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On climate change strikes

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Recently, there has been a debate about the validity of climate change strikes by students in the rather rural area I live known as the Robson Valley.  In one such thread, an individual challenged me with the following comment: “since you seem to be a self proclaimed expert in everything climate change, perhaps you could teach a volunteer class to help youth learn what they can actually do to effect real change. Random strikes were designed for people to feel like they are doing something but does not effect change.”

The below is my response:

Collective action works!

Actually, the random strikes are probably the very best thing that they can be doing, but I’ll address that at the end of this post.  Additional context will help in understanding my rationale for this statement.

One important thing to bear in mind about climate change is that our individual choices that any of us make amount to approximately the square root of nothing in terms of global climate change.  We can have a HUGE impact on other problems – the uptake of single-use plastics, for example – however, our choices as individual North American consumers do not ultimately mean a lot to the climate change debate.

Tackling climate change needs to be done at the regulatory level.  A great example of this was mandating efficiency standards for lightbulbs.  One individual changing out incandescent for CFLs or LEDs means nothing.  200 million North American households replacing their lightbulbs with significantly more efficient ones over time, on the other hand, HAS made a difference.

We don’t need to give up technology, or live in poverty, or be without jobs in order to tackle climate change.  What we need to do is pressure our governments to adopt regulatory approaches that force businesses and industries to include the FULL cost of the products the create, and/or the services they provide.  This includes something called externalities (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality).

So what’s an externality? 

An externality is any cost for the manufacturing of a product or service that is not included in the price.  The CO2 emissions of fossil fuel production, transportation, agriculture, cement production, and more as great examples of externalities.

The costs of dealing with the results of those CO2 emissions are left up to society as a whole to solve.  And those costs (in terms of responses to increased rate and severity of disasters, the adaptations required in many communities to respond to rising sea levels, etc) are globally already into the trillions.

But let’s step back from more nebulous climate change issues to look at more local externalities.  What’s an externality?

The use of “dirty” fuels (wood, coal, pellets, etc.) to heat homes creates externalities.  In the Robson Valley, the costs of these externalities aren’t particularly evident.  There are probably some slightly increased medical costs overall, and I’m willing to bet there are one or two exotic cancers that have cropped up over the years as well.

Coal in particular has a tendency to release some nasty radioactive particles into the lower atmosphere when burned, which are eventually inhaled by people.  These are usually the source of the exotic cancers.  Other particulates can cause everything from acid rain to athsma.

Now, again, in the Robson Valley this is barely noticeable.  In China, on the other hand, this is such a huge problem that China has begun a nation-wide crash program to move away from fossil-fuels as quickly as humanly possible.  This is in part China’s attempt to meet their international commitments for climate change, but in reality it has WAY more to do with the fact that the non-climate-change related externalities of fossil fuel energy production (and especially home heating) in China cost China something like triple what it will ultimately cost for them to move away from fossil fuels.

Now, if you are a fan of conservative talking points, you’ll see that despite its heavy investment in renewables and nuclear power, China is still building new fossil fuel plants today.  The reality of why is quite complicated.  Most of these plants have been approved (and in the planning or construction process) for over a decade.    Some of these plants are designed to serve extremely short (5-10 year) lifespans while replacement (typically large nuclear) plants are built.  (Understand that the standard power plant life for a fossil plant is 40 years).

Much closer to home, we might take a long, hard look at the McBride Community Forest.  A hypothetical mismanagement of this forest (harvesting timber at unsustainable rates and/or not replanting as much or more than you harvest) is a fantastic example of a negative externality.  Please understand that in this example I am not saying the forest is or isn’t currently being mismanaged in this way, I’m simply creating a hypothetical as an illustrative example.

In this example, a company (or the village) could realize significant short term financial gain by clear cutting everything while not replanting.  The negative externality, of course, is that as soon as all the trees are cut down the money stops flowing.

No replacement trees means no future money.  To say nothing of the ancillary economic impacts due to the removal of that ecosystem.  Hunting and tourism would both decrease significantly, and the ever-so-brief boom brought about by pillaging the community forest would be followed by a devastating bust as multiple economic crises all occur at the same time.

In this example, the people cutting down the trees make the majority of the money.  The employees of the tree-cutting organizations make a tiny amount of the money.  The local governments make a tiny, tiny scrap of that money in the form of taxes.

But the entire community would have to pay the costs related to the choice to ransack the forest.  The profits are privatized.  The losses are socialized.

THAT is what “a negative externality” is.

Addressing externalities

Now, if you want to make a dent in climate change you need to address the negative externalities of industry.  This can be done in many ways, from a carbon tax to regulatory instruments similar to the above-discussed lightbulb regulation.

