George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a masterpiece of a simple story suggesting so many realities of societies. Among many things, it shows how a basic dichotomy mobilizes people (or creatures) for social or political action. The image above expresses the heart of the story whereby some animals took power over the others out of fear of humans.
Consider another dichotomy: Producers Good, Parasites Bad.
People who are astounded by Donald Trump’s candidacy are overlooking how widely and deeply felt is this distinction between those who produce and those who take, and not only in the Tea Party but far beyond. The power arises from the emotional investment in the branding, no matter how illogical or mistaken it may be. Those who don’t feel it, don’t “get it.” Add in the envy of someone so rich he can say anything unbounded by Political Correctness, and Trump becomes a force to be reckoned with. It remains to be seen whether his followers are voters beyond being fans.
As for Climate Change, it seems to me at its heart lie two intertwined dichotomies:
Carbon Pollution Bad, Clean Air Good
Runaway Warming Bad, Stable Climate Good
The first notion is that carbon dioxide is a pollutant making the air dirty. Since CO2 is neither visible nor toxic (plants depend on it), it requires a second assertion that more CO2 causes runaway warming upsetting the stability of our climate system. That is, by adding CO2 from burning fossil fuels, we are destabilizing the climate system and bad things will happen as a result. Interestingly, at demonstrations the negative side is quite explicit, but the affirmative side requires some interpretation.
Some of us are astounded that sentient carbon-based life forms could be so disparaging of their own composition, but there is more than a whiff of anti-humanity in this movement. And the idea that we humans can fix the climate in a favorable state boggles the mind.
How all this plays out can be seen in an excellent interview with Bill Gates. Of course, he is a very lucid person and a genuine philanthropist of the first order. He has educated himself deeply on the history of energy as shown by this:
Share of Fuels in the Global Energy Mix Across Modern History
Gates goes on to say this:
What’s amazing is how our intense energy usage is one and the same as modern civilization. That is, for all the great things that happened in terms of human lifestyle, life span, and growing food before 1800, civilization didn’t change dramatically until we started using coal in the U.K. in the 1800s. Coal replaced wood. But the wave of wood to coal is about a 50- or 60-year wave.
If it was just about economics, if we had no global warming to think about, the slowly-but-surely pace of these transitions would be okay. If you look at one of these forecasts, they all say about the same thing: What you look at is a picture that’s pretty gradual, with natural gas continuing to gain at the expense of both coal and oil. But, you know, 1-percent-a year-type change. If you look at that from a greenhouse-gas point of view—if you look at forecasts—every single year we’ll be emitting more greenhouse gases than the previous year.
The title of the article is We Need an Energy Miracle because Bill Gates is one who worries about global warming. He has accepted at face value the dichotomies of climate change, and so those blinders shape his investment plans and priorities.
He actually has a lot in common with Bjorn Lomborg, who supports the Gates energy innovation initiative. But Lomborg sees things more clearly (here responding to comments by Arnold Swartzenegger):
Power generation, traffic and industry – which is mostly fossil fuel driven and likely what you were thinking about – in total cause 854,000 air pollution deaths. Added to the 560,000 deaths from indoor air pollution caused by coal, this constitute only 20% of total air pollution deaths or about 3,900 deaths each day.
This matters for two reasons. First, it is disingenuous to link the world’s biggest environmental problem of air pollution to climate. It is a question of poverty (most indoor air pollution) and lack of technology (scrubbing pollution from smokestacks and catalytic converters) – not about global warming and CO₂. Second, costs and benefits matter.[vi] Tackling indoor air pollution turns out to be very cheap and effective, whereas tackling outdoor air pollution is more expensive and less effective. Your favorite policy of cutting CO₂ is of course even more costly and has a tiny effect even in a hundred years.
It is likely that future periods will be both colder and warmer than the present. Preparing for that means investing in robust infrastructure and in reliable affordable energy.
I agree with Lomborg. It’s important to make an energy transition and take the time to do it right. So far we are wasting time and money on the illusion that we can ensure favorable weather by reducing fossil fuel emissions.