Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cognitive dissonance, conflict and climate change


I recently read an article by Christof Rühl, BP's chief economist on energy. All is well in BP's world (forget about "Beyond Petroleum"). There is no mention of peak oil, no mention of the trillion tonne carbon budget, no mention of climate change, except obliquely - there is a mention of carbon emissions, but nothing to suggest urgency. 

Interpretation of data depends very much on one's "causal lens". (For example: what is the cause of a heart attack - is it a blocked artery, is it smoking, or is it the social causes of smoking? Could it be all three? Is it system? I think multiple answers are right, single answers too simple.)

Recently we had a paper on climate change, conflict and health rejected by a political scientist reviewer (curiously assigned by Medicine Conflict and Survival - we did not submit it to a political science journal). That reviewer wrote the "premise [that climate change and conflict are causally related] does not hold". That reviewer had a single answer, we think it is more complex. Some others do too, including in both health and the department of defence

Several relevant IPCC chapters use similar data to that in my forthcoming edited book Climate Change and Global Health to reach far more optimistic conclusions than I do (and that Clive Hamilton reaches), but try as I might I cannot fault the following broad reasoning:

1. Without dramatic acceleration of decarbonisation we risk 2 degrees + warming
2. That means more droughts, extreme weather, higher food prices and ongoing sea level rise are all likely; these act as "risk multipliers" that increase the risk of many hazards, including population dislocation and conflict. This may already be happening for conflict, and in some cases famine, eg in Syria, Somalia and before that, Darfur.
3. Hence “business as usual” should be unacceptable, as the cost will far exceed the benefits of continuing with fossil fuels. India may finally be awakening to the benefits of replacing coal with solar.
4. Hence, (peaceful) civil disobedience to oppose climate change is called for, in fact, it’s imperative.

While exceeding the trillion tonne carbon budget does not guarantee 2 degrees of average warming (hence “dangerous” climate change is not inevitable) we might get four or even more degrees of warming with only slightly more fossil fuel combustion. Also, if we were to exceed the carbon budget without provoking obviously dangerous climate change then the fossil fuel lobby and their denialist allies will just encourage even more planetary gambling.

Apart from Clive Hamilton and James Hansen there are not too many senior academics saying this really clearly; it’s rather surreal; sometimes it seems I am trying to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. The apparently surreal nature is probably part of cognitive dissonance, a kind of self-protection. It would be very comforting if I could really believe people like climate denialist Andrew Bolt is correct when it comes to climate change; I suspect that collectively many of us would prefer to not think the implications right through. (Recently however, Frank Ackerman has attacked fellow economist Richard Tol for being too optimistic, and for selectively analysing the literature.)

An analogy is the false calm ("The Gathering Storm") before WWII. Winston Churchill could see war coming, but most of his peers carried on desperately hoping peace would endure. Of course, the war did come. So too, global chaos later this century and beyond seems to be very likely if we stick with “business as usual”. Churchill couldn’t stop the war, and maybe we can’t stop dangerous climate change, but we have to try. And I certainly can’t do much on my own, hence I appreciate your ideas and potential opportunities. But renewable energy use is expanding at a fantastic rate, we must promote that as well as
energy efficiency. We must stay hopeful and keep advocating for change.