A carbon tax is the best rational choice to address the problem, however, anything with the word “tax” in it is becomes instantly politically charged.  Billions of dollars have been spent over decades to turn everything related to taxation into an emotional issue, meaning that there simply is no room for rational discourse here.

The use of carefully crafted regulatory instruments, however, has proven to be wildly successful.  Oh, sure, a bunch of paleoconsservatives lost their minds when told that we were collectively phasing out everyday incandescent.  They hoarded their “freedom bulbs” and now proudly pay more every month to turn the lights on in their house to “own the libs”.

These people are, however, a remarkably small (if obnoxiously loud) percentage of the population.  Most people, regardless of how irked they are that someone moved their cheese (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Moved_My_Cheese%3F), simply don’t care enough about “owning the libs” to actually put real effort into wrecking the planet.  So when you change the rules, they obey the rules…and our energy consumption decreased.

In fact, we’ve gotten so good at increasing our energy efficiency over the past 20 years that North American energy usage growth per capita has been stable for some time, and even started slowly decreasing (http://euanmearns.com/global-energy-graphed/bp-stat-review/national-per-capita-energy-consumption/per-capita-energy-consumption-north-america/).  (This is, however, expected to change as the numbers for the past few years come in; Trump’s gaggle of goons have been busy undoing every single environmental regulation they can, and the impacts are already quite noticeable.  See: https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/09/doe-has-decided-many-lightbulbs-dont-have-to-meet-efficiency-standards/.  Also: sigh)

What you’ll notice as a theme here is the need for COLLECTIVE action. One person alone means nothing.  Your personal sacrifices, however heroic, are irrelevant in the face of the sheer scope and scale of human economic and industrial activity.

So what can we do?

The best possible thing that we as individuals can do is put pressure on corporations, and governments to change the way we, as a society, engage in both economic and industrial activity.  Contrary to popular conservative rhetoric, this does NOT mean radical changes in our lifestyle, nor does it mean we must become a dictatorship.

In many industries, social pressure works.  Tech companies, for example, have collectively invested trillions in becoming carbon neutral.  We struggle to identify every single link in our supply chains, and we work to ensure that the companies we outsource to are also carbon neutral.

Similar efforts are underway in the tech space to ensure that the rare earths (and other minerals) needed to make your shiny new iPhone are ethically sourced.  Contrary to some narratives, we don’t actually WANT to be getting our cobalt from slave labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (just as one well-known example), and any time we find out that a supplier is being untruthful about where they are sourcing their minerals, we cut ties with them.

Now, of course, not every tech company is taking these efforts. And certainly, attempts to green or ethically source product supply chains don’t excuse the Tech sector’s mad privacy landgrab (yet another externality!) but the mere fact that that companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are pumping billions of dollars every year into these programs shows that social pressure works.

In most cases.  But not all.

There are many industries where no amount of public shaming seems to push companies to action.  Transportation (cars/boats/planes/trains) has, until very recently, been one of them.  But even there, things are changing.  In fact, just this month we saw the Trump administration sue the state of California and several US automakers because those automakers and the state of California were working together to create new standards for cars that would require cars in North America to be more fuel efficient than they are today.  (See: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/09/trump-admin-threatens-california-automakers-over-emissions-deal/)

It is collective action that makes the difference; fighting not only such regressive lunacy, but pushing for change.  Employees in the tech sector went on strike in order to push their employers towards more ethical actions.  First regarding supply chain sourcing and climate change, and most recently regarding sexual harassment and equal rights.  And it has made a difference.  There’s work to do, but collective action has, demonstrably, worked.

And it has worked elsewhere.  The student –driven climate change strikes have achieved more real-world commitments towards action, including several new laws in nations around the world, in addition to what look to be some very serious international cooperation.  This has occurred in less than 18 months since the movement started.

If you want excellent examples, consider Pakistan, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to plant 10 billion trees (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-pakistan-an-ambitious-effort-to-plant-10-billion-trees-takes-root/2018/10/12/18f14474-c015-11e8-9f4f-a1b7af255aa5_story.html).  They have already managed to plant over a billion.

Not to be outdone, India planted 220 million trees in a single day (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/climate-change-india-plants-220-million-trees-in-a-single-day-to-save-the-plane), an effort that follows on from Ethiopia managing to plant 350 million trees in just 12 hours a month before (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49151523).

Understand that this rapid movement towards regulatory change and large scale climate change response is almost unprecedented.  Previous large scale civil disobedience, form universal suffrage, to workers’ rights, to civil rights all took protracted effort by a mostly cohesive movement over the course of decades.

