Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Getting Climate Change Appeasers to Eat Their Vegetables

Right wing folks often like to complain that they are living in a 'nanny-state'. So in order to get through to the right-wingers on the climate change issue, I thought I would take some of the arguments against the 'nanny-state' intrusion of government action to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and frame them in the form of a nanny-child discourse (with the right-wingers taking their natural nanny-opposing role as children, of course). So the format for each point is: english version of argument, nanny-child version of argument and then english rebuttal of argument.

"Canada is such a small country, what we do doesn't make any difference."

"Don't litter Jimmy"
"What difference does it make, it's just one little piece of litter in a big park"
"Oh, good point, I hadn't thought of that, litter away!'

If you would react like the nanny in this example, then I guess you are logically consistent if you buy this argument.

It's worth noting that when it comes to GHG emissions, Canada is among the world leaders, not just on a per capita basis, but on a total volume basis. But more basically, I am just sad that I hear this kind of talk from the Minister of the Environment.

To begin with, how can we take seriously an argument that whether or not we should do something about climate change depends on where lines happen to be drawn on a map. Does it really make sense that the people of Washington State should address climate change but the people of B.C. shouldn't - because the people in Washington state happen to belong to a larger national entity than the people in B.C.?

Or what if, instead of the current distribution, the world was divided into 40 equally sized countries which all had the same GHG emissions. Would we still argue that Canada shouldn't do anything because it is too small? After all, that would be an argument that nobody should do anything. So in essence, this argument is making one of two claims: Either 1) Nobody should do anything about climate change or 2) The question of whether or not Canada should do anything depends on how the lines on the map outside of Canada are drawn. If they are drawn so that there are a bunch of equally sized countries we need to act, but if they are drawn so that a few countries have large populations we should just sit back and let those countries carry the ball.

What if the U.S. decided that dealing with climate change was a matter for individual states to deal with. Given that there are 50 states, each one is so small that it wouldn't be worth (by this logic) any of them doing anything about climate change.

This is the same argument that would justify stealing because a retailer won't miss one little piece of jewelry. It's not an argument an ethical person would make.

"Canada can't afford to do anything unless the U.S. does something too."

"But, Zora's parents don't give her a curfew. I'll never get a boyfriend with all your stupid rules."
"Oh, well in that case, come home whenever you like"

If I was a Republican, I would accuse people who make this argument of wanting to give a foreign country a veto over our national policy - but I'm not, so let's leave that aside. I do see a few flaws with this argument. One is that there is no way to know for certain that reducing our emissions will be an economic negative over the long term. It may be that by switching to renewable sources of energy and making more efficient use of energy putting money into research and development that our economy actually comes out stronger.

Another point is that much of Canada's emissions increases are related to production in the tar sands which is being undertaken largely to serve the U.S. market So to the extent that greater emission controls drive up the price of this fuel, it may actually benefit Canada at the expense of the U.S., much as the recent years increases in the price of oil have done.

But even if you were able to do all the calculations and came up with some economic disadvantage to Canada vs. the U.S. from taking action, I would still argue that we should go ahead. Because this issue has a moral dimension, and not just an economic one. The moral being that screwing up the climate is unethical. I wouldn't want to tell my grandchildren that the reason Canada took no action was because the U.S. took no action and we didn't want to fall a couple of points of GDP behind those free-loaders.

"Kyoto won't cut emissions enough to make a big difference so we should just do nothing instead."

"I'm going to fail this test no matter what I do, so why should I study?"
"Good point, let's watch Oprah"

If you failed out of college because you fooled yourself into thinking that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with sitting on your ass, rather than with a single step, you are being logically consistent by employing this argument. Expect the same results this time around. (If you failed out for some other reason, never mind)

Some other comments on this are that A) A little difference is better than no difference. B) Developed countries need to take action to bring the rest of the world on board, which will make a bigger difference and most of all C) Kyoto is just a beginning, but taking the first steps to reducing emissions will help us learn what works and what doesn't and provide a spur to the development of new products and processes which could lead to greater reductions down the road.

"It's not fair that developed countries didn't make any reduction commitments in the first round of Kyoto.

"How come I have to go to bed now but Billy can stay up later"
"Your brother is 5 years older than you are"
(pouting) "So?, I'm not going and you can't make me" (stamps foot)

Average per capita CO2 emissions in Canada are over 15 tons per capita. The global average in 2002 was about 4. So how can we say it is fair to fix this difference in stone because this is the way things happened to be when we realized the threat from climate change. It would seem that an equally, if not more, logically and morally valid approach would be to set one per capita limit for the whole globe and force the developed nations to drastically slash their emissions to get under it. While more fair, this is not really practical or optimal since the world will need the technological leadership and know-how of the developed countries to figure out ways to generate a high standard of living without increasing GHG emissions in the climate. Plus, given how many of us are too selfish to do anything at all, we need to start with something more realistic.

