Cassandras of Climate Catastrophe: Turn the Panic Dial Back a Few Notches and Focus on the Tasks at Hand!


I’ve got the Low Down Dirty Blues about the Planet Blog…

by Andy Ferguson

In Greek mythology, King Agamemnon of Mycenae commanded the Greek forces at Troy. After the Greek victory there he returned to his Greek kingdom with his war prize the concubine Cassandra. In Agamemnon’s absence his wife the queen had become Aegisthus’s lover, and they conspired to kill Agamemnon upon his return. The concubine Cassandra foretold of his awful murder which soon came to pass in the famously inexorable, Greek-tragedy fashion. Likewise, cassandras of climate catastrophe are won’t to say that our demise is inevitable, climate change can’t be solved, or at least it will require the end of capitalism. But the planet’s fate is yet far from being as certain as was Agamemnon’s. The situation may be dire, but the obstacles to controlling carbon emissions truly are much more political than technical. Capitalism does indeed need an overhaul, but it need not stand in the way of climate change solutions. And a problem even greater than the political obstacles is simply the current state of ignorance amongst otherwise well meaning consumers, including self-professed greens. Much of the technology we need is here now, and affordable. As much as I truly admire Naomi Klein, and am grateful for her important book This Changes Everything, she and others like her are not qualified to speak to the ongoing green technical revolution, much less to dismiss the off the shelf suite of technologies available now, or becoming so very soon, that allow middle class households who contribute much to the problem to slash their emissions (car travel, heating, cooking, and laundry emissions-all reduced by about 90% or more). There is a revolution happening, and it goes far beyond the falling cost of solar and wind power. The chief obstacle to adopting emissions reducing technologies is simply that people either lack, or have a fuzzy understanding of, what solutions exist, how they work, what they cost, and how to get them. A typical piece of hand wringing about how we must utterly abandon consumerism to deal with carbon emissions appears in a recent piece on the website written by Erik Linkberg. He laments how profound a change in lifestyle is now required. The piece cites a slide show by one Prof. Tom Murphy, a UC San Diego physics professor that purports to illustrate the insurmountable scale of the problem we face. The implication is that unless we abandon all our wicked ways our collective fate will match the old king of Mycenae. But the zero sum nature of such arguments are not at all borne out by ongoing research. To cite one example, Professor Murphy laments about how impossibly much battery reserves will be needed to complement renewables and ensure adequate electricity supplies “when it is night time or the wind stops blowing.” But this problem is far less dire than it is described here or in other discussions of the same vein. A better understanding of the need for battery technology can be gleaned from this video on youtube posted by the Rocky Mountain Institute (see it here). There is much of this type of doomsday hyperbole around now. I see it to be a cousin of the survivalist mentality, related to apocalyptic visions of armageddon that infect millenialist religions . I recently attended a talk by the journalist Mark Shapiro about his book Carbon Shock. During Q&A a questioner all but quoted the sign above Hells Gate in Dante’s Inferno Abandon Hope! But don’t let the cassandras fool you. Controlling carbon emissions is indeed the greatest challenge of our or likely any age, but doing so does not require moving into the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tse’s mythical village, his ideal where one village can hear the dogs bark in the next village but people never intermingle between them. That is not the level of rusticity required to bail us out of the climate mess. What is needed and attainable is excellent science, informed pubic policy, and people learning how to make the right decisions to cut carbon emissions. Focus on fixing the tracks, not on the oncoming train.

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