations. The Sixth Extinction shares this characteristic. There are useful, indeed exemplary, discussions of ocean acidification starting from readily observable natural effects off the Italian coast, of the fate of coral from the Great Barrier Reef, of the extent to which tropical forests in Peru can adapt to rapid change, of habitat fragmentation in the Amazon basin and beyond, and of the consequences of the mass global transference of species from one place to another. It is all pretty grim.
Henderson then asserts that the “extinction crisis is so vast and complex that it is almost repels thought. It is what the cultural critic Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject. We need a lot more imaginative thinking about the choices we can make and what comes next . . . . We need new big stories. Is it too much to ask that we should alter Earth with compassion for the other creatures with whom we share it, and in celebration of their endless forms?
Do you agree? Does The Sixth Extinction provide these types of “big stories”? Are there other works of science, history, or literature that capture the immensity, finality, and humanity of climate change?
• Did you find Kolbert’s contextualizing of climate change’s likely effects of species extinction helpful? In other words, was a broad study of modern human stresses on species survival and biological diversity useful to your analysis of climate change? One reading of The Sixth Extinction might support the view that this aspect of climate change is nothing new—viz. that species have lived and died since the beginning of life on Earth, and mass extinctions caused by climate change will simply open biological niches for other (and possibly new) species. How would you respond to this opportunistic bioclimatic analysis?
• Is the general public likely to be concerned about climate change and species extinction? Ronald Reagan once asked about the Endangered Species Act, “'How much do you miss dinosaurs?” What lessons for the political debate over cimate change does The Sixth Extinction offer?
• The Wall Street Journal's reviewer, Rupert Darwell concluded his review of The Sixth Extinction with the comment that "Ms. Kolbert's lively account is thought-provoking, whether or not you agree with its premise." What did you think of the book as reportage and as literature?
• Near the end of the book Kolbert writes of the six mass extinctions: "The one feature these disparate events have in common is change and, to be more specific, rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't much matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world." Is this simply a statement of fact or is it nihilism? Either way, where do we go from this conclusion?
• In his review of Windfall for the Wall Street Journal, Philip Delves Broughton writes that MaKenzie Funk “is not concerned with the causes of climate change, only its effects, both real and imagined. The Arctic melt, for example, is well under way. Elsewhere, countries and investors are betting on climate outcomes based on varying degrees of probability. What unites the characters in this book is that they share a ‘simple, cynical premise’ about global warming: ‘we won't stop it anytime soon.’”
Is the pursuit of the business opportunities presented by climate change a cynical endeavor? For example, is it fair to criticize companies such as Royal Dutch Shell that engage in both “Blueprints” and “Scramble” contingency planning? Or, do the diverse profiteering motives that Funk details create (or exacerbate) incentives not to address the sources of greenhouse gas emissions? For an engaging consideration of these questions, see Will Oremus, How Big Oil Gave Up on the Climate, Slate Feb. 18, 2014.
• In the "Magical Thinking" Epilogue to Windfall, Funk states: "There is something crass about profiting off disaster, certainly, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it." Do you agree?
Are there moral differences between speculators purchasing agricultural (or potentially arable) land in Africa and private companies pursuing contracts for construction and operation of desalination plants or storm barriers? If so, should domestic and international law address these business opportunities differently? How should a poor or developing nation seek to regulate the type of land speculation and resource exploitation that Funk describes?
• Does Funk exaggerate the geopolitical risks of global warming and climate change? For example, are Canada and Brazil really worried that other nations (including the United States) are planning to steal their water resources? Are competing international claims over coal, oil, and natural gas in the Arctic, and disputes over Canada’s authority to control shipping in the Northwest Passage, likely to escalate into armed conflict? For evidence confirming Funk’s theses, see Simon Romero, Brazil Military Drills to Defend Amazon, N.Y. Times, Nov. 8, 2014.
• Windfall is similar in approach and style to Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction. How would you compare Funk’s reportage and writing to Elizabeth Kolbert’s?
• Funk concludes Windfall with several general observations. One is that the "hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone. Some people--the rich, the northern--will find ways to thrive while others cannot, and many people will wall themselves off from the worst effects of warming while others remain on the wrong side. . . . The people most responsible for historic greenhouse emissions are also the most likely to succeed in this new reality and the least likely to feel a mortal threat from continued warming. The imbalance between rich and poor and poor and south--inherited from history and geography, accelerated by warming--is becoming even more entrenched."
If this is true, is it likely that these divergences will make it even more difficult to persuade the wealthy developed nations, as well as the emerging rich developing nations, to take effective action to curtail and to rollback their greenhouse gas emissions? Can this subject get any bleaker?
A second observation relates to the lack of public urgency in the United States and many other developed and developing nations about climate change: "There have been various postmortems about why the U.S. Senate has not passed a climate bill, or why the UN cannot get a treaty, but the reason is fairly straightforward: In the wealthy north, where we still talk more about polar bears than about people, there is no true constituency. Hardly anyone cares that much. Not yet."
Is this accurate? Is it a hopeful assertion or a pessimistic one? Or perhaps both?
The Collapse of Western Civilization and
This Changes Everything
• While reading The Collapse of Western Civilization, it occurred to me that the “history” that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway recount would seem implausible were it not for all of the material that we read (and viewed) this semester. Do you agree? Are there aspects of their “history” that you regard as unlikely to come to pass?