"If climate change is about saving the planet there is no room for any concerns about fairness" (aka: screw the poor countries of the world, I'm not giving up my SUV!)"

"How come I don't have to go to church when I'm sick, but it is so important that I go when I'm healthy? Either it is important that I go, or it isn't. I've gotcha there, Nanny!"

As we grow older, we generally realize that decisions often involve balancing off two or more things. While it may be important to go to church, it isn't so important that it is worth making an illness worse and spreading it to other people. Similarly, in the case of global climate change treaties, the two most important things to balance are the impacts of climate change themselves and fairness between countries which currently have very high GHG emission per capita and those with low emissions per capita. Attempting to freeze into place a system where people in the developed world can use 20 times as much energy as those in the poor world just isn't going to work and is a bad idea.

Logically, the goal would be for the world to gradually converge to a state where all people get (roughly, we could adjust for climate and the like) the same ability to emit GHG. Claims that, if we care about the climate, we can't care about equity or vice-versa are simply false dichotomies.

Then there are the partisan arguments:

"The Liberals did nothing and that was bad, therefore it is good the Conservatives are doing nothing."

"Mom, I want to shave the cat"
"But Lindsay did it"
"And we grounded her for that, didn't we?"
"So? That just proves that Lindsay is bad, I'm not like that"
"Good point, here's the razor"

Again, parents who follow the above part are allowed to use this argument. I don't really know what else to say about this one. How Conservatives manage to simultaneously claim that the Liberals were the font of all that is unholy and then day in and day out defend their policies by saying that the Liberals did the same thing is beyond me.

"Emissions went up while the Liberals were in power so none of their programs worked so we should cancel them all"

"Mom, I don't think the central heating is working"
"Why not"
"Well, I turned it on hours ago and it's still not as hot as it was back in the summer"
"Huh, I'll go check the furnace"

It is possible to take an action, have that action be effective but still have results not go your way because of other factors. Surely people can grasp that if other factors were driving up our emissions (oil sands, anyone), it is possible that some programs were reducing our emissions and that the increase would have been higher without them?

Imagine a company that brings in a number of new measures to increase sales only to find that overall sales dropped. Should this company just assume that all of its plans were not working, or should they investigate to see which areas/departments were responsible for the drop in sales and investigate the effectiveness of each program designed to increase sales? If you said the former and are in a position of responsibility at a public company, please advise me by email. I may need to sell a stock or two.

Next up, a personal favourite.

I support reducing emissions, I just don't like the Kyoto Accord"

"Mommy, I support eating vegetables, it's just these ones on my plate I wont eat"
"Did you have some other vegetable in mind that I could serve and you would eat?"

I've said it before, but I might as well say it again. The Kyoto Accord only mandates that we reduce emissions. It doesn't tell us how. That is, the whole idea of the Kyoto Accord is that we need to make a plan, here in Canada, to reduce emissions. At all costs, do not confuse this with "coming up with a 'Made-in-Canada' plan to deal with climate change". That is totally different. What are you, an idiot?

OK one last argument,

Instead of mandatory emissions targets, we should consider voluntary targets as an alternative.

"Eat those vegetables kiddo!"
"But I don't wanna!"
"Well, you have to, unless you have a better idea"
"I know, how about instead of you making me eat my vegetables, you set a target for how many vegetables you want me to eat"
"And then?"
"And then I ignore your target and do whatever I feel like. It will be a system of voluntary vegetable consumption targets"
"OK, kiddo, sounds good. I set a target of 10 carrots for you to eat"
"That's seems like a reasonable target, nanny, but I don't feel like it today. Can I go out and play now?"
"OK kiddo, but put some sunscreen on, it's hot out there!".

If you have suggestions for more points, feel free to chime in in the comments.


  • "...with the right-wingers taking their natural nanny-opposing role as children, of course." (my emphasis)


    There comes a time when it is apparent that there is no interest in rational discussion.

    and thanks for all the fish

    By Blogger deaner, at 10:30 PM  

  • As you well know, I have lots of interest in rational discussion. If not, I would have ended my post on that note, rather than going on with a very long post filled with analogies and rational arguments.

    The point of this post is that many of the arguments used to argue against doing anything about global warming are childish.

    I attempted to illustrate this by framing these arguments as if taking place between a nanny and a child.

    Naturally, given that premise, those making the do-nothing argument have the role of the child.

    Perhaps your reaction is proof that it's better to just stick to the same old boring rational listing of arguments and counterarguments, but I chose to have some fun (yes, at the expense of those I am arguing against) in this post.

