When Do We Get Serious About Environmental Issues?

By Mike Koetting August 14, 2022

When I began this blog five years ago, I chose the title “Between Hell and High Water” as a metaphor for the complexity of trying to develop politics that reflected the difficulty of executing policies toward progressive results.

I didn’t plan to make it a literal description of the American climate situation.

I am not going to recapitulate all the scientific evidence that we have a real problem. That’s in so many places, so many ways, you could have avoided it only by determined effort….in which case, further recitations will also be avoided.

Rather, this post ponders the question of what is the appropriate response to the current situation.

It strikes me there are three critical questions that we mostly ignore because, even if we knew the answers, each would lead to the necessity for major disruption:

  • What is necessary to get people sufficiently worried to make the necessary changes?
  • What do we do about the power dynamics that block even the apparently obvious things that need to be done?
  • Do we even have a realistic game plan for addressing environmental issues?

Focusing the Public Will

A large majority of Americans give some credence to the idea there is a problem. But this recognition by itself does not generate political energy sufficient to change the world. In the debate over the Inflation Reduction Act Marco Rubio, exasperated with the discussion, urged the Senate: “Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter to real people.” It’s easy, and fair, to chalk this up as continuing Republican foolishness. But if we’re honest, we know the problem runs a lot deeper. There is a reason they named this, lamely, the Inflation Reduction Act. The act is really about addressing some neglected human needs—including protecting the environment. But apparently the Democrats don’t think environmental protection sells well enough. Even in a week when the Senate Minority Leader’s home state suffered unthinkable environmental damage—from the third “one-in-1000-year storm” in the last several weeks.

I am, as all should be, profoundly suspicious of anything that suggests we need to override democracy for any purpose. But how should we react as the evidence accumulates that we are voting our way to disaster? Is there a point at which survival of the species should trump democracy?

The current course is simply not sustainable. It seems that “real people” see cheap fossil fuel and reckless use of water as birthrights rather than what they are—checks written against a finite eco-system. Several states are so desperate to pretend this isn’t a problem they have passed legislation prohibiting the state from doing business with certain financial firms because of their reluctance to invest in fossil fuel or their acceptance of “climate change” as a likely modifier of economic trends.

The idea that the market will somehow protect us attributes too much discrimination to the market system. Yes, it reduces demand for certain commodities when decreasing supply raises costs. But it doesn’t guarantee that will lead to sufficient supply—no matter how critical the commodities are to people. Too many Americans are desensitized to environmental issues because the worst problems are seen as “over there”. Amazon deforested? African cropland disappears? No water in Mexico? Far away and doesn’t affect us. Putin waves around the concept of the “Golden Billion”— a wealthy Western elite who, realizing that ecological change and global disasters would render the world uninhabitable for all but about a billion people, seizes all the resources for itself. Putin’s use of the concept is purely self-serving, but our unwillingness to recognize the depth of this problem runs a real risk of making this a de facto reality.

Wealth, personal or national, will always provide some protection against degrading environmental conditions. But the protection will certainly get more expensive and might not be infinite. We may need to face that the efficacy of personal wealth is not unrelated to the health of the entire world.

Circumventing the Opposers

In Kim Stanley Robison’s absolutely essential The Ministry for the Future there is a protracted discussion between a lawyer and the narrow survivor of an environmental catastrophe that starkly raises the question of how to frame the discussion. The activist argues that the violence of carbon burning kills many more people than even the worse murderer. So, he says, maybe a few targeted assassinations or some substantial sabotage would be justified. After all, he argues, no one would dispute your ability to defend your home against intruders; what about people who are destroying your home? The lawyer is, appropriately, appalled. But the question lingers.

I am absolutely not endorsing assassinations. But the question gives notice that at some point drastic action may be needed. It took a Civil War to end slavery and a World War to defeat the Nazis. What will be needed to counter balance the immense wealth and power of polluters? If the compromise necessary to get less expensive solar energy is to increase use of fossil fuel, the power structure is tilted the wrong way.

Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN raises the question a different way:

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But … I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

What if she’s wrong on the last point? At this point it is very hard to understand how anyone could not understand the urgency. Yet the fossil fuel companies and their enablers continue to be more worried about their future than ours. At some point stopping this becomes an issue of self-defense.

Realistic Game Plan

But there is a problem. One of the most compelling reasons for humility in crafting new policies is that we don’t have an overall game plan that clearly works. We have some ideas that trend in the right direction. We need to pursue them. Religiously. But we need to be realistic not only about whether something is a good idea, but how much difference does it make, over what time frame, and what are the interdependencies. And how these proposals stack up together.

Electric vehicles, for instance. Accounting for how the electricity is generated, how the batteries are manufactured, and so forth, the incremental net savings are not large. They are still important and benefits will grow over time But it will take time. And research. Lots of it. And, just as important, having constructive national discussions about how to sort through options and determine which are sustainable and which trade-offs will work best.

We also must recognize that citizens of advanced economies don’t want to give up very much and, while we are mostly reluctant to say so out loud, we are really looking for a painless transition. That is going to be very difficult. We would undoubtedly be better off if we had spent less of the last 30 years in idiotic arguments about how fast the apocalypse is coming instead of developing realistic technologies for the necessary environmental transition. We seem to have forgotten Isaac Asimov’s observation that in life, unlike chess, the game goes on even after a stalemate.

How long the developed world will be able to enforce its desire for a painless transition is an open question. The Ministry for the Future opens with a heat wave in India that kills millions of people. India decides it has to do something because, as one character puts it, “You know. Everyone knows, but no one acts. So we are taking matters in our hands.” And India begins a series of atmospheric interventions, the consequences of which will be largely uncertain.

In the non-fiction world, the responses so far have been much less structured, primarily mass migrations caused by loss of agriculture. Where this leads is anyone guess. It is hard to see how these migrants, or the nations from which they come, can do something as risky as atmospheric engineering. But the resulting destabilization is almost certain to cause trouble on a major scale. And conditions in India are approaching those that set off the disaster in The Ministry for the Future.

The picture here is not hopeless. There has been progress and more is on the way. But in order to avoid disaster, the pace of change must be picked up. Dramatically. The vaccine showed how much can be done at warp speed when attention is focused. What is needed here, however, is much more diffuse and will require a protracted period where each innovation will have to be built in light of approaches to other issues. Moreover, in many cases the issues will be not only scientific, but engineering to get to get to scale in a limited time. And, as we’ve seen, even great science can be stymied by internet pseudo-science.

I caught a snatch of podcast, don’t remember who or where, where the person being interviewed said: “Humans, standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before them, have made advances to the point where it is actually possible to wipe out the species.” Maybe, we should figure out how to avoid that.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “When Do We Get Serious About Environmental Issues?”

  1. A timely post for me.

    I’ve recently read Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never, which I recommend. As one interested in climate change and how it should be dealt with, I think you’ll find the book to be provocative and insightful. My biggest take-away was that nuclear power has been given a bad rap, largely due to voices from the fossil fuel industry, whose damning of nuclear energy, in Shellenberger’s view may largely have been promoted by their own proprietary interests. Shellenberger argues that the widely perceived dangers of nuclear power generation are grossly exaggerated.

    I expect his writing could spark ideas for a few more of your postings.

    Keep up the good work and be well.

    Ira Kawaller

    7`18-938-7812

    Like

  2. I think the nuclear power issue is really complicated. I’m not an expert in the details, but I have never seen anything purporting to be a comprehensive plan that can get from here to there without assuming stunning reductions in energy use or some atomic power. On the other hand, it has some powerful downsides. I hope the engineers straighten this out…preferably soon.

    Like

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