Now it’s true that the battle against climate change has been going on for over 100 years (https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.07960.pdf).  In fact Thomas Chamberlin predicted modern climate change back in 1899 in An Attempt to Frame a Working Hypothesis of the Cause of Glacial Periods on an Atmospheric Basis.  Within a decade there were scattered discussions about the long term effects of fossil fuel use in newspapers around the world.

But it’s only recently that we, collectively started to get serious about this.  It wasn’t until the turn of the most recent millennium that climate change gained enough everyday mind share to become a political issue.  And that makes sense.  Climate change is slow.  Generations burned fossil fuels without seeing immediately deleterious effects from climate change, and it’s human nature to think that “what has been always will be”.  We’re also REALLY bad at thinking about timelines longer than our own lifetime.

But it’s not 1899 anymore.  We’re SEEING the impacts of climate change.  It’s evident in everything from sea rise, to the melting of the arctic, to the steady northward march of our friends the pine beetles.

For today’s kids, climate change isn’t just some abstract political concept.  It’s real.  It’s tangible.  And increasingly, they consider it a matter of survival.  And they represent a tipping point in public engagement that has taken the movement from a fringe concern to one that is now driving policy.

And that’s fantastic

Today’s climate activists – and especially the kids – represent exactly what’s needed: passion.   A common cause to unite them against a common enemy.  That enemy is the apathy and recalcitrance of corporations and governments.

The solution to the problem lies in carefully crafted regulatory instruments combined with increased investment in R&D towards new technologies which will help us maintain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed, elevate the rest of the world to that standard, and neither strip-mine the planet, nor burn it in order to achieve those goals.

Science says its possible.  Economics says its possible.  In fact, in the North America today it is straight up cheaper to build brand new wind turbines than to pay the ongoing operating expenses of coal plants that have already been built!

And in the last two months, wind became cheaper than natural gas, too (https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/08/wind-power-prices-now-lower-than-the-cost-of-natural-gas/).

What stands in our collective way at this point is nothing more than human apathy and stubbornness.  Decades of misinformation, abject greed, and propaganda have convinced hundreds of millions of people that not only is climate change an unsolvable problem, but that any attempt to address the many negative externalities in our economy will lead to catastrophic economic disaster.

That is, to be blunt about it, horse feces.  And today’s kids know it.

But by banding together, sharing information, and working their little butts off to educate the stubborn, recalcitrant adults around them they can change the world.  And when they do, they’ll evolve our economy into one with far fewer negative externalities.  One where the real cost of something is built into the price of a product or service, and where the invisible hand of the free market puts significant pressure on organizations of all sizes to become ever more efficient both in their operations, and in the products and services they create.

By working together, and standing fast against all opposition, these kids can change “privatize the profits and socialize the costs” into “make the cost of everything representative of it’s true cost”.  A minor tweak to our social, political and economic system.  One that, incidentally, takes us closer to the traditional idea of capitalism than the modern crony capitalism practiced in North America…but a “minor tweak” that would change the world.

So, really, what can the kids do? 

Never. Give. Up.

Because what they’re already doing is actually working.  And that’s why the people who currently make their billions from socializing negative externalities are pumping so much money, and so much media time into tearing children down.  Because their cohesion, their “voting with their wallets”, their voting with actual votes, and their persistent attempts to educate those around them are a very real threat to all those profits.

Not to the economy as a whole, or to the absolute number (or quality) of jobs.  But today’s kids, and their unified passion to solve climate change are a very real threat to any company – and the shareholders thereof – which is only economically viable if they can socialize the costs of the negative externalities they create.

Each of those companies can be – is in the process of being – replaced by newer, more efficient endeavours.  And – ironically, when one considers the resistance to climate change demonstrated in this thread – a new “green” economy would rely on forestry to a significantly increased degree.

But the problem these kids face is the monumental task of undoing decades of misinformation and propaganda.  It’s changing the minds of people who not only don’t believe they’re wrong, but who have so closely wrapped up their personal identity and sense of self-worth with a tribal political identity that reconsidering any of their ideological positions would create a personal emotional event equivalent to a serious crisis of faith.

That’s what these kids have to overcome.  Doctrine.

Galileo faced the church alone, and was forced to recant.  It took decades before his discoveries could be spoken of openly and centuries before science could be practiced openly enough to advance significantly.

Today’s kids are not alone.  They’re not alone here in this valley.  And they certainly aren’t alone on the global stage.  So what can these kids do?

Never. Give. Up.

And to the individual who posted in the thread which originated this post: if you want me to teach the above to children one night, I’d be absolutely delighted to.

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