    Anyway, take care.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:49 PM  

  • Ha! Well done. Thanks for the grin.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 11:20 PM  

  • I'll attack the counter example to this one since I made a similar assertion:

    "Canada is such a small country, what we do doesn't make any difference."

    The counter-analogy is: what if the park has already been littered beyond belief, will Johnny chucking a gum wrapper make a difference when many, many others are lined up to continue chucking their trash in dump trucks in the same park?

    You can even apply this argument even in the case of the United States since the rest of the world isn't going to play ball on Kyoto in any sort of honourable fashion unlike the acid rain treaties of 30 years past (which only required the co-operation of two countries).

    The real issue is that global warming is an issue of game theory. Until there is some way to rectify the tragedy of the commons, you're going to get a lot more status quo.

    I'd start hoping for a process to create economical cold fusion since that's the only way this issue is going to get resolved at present.

    Even if we all committed suicide and stopped nearly all greenhouse emissions, there's no way to tell whether the climate that we get is the "unchanged" climate. What exactly is the yardstick to measure climatic success?

    By Blogger Sacha, at 12:54 AM  

  • Excellent, well-argued post.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 5:32 AM  

  • Nice post Declan. Of course we all know that if you truly want to get through to right wingers and make them understand something, analogies and humour are the very last tools you should use (especially if you use them intelligently). Sweeping generalizations and snappy soundbites (that they agree with) are the way to go.

    By Blogger Simon, at 7:37 AM  

  • Kevin, IP, Simon - thanks.

    Sacha - that's a pretty good counter-argument - after all, nothing undermines a parent like other parents and kids who are flouting the 'rules'.

    It gets to to the heart of what, as you say, is a nasty collective action problem.

    If every other country in the world was committed to reducing their emissions, it would be quite churlish of Canada to not do anything. If, on the other hand, not a single country was committed to doing anything, then it would be quite courageous for us to take action.

    The current situation is somewhere in betwee those two extremes, of course, and possibly near some sort of tipping point to go one way or the other. Which is partly why I think it is important for Canada to maintain a commitment (even if our action to date has been weak) to reducing emissions.

    As for your argument about cold fusion (or something along those lines) being the only solution, at risk of making an obscure analogy, I am reminded of the board game Axis and Allies.

    You seem to be saying that (because of cooperation issues) our conventional forces are too weak for us to have a hope in head-to-head battle (with global warming) so we are better off not bothering to buy tanks and infantry, instead putting our money into research in the hopes of rolling a 6 and developing some game-changing technology (like heavy bombers, or cold fusion).

    That can be a valid strategy, but things have to be pretty dire before it is optimal (in my opinion). While I certainly support putting money into looking for solutions which can make an end-run around the whole issue, I am not so confident in their success (or so pessimistic about the chances for infantry and tanks carrying the day) that I am willing to give up on trying the more direct route of gradual emissions reduction targets, even if some of our allies freeload for a while.

    After all, the gameboard of Axis and Allies would look pretty daunting (for the allies) if the game started before the entry of the U.S. into WW2, but that didn't stop Canada from joining the war without waiting for the U.S.

    Obviously, the threat from global warming (for the next few decades, anyway) is much less than that faced by Europe in WW2, but so too, the action I want the government to take is much less than what was undertaken then.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:01 AM  

  • Declan, it is not clear to me which of the following positions you are espousing:

    1. We should meet our Kyoto target by 2012

    2. We shouldn't meet our target in time, but should send money as required to Russia, etc. to remain in compliance.

    3. We shouldn't meet our target in time, we shouldn't spend to remain compliant, but we should at least do something to begin controlling and then limiting CO2

    Notice I say "shouldn't" instead of "can't", as Canada could in principle ban all private automobile use, ban all air conditioning, and set and enforce a maximum winter indoor temperature of, say, 10 degrees C. This could well enable us to meet our target. So the question is, should we.

    I think everyone in this debate should choose which of these positions they are advocating (plus 4. We shouldn't do anything about this at all, as an option for the anti-Kyoto group). It would certainly make the discussions clearer.

    I myself go for position 3.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:30 AM  

  • Declan,

    Regrettably I've never played Axis and Allies. I've played Risk, Diplomacy, and History of the World but never got around to A&A although a lot of my friends have!

    There is the moral approach of 'leading by example', but since we're on analogies, it's like 1915-era trench warfare offensive charges - whether you lead the charge or follow the squad leader you'll still get slaughtered.

    But essentially you understand the gist of my argument - I'm asserting at this point we'll have to throw the dice and hope for something good to come up in the future since it's clear the overall goal (reducing world greenhouse gas emissions) has zero chance of succeeding whether Canada individually does so or not.

    I'm excluding extreme scenarios, e.g. where the USA starts lobbing nukes into China, India, Iran, Russia, etc. to force compliance, which would undoubtedly reduce global greenhouse emissions. We'd probably have more to worry about then.

