Pittsburgh, Paris, And The Population Bomb

Last Thursday Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement even though I asked him not to. It was a stupid and scary thing for him to do. I know a lot of folks are feeling helpless — including myself — so this is a quick reminder that there are still a lot of things we can do to determine how this plays out.

Soylent Green Is Still People

Back in the late 1960s folks were justifiably concerned about a few things: the threat of nuclear warfare, the spread recreational drugs, why the Beatles had joined a clown army, and notably, overpopulation: the fear that the world would eventually produce too many mouths to feed and its order would collapse. Everyone remembers the big landmark from this era, Soylent Green, but in the moment time Paul and Anne Ehlrich’s book “The Population Bomb” was just as important. Their book even did so well that Johnny Carson invited them on his show to talk about it. The Ehlrichs described humans on earth as a colony of insects that would repopulate until collapse around the year 2000. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. So were population ecologists like Ehlrich wrong ? Well, not exactly.

Climate Change Is Real

Unlike Sergeant Pepper, climate change is something we should be afraid of. It’s less something to be “believed in” and more something that to be accepted. Science shows human activities are causing irreparable harm to our environment. I get it sucks to think about this because it’s a real bummer. That’s probably why several contrarian arguments have become popular.

The climate has always been changing.

Some folks dispute that the period since the industrial revolution is the hottest era the world has ever seen. They’ll say we’ll never know this for sure since we don’t have temperate data for other time periods. Yet there’s actually been a lot of good work done in paleoclimatology that shows otherwise.

Yeah, “97% of scientists may agree, but consensuses are often over-turned.

Consensuses are overturned with good science, and with apologies to the Geocities’ pages dedicated to overturning this consensus, no one has done this yet.

But climate scientists juke their findings to get funding/mislead us.

It’s true some figures in the past have been misrepresented and some climate scientists have bullied opposing viewpoints, but these were minor drops in the bucket of scientific evidence that support our climate is changing due to our activities. I agree it is a shame that climate science has become politicized, and the left deserves equal blame for this, but if it’s literally the question of extinction or not (which it is) then perhaps it’s worth trying to understand why a few bad apples resorted to some bad things, rather than letting them ruin the whole bunch of good science.

But global warming smells like the ultimate conspiracy!

This probably explains why the conspiracy theory President pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Just think about what’s more likely: 97% of all the scientists in the world are scheming up ways to oppress you (and that they’re somehow part of the massive scheme that’s responsible for you not having the life you want), or that our actions have consequences, and global warming is one such consequence for our industrialization and hyper-consumption.

Yeah, it’s happening, but actually it will have a net-positive effect!

Some economists have argued that a thawed north pole will open up new trade routes in the arctic and some petroleum engineers have said fossil fuels are the still the best way to industrialize the third world. The latter ignores the adverse effects these energy sources have will actually have on the third world, through flooding and worsening the air quality, and the former will be a negative feedback loop that will worsen all the negative effects of climate change, making things so bad it will impossible for there to be any net positive outcome.

I get that you can’t overstate how dependent our way of life is on fossil fuels, plastics, and an old school power grid, and that many renewables actually have some pretty high carbon-setup costs, but when you consider how severe this threat is, the changes are still worth the investment.

We Need Conservatives To Actually Weigh In

Thankfully, most Americans are past being contrary and are now concerned with climate change. From the NYTimes

A survey taken just after the 2016 election by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 66 percent of registered voters supported a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies, with the money used to reduce personal taxes. The party breakdown for that support was 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans. Even among Trump voters, 48 percent support taxing fossil fuel companies.

(Taxing fossil fuels actually seems pretty doable when you consider even ExxonMobil wanted to stay in the Paris Agreement).

This is the best argument as to why we need conservatives to offer their own solutions: even if it’s not real (which it is), most Americans still want to see something done about it.

Sure, government action doesn’t always work — it wasn’t any sort of big, sweeping government program that prevented overpopulation, after all. That being said, government still has a place in this, perhaps in making sure market costs match social costs (setting a price for pollution), or even being open to some common-sense regulations. Heading back to the 60s, Ralf Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” changed driving for the better because government listened and made some smart changes. Nowadays every single car commercial tells you how safe the car is because government and the auto industry worked together to stimulate a supply and demand for safer cars. Similarly, emissions and carbon footprints could be made even more marketable, too. Hopefully fuel standards for cars and energy standards for appliances won’t be the next big rollback the administration has in mind.

At the very least government could recognize some basic market realities that the Trump administration seems reluctant to admit.

  • There is no use in propping up an American coal industry that is dying. Frankly, there’s not much that can be done about a lack of coal in the first place. Maybe Trump and company know this already and they’re just paying lip-service to parts of their base, or the “idea” of coal-mining. That being said, it’d be very dangerous to the environment and the free market to try to revitalize an obsolete, noncompetitive industry — one that employs fewer people that Arby’s.
  • If you want to re-vitalize an American-made energy sector, you could still try nuclear energy.
  • Or, alternatively, more people are employed in solar than oil, coal, and gas combined, so maybe we could just support those folks.