• At the outset of the book, Oreskes and Conway assert that the principal distinction between the “Collapse of Western Civilization” in the 21st Century and earlier human catastrophes was that “the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of the story is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power.”
Do you agree? If so, how do you explain (looking forward from our present vantage point) this failing? How do you think future historians will judge us in retrospect?
• In the Epilogue, the authors compare the anticipatory responses of the democratic nations, whose economies were based on neoliberal policies, with the First and Second People’s Republic of China. The former, they say, “were at first unwilling and then unable to deal with the unfolding crisis. As food shortages and disease outbreaks spread and sea level rose, these governments found themselves without the infrastructure and organizational ability to quarantine and relocate people.” In contrast, “China had taken steps toward liberalization but still retained a powerful centralized government. When sea level rise began to threaten coastal areas, China rapidly built new inland cities and villages and relocated more than 250 million people to higher, safer ground.” The result, they claim, was that the neoliberal democratic governments were forced to take drastic emergency measures that curtailed both economic and personal liberties and “fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”
Is this a plausible scenario? Does it give too much credit to China’s uneasy strategy of economic liberalization tempered by central planning and political repression? Does give short shrift to aspects of economic and political liberalism—such as responsiveness to economic and demographic change and popular guidance and acceptance of political/economic decisionmaking that are essential to long-term democratic governance?
• Do you agree with Naomi Klein’s thesis in This Changes Everything that it will be impossible to address the sources of global warming and climate change without also addressing the atomistic, profiteering, anti-collectivist hallmarks of what she terms “deregulated capitalism”?
If so, doesn’t this so complicate the political debate that the probable outcome will be no effective response?
If not, how would you respond to Klein’s fundamental argument? She writes that “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”
• Klein also writes that, when “historians look back on the past quarter century of international negotiations, two defining processes will stand out. There will be the climate process: struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals. And there will be the corporate globalization process, zooming from victory to victory. . . . The three policy pillars of this new era are familiar to us all: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending.” She then argues that “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.”
• Do you agree with Klein’s asserted causal connection between deregulation and globalization, on the one hand, and climate change inaction on the other? Or, does she conflate largely independent forces that simply coincidentally arose and persisted along side one another?
• Both The Collapse of Western Civilization and This Changes Everything argue that the existing free market market system that dominates most of the developed world (including the international economy) stands as the largest impediment to effective proactive action to regulate and curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Is this policy tension exacerbated by income inequality? Consider Jared Diamond’s comment (which MacKenzie Funk used as the epigram for Part Three of Windfall) that a “blueprint for disaster in any society is when the elite are capable of insulating themselves.” What does this mean, and how might it influence future decisions how (and perhaps whether) to address global warming and climate change?
• In an inteview with the New York Times, Naomi Oreskes was asked what she learned from her reserach. She replied that "the battle [isn't] about science, but economics. From reading their papers, you could see that these physicists were very strong believers in the unfettered free market. They believed that without free markets, you couldn’t have democracy.” In her opinion, this is a dangerous fallacy: “How does the free market prevent acid rain or climate change? It doesn’t. How do we know about the potential harm to individuals or the environment? Because of science. And how does one prevent harm? With regulation. To prevent regulation, we’ve had this campaign of doubt-mongering about science and scientists.” The interviewer then asked what the scientific community should do. Oreskes responded that “Erik and I had a hard time ending our book because it’s not clear what the remedy is. I don’t think the scientist community alone can solve it. In fact, I think the IPCC should declare victory and close down . . . They’ve laid down the science. Now it’s time to hand this over to our political, economic and social institutions.”
Do you agree with this analysis (if not necessarily with her suggestion that the UN disband the IPCC)?
• In her largely favorable review of This Changes Everything for The New York Review of Books, "Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism?", Elizabeth Kolbert explains that Klein traces our collective failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions "to a much deeper, structural problem. Our economy has been built oon the promise of endless growth. But endless growth is incompatible with radically reduced emissions; it’s only at times when the global economy has gone into free fall that emissions have declined by more than marginal amounts. What’s needed, Klein argues, is 'managed degrowth.' Individuals are going to have to consume less, corporate profits are going to have to be reduced (in some cases down to zero), and governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free marketeers."
Kolbert also notes that Klein is especially critical of the major environmental organizations for peddling the idea that the best way to address climate change is through economic innovation and growth--e.g., investments in renewable fuels, green jobs, and new prevention and adaptation technologies. Kolbert continues: "The fact that major environmental groups continue to argue that systemic change isn’t needed makes them, by Klein’s account, just as dishonest as the global warming deniers they vilify. Indeed, perhaps more so, since one of the deniers’ favorite arguments is that reducing emissions by the amount environmentalists say is necessary would spell the doom of capitalism. 'Here’s my inconvenient truth,' [Klein] writes: 'I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody.'"
Kolbert then concludes the book review with her own "inconvenient truth": "[W]hen you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to 'the American way of life.' And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the 'warmists' do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good."
With whom do you agree? Is this debate helpful to your consideration of your own moral (or practical) responsibility to address the sources and consequences of greenhouse gas emissions?