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The Problem of Natural Localism

Roadblocks to Climate Activism

by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON

On 12 September 2013 I wrote a piece entitled Crisis Today, Catastrophe Tomorrow, through which I joined numerous others warning of the consequences of global warming. The evidence for the evolving dire effects of building CO2 and other greenhouse gases is getting increasingly conclusive. The question is what, if anything, will be done about it?

That question was recently addressed by Paul Krugman in an article, “Gamboling with Civilization,” in which he reviewed economist William Nordhaus’s new book on climate change, The Climate Casino. The article appears in the 7 November 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books. Here are some of the points Krugman makes:

* The scientific consensus laid out in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a global temperature increase of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Centigrade (3 and 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. According to Nordhaus, in the years following 2100 the temperature rise will continue upward perhaps to a maximum of 6.0 degrees Centigrade (10 degrees Fahrenheit). These increases can be directly tied to human activities.

* If anyone doubts the negative consequences of the heat waves such rising averages will make more frequent, they should consider what happened in Europe a decade ago. In the summer of 2003, with prolonged temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an estimated “70,000 citizens of 12 countries died of heat-induced illnesses over a four month period.”

* There are other things to anticipate, including “sea levels will rise … hurricanes will become more intense … [and] the oceans become more acidic.”

* All of this evidence makes an “overwhelming case for action to limit the temperature rise.”

* At the heart of any effort to do this is the need “to sharply reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity generation.”

One point that Krugman does not make, but that is important, is without further regulation the shift to natural gas will not help solve the global warming problem.The use of natural gas has been hailed as a step toward cleaning up the atmosphere because gas-fired generation of electricity releases only half as much CO2 as does coal. Unfortunately, this is only part of the story. In the first two decades after its release into the atmosphere, natural gas (methane) traps heat 72 times better than does CO2. As natural gas is mined (now more than ever with new “hydraulic fracturing technology”) and transported, it leaks into the atmosphere at an estimated 2.4 percent of volume. Only further government-enforced regulation can control this contribution to global warming. By the way, this source of environmental methane outweighs that coming from cows, which were Ronald Reagan’s favorite source of methane gas.

Denial and Real Power

For those who pay attention to the evidence it is not difficult to come to an understanding of what the goal is, nor is it difficult to itemize steps to accomplish the task. For instance, Krugman touches on such policies as taxing emissions of greenhouse gases; “cap and trade” programs such as those now used to limit sulfur emissions that produce acid rain; creating consumer incentives to lower energy usage; and investment in technology that captures CO2 at the plants that burn coal.

The real problem is moving from an understanding of all these varied aspects of the situation to action, to finding, in the USA, “the political will to do what is necessary.” Given what is at stake – and Krugman believes that it is the preservation of civilization as we presently experience it – you would think that taking action is a no-brainer. Yet that is a naive assumption. Krugman goes on to give a partial explanation of why:

* “There’s real power behind the opposition to any kind of climate action.” For instance, the major work asserting that human-generated global warming is a sham, The Greatest Hoax: How the  Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, was written by Senator James Inhofe. Inhofe just happened to be chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works between 2003 and 2007. His book is a sign that those claiming that there is no human-generated global warming have the power, in Krugman’s words, “warp the debate by … denying climate science.”

* The problem of ideology. Inhofe represents an ideological position that appears resistant to “calm, rational argument.” There are two aspects to this ideological resistance. One is economic, an insistence by a subset of capitalists who “imagine themselves as characters in an Ayn Rand novel,” that the free market be allowed to operate no matter what. Unfortunately, as William Nordhaus points out, “there is no genuine ‘free-market solution’ to global warming.” Government intervention must be a part of the answer. The other aspect of ideological resistance is a religiously inspired suspicion of science itself, a “rejection of the scientific method in general,” as Krugman puts it. Many of both sort of ideologues are embedded within the Republican Party and it continues to control half of Congress.

*  There is also “naked self-interest.” There are billions of dollars at stake for coal and natural gas companies, and associated businesses, many of whom, according to Krugman, are “subsidizing climate denial.”

The Problem of Natural Localism

All together this adds up to a “huge roadblock to action” and it troubles me to find still further impediments. Krugman only cites special interests groups and ideologues. Beyond these is another problem group – the biggest group of all – the general public.

The problem with the general public is “natural localism.” This is the tendency for most people to focus their activities and interests within a narrow local range. Statistics tend to provide evidence for a geographical form natural localism. As of January 2013 only 39% of Americans have valid passports. And, for most of the rest, travel is normally associated with vacations by car. The average one-way distance for such travel is 314 miles.

However, natural localism is not only geographic. It is also temporal. That is, most people are aware of time through their own experiences and those related to the timespans of close relatives and friends. This usually goes back in time as far as grandparents and forward in time as far as our grandchildren. Beyond that range both the past and the future become nebulous and are often perceived as irrelevant to one’s own present.

What has all this to do with global warming? Natural localism makes it very difficult for the average man or woman to feel personally connected to a process whose worst consequences   are projected out one hundred plus years into the future. For most, the shorter-term effects may happen beyond their local geographical sphere, or will accrue slowly enough over time to be ignored. It was to break through this barrier and make global warming a part of local consciousness that the organizers of the 2013 Earth Day events adopted the theme “The Face of Climate Change.” The impact was minimal at best.

Thus, the sort of galvanized citizen concern that might successfully contest the industrial and business lobbies fighting against the legislation and regulation necessary to rein in global warming will most likely not be possible until it is too late.

Krugman points out that the rise of civilization coincides with a period of climatic stability. Civilization itself, in its industrial and post-industrial phases, is now undermining that stability and by doing so puts itself in peril. There are some who say that science will save us. That is, instead of fighting the special interests and the ideologues, its easier to assume that someone will invent ways of reversing global warming in a way that does not require sacrifice. This is really a childish wish and no one should bet on some inventor riding in on a white horse at the last moment to save the day.

So, what is the answer to Krugman’s question? What will we ultimately do about global warming? It might well be that the answer is not nearly enough. We are a species influenced by natural localism, and therefore the majority of Americans, and others in the West as well, are not going to abandon a present full of profit and relative comfort as long as the sky is clear in their own local place and time. As to the future beyond their grandchildren, it simply does not seem real.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.