It was frustrating to see so many conservatives ignore these realities and instead argue we should exit the Paris Agreement, abandoning something they used to relish: an opportunity for America to lead.

A Bomb Defused

So why didn’t the world overpopulate until it collapsed like an insect colony? Well, because humans are not insects: we can self-correct. We are aware of our behaviors and those behaviors’ effects. That meant we recognized the upcoming increased demand for food and did something about it, but more importantly, we decreased the number of unwanted births. This term may sound crude, but it’s what ecologists use to refer to the outcome of people understanding how reproduction works and being empowered to make those decisions for themselves.

It’d be a little unfair to say government programs didn’t play any part in defusing the population bomb. Consider this National Geographic’s report on Brazil. Lots of countries instituted lots of bad programs, and not everything Brazil did was great (huge understatement), but better jobs meant the demand for fewer children to work as farm hands. Better access to birth control helped support human behavior (women wanted fewer children, so giving them the means to control their own bodies was a good thing). Government simply supported a population that simply wanted some help changing its behavior. It did not say that overpopulation was a hoax invented by the Chinese or say that mothers, like coal-miners, were being villainized. Government just listened. If government wanted to listen about climate change, it could start with a version of the carbon tax so many people have called for. It’s easier for folks to change their behavior when governments provide an incentive.

I’m not optimistic that will happen in the U.S. anytime soon. Thankfully there is an even better place to start.

Acknowledge That We All Have To Do Our Part

For as much as they talk about personal responsibility, conservatives sure don’t want to acknowledge their actions could be responsible for the worsening climate. In fact, a lot of the more religious conservatives just hope God will fix all this, rather than fixing themselves. I guess a lot of Christians reject scientists who claim to be prophets of doom the same way scientists reject Christians who cite the Book of Revelations, but it wouldn’t hurt to recognize that we are all in this together and that protecting the earth aligns with all of your values. For instance, I always heard that God helped people who helped themselves; and I thought Noah had to build an arc when God flooded the earth because man wouldn’t change his ways otherwise.

That’s why it’s pretty critical that we change our behavior, which really means one thing.

Reduce.

Reduce our consumption of pretty much everything. Since pretty much everything that is produced is produced with some sort of fossil fuel, it will take an across-the-board reduction of consumption by each American household for us to see change. That means each household has to be more of a place where people live responsibly and less of a garbage factory.

I recognize this sounds drastic.

I worry folks fret the most over “clean energy” because it’s not really something they have to do anything about personally: clean energy is on the power companies and policy makers. It’s true there are more ways to produce your own energy off the grid, but there’s an even better way to take matters into your own hands: stop buying so many things you don’t need.

I recognize this sounds un-American.

Buying things has become the way for us mark our political and social participation, so if the government won’t tell companies that they need to care about the environment, then at least we know we can get the message to them directly. It doesn’t even have to be a boycott, it can just be a conscious decision to buy better stuff and less of it. This is never a popular approach (think of Jimmy Carter asking Americans to sacrifice by wearing a sweater), so if I’m being really cynical, I would say that Trump and his staff know there’s no way to protect the climate without compromising the American pursuit of unchecked consumerism. That’s why my biggest concern with Trump, Bannon, and Pruitt undermining the Paris Agreement and climate science in general is that it will give all sorts of Americans another justification for not considering the environment and examining their way of life.

Forgive the blatant “carbon shaming,” but everyone who remembers “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” seems to forget that reduce came first for a reason. That means less gas: smaller cars and warmer clothes for less heat. That means less beef. That means less stuff: phones and TVs mined from rare earth metals.

Less.

Pittsburgh

Other than the obvious geographic one, there’s another reason Trump said he was elected to represent Pittsburgh and not Paris. Oftentimes discussions of climate change really are one-sided and patronizing. It’s critics have succeeded into turning the phrase into caricature, conjuring up the image of an effete, urbanite (the Parisian street mime) demanding that the stoic, hardworking working man (the Pittsburgh steel worker) forfeit his perfectly American way of life in the name of some phony ivory-tower science. I also recognize that oftentimes being carbon neutral feels more achievable for urbanites who have access to public transportation. The good news is there are probably still plenty of things you can reduce consuming no matter where you live. In fact, that’s especially true of folks who already think they’re doing something: you can always do more.

A lot of people have pointed out that choosing Pittsburgh in his speech was a bit odd, since 75% of it voted against him. Like a lot of cities, Pittsburgh is now a different sort of urban center these days, more Parisian street mime than steel worker. Just like I was worried that red states will be encouraged to do even less about their own emissions (and they are not doing much), I fear the actions of blue politicians will lull blue constituents into thinking everything is fine and that someone else is taking care of things, rather than encourage folks to combat climate change in their daily lives. Who knows, maybe that would have actually been worse had the U.S. stayed in the agreement.

Since last week, some of the hot takes have started saying that maybe withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will be a good thing: maybe it will make other nations step up their commitments, maybe we were never going to meet the demands anyway so why bother bringing the whole thing down from within. I think the only good result that could come from this is everyone getting more serious about tackling this individually and more conscious about his/her own choices.

Hopefully that happens.