Sunday, March 27, 2011

Money, Self Interest And Change - Are These The Real Obstacles To Solving Global Warming?

Bangladesh - climate change canvasImage by Oxfam International via FlickrBy Harold Forbes

In the media and political world, there is still considerable argument about whether global warming and the associated climate change is caused by human activities. In reality, the scientific community has stopped arguing about this. The US National Academy of Science warned of the climate impact of human activity way back in 1979 and since 2007 there is not a single scientific body of national or international standing that has maintained a dissenting opinion.

This does not mean that there are no dissenting voices. But they are from individual scientists or from bodies with scientific sounding names that are funded by the fossil fuel industry to ensure that 'doubt' remains a powerful disincentive to action.

In his book Heat, George Monbiot dedicates an entire chapter to what he describes as 'The Denial Industry' and lists a number of fossil fuel funded organisations that make it their mission to. 'take a consistent line on climate change: that the scientist is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics. And if the government took action to prevent global warming they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings those organisations dislike are labelled "junk science"The findings they welcome are labelled "sound science".

The most recent project that seemed to set out to assist the deniers' case was the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature which set out "to resolve current criticism of the former temperature analyses, and to prepare an open record that will allow rapid response to further criticism or suggestions." But in a recent talk the project chair explained that BEST has been analyzing large quantities of data, they have started writing a draft report, and what he can say now is:

• "We are seeing substantial global warming."
• "None of the effects raised by the [skeptics] is going to have anything more than a marginal effect on the amount of global warming."

Somehow, I doubt this will settle the political argument for at the heart of the denial is money and self-interest.
Economics is not a science in the strictest sense, in so far as economists do not undertake experiments to test hypotheses, the results of which would be peer reviewed before a new understanding emerges. Economics is, rather, a social science which tries to understand how people make choices between different courses of action, particularly where the choices are finite, e.g. it is either 'do A or B' and cannot be 'do A and B'.

Central to the workings of economics is the concept of scarcity, the idea that people want more than is available. Scarcity limits us both as individuals and as a society. As individuals, limited income (and time and ability) keep us from doing and having all that we might like. As a society, limited resources (such as manpower, machinery, and natural resources) fix a maximum on the amount of goods and services that can be produced. Amazingly, however, the scarcity of the planet as a whole is completely ignored. We are using an assumption that the natural resources and services of the planet are, essentially, inexhaustible. That is clearly nonsense.

The mechanism that enables choices to be made is money and acquiring and using money takes up an enormous amount of our time and thinking capacity. It also has a pretty strong influence over our behaviour in many situations. This is quite surprising in some respects because money itself is a concept, which sometimes manifests itself physically in a coin or printed piece of paper, but more often as a balance in a ledger somewhere.

The simple solution to the scarcity of money would therefore appear to be to just make your own money, but over the years societies have developed a complex set of rules over what are acceptable and what are unacceptable treatments of money in order to regulate its value. So, for example, an individual who prints their own money, no matter how identical to those notes printed by the government, is treated as a criminal and usually jailed if caught.

Catching them, however, is obviously something of a problem: a sample of coins in circulation made by the Royal Mint in 2008 found that 1 in 50 pound coins was a fake, with the total value of fakes worth about £30 million. That confidence in the currency has not collapsed by this development is probably due to the fairly limited value of a single pound. Falling foul of getting one in your change is a fairly minor inconvenience and anyway the 30 million false coins are a tiny proportion of the estimated 44,900 million pounds in notes and coins in circulation in the UK.

Money and self interest versus the common good. Short term pleasure versus long term sustainability. These are the key issues that need to be addressed when trying to find a solution to global warming and the associated climate change. Human history is filled with conflict used to resolve problems but in the case of global warming and the associated climate change conflict will simply extend and exacerbate the problem. We must find a way to collaborate or there will be nothing left to compete for. And, if that seems too much of a challenge, remember the old saw attributed to an unknown 12th century monk:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
Harold Forbes is Author of "How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate".

The book uses the myth of Hercules to provide individuals with twelve impactful action areas to fight climate change. It has been described by Jonathan Porritt, an eminent figure in the area of sustainable development as "An enjoyable read that hits the elusive balance between the analytic and the practical".

Climate change has been described as the greatest threat facing humankind and "How to be a Humankind Superhero" empowers and inspires meaningfull individual action.

You can read chapter summaries at or download the first chapter as a FREE PDF at

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