    The final yardstick, of measuring global warming or climate change (whether it turns out to be cooling or warming) needs to be better defined - what exactly are we trying to accomplish? A mean surface temperature of 15 degrees with a yearly standard deviation of 2 degrees? Or are we just in this to get CO2+CH4+H20 levels below a specific percentage and don't really care whether the remaining amount affects the weather or not? Will either of these metrics (global weather or greenhouse gas concentration) change if Canada participates or not? Not unless if others co-operate.

    By Blogger Sacha, at 1:22 PM  

  • markc:

    Notice I say "shouldn't" instead of "can't", as Canada could in principle ban all private automobile use, ban all air conditioning, and set and enforce a maximum winter indoor temperature of, say, 10 degrees C. This could well enable us to meet our target. So the question is, should we.

    I don't think what you suggested would be sufficient for the country to comply with Kyoto. Here is a table of Canada's greenhouse emissions broken down by category.

    I think you'll be about 60,000 tonnes short of the Kyoto target using some paper napkin variables. This assumes everybody will still want to live in the country.

    By Blogger Sacha, at 1:31 PM  

  • "The counter-analogy is: what if the park has already been littered beyond belief, will Johnny chucking a gum wrapper make a difference when many, many others are lined up to continue chucking their trash in dump trucks in the same park?"

    Of course it will still make a difference, it's still one more gum wrapper on the pile.

    And if Jonny is taught not to litter, then he'll teach his children (and probably his friends) not to litter. Now, imagine if Johnny was on the student council and could inspire and set an example for other students? It's amazing what that one gum wrapper could set in motion.

    Obviously, I'm not one to subscribe to the "don't bother, it wouldn't make any difference anyways" school of thought. ;)

    Just because it seems like one person (or country) may not be able to make a big difference, it doesn't mean that the difference they do make is unimportant.

    And we've all seen how one person's actions can sometimes snowball and have more of an effect than it was ever thought possible.

    By Blogger Kirsten, at 2:06 PM  

  • markc, With regard to your 3 options.

    1. I don't think this is feasible.

    2. I am not against buying credits on principle, but I think the government should distinguish between buying credits for action taken to reduce emissions vs. things like economic collapse which happenened independently of any emissions trading scheme or treaty. Applying this criteria will likely severely limit the number of credits we can buy in the short term.

    3. This is where I primarily fall. But there is a very wide scope of potential responses that fall in this cateogry, ranging from doing not much to a doing lot. I guess that I fall at the 'a lot' end of the scale here. While we would still fail to meet our Kyoto targets we could demonstrate the beginning of a good-faith effort to do so.

    Looking at the link provided by Sacha (thanks), we can see that in order to make a significant dent in our emissions, the two areas we need to target most are the stationary combustion sources (especially electricty generation & resource industries) and road transportation (light duty trucks (SUV's I presume), and heavy duty diesel)

    Rather than banning things like personal auto travel we need tough but reasonable reduction targets for heavy indsutry (ideally as part of an emission trading scheme to allow business to figure out how best to meet the targets), a deliberate re-orientation of the incentives in power generation (fewer susbidies for coal, oil & gas) more subsidies for hydro, wind and solar), smarter infrastructure spending (more spending on mass transit, ports, rail and transmission lines, smart meters for houses etc., less spending on highways, bridges and airports), tighter fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and higher gas taxes.

    And of course, spending on research and development on all kinds of fronts, from better ways to generate power, to better ways to store power, to better ways to mitigate the damage caused by global warming to everything in between.

    Sacha - If this really is trench warfare, we should stop shooting ourselves in the foot by doing things like reducing the tax on gas as per our last federal budget.

    On the topic of targets for climate change, I think a good medium term goal is to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. i.e. Get to a point where what we add each year is equal to what is naturally removed. But this question is probably best left to scientests to answer.

    Whatever yardstick you choose, we wont get there if every country does nothing and we might get there is every country does something. Canada doing something shifts the world slightly towards the latter scenario.

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:51 PM  

  • Sacha - If this really is trench warfare, we should stop shooting ourselves in the foot by doing things like reducing the tax on gas as per our last federal budget.

    Considering that the bulk of Federal gas taxes don't even go into "deficit fighting" or actual road or public transit infrastructure anymore, this would be a good idea.

    Unfortunately, I don't think any government would ever do this since the gas tax is the largest 'hidden' tax that we pay as individuals and it doesn't cause any backlash. Even if you don't own a car, you pay for it in increased prices for goods transported domestically.

    The irony is that gas tax is an incredibly regressive tax that harms low-income earners the most. I'm getting off-topic now and will shut up.

    By Blogger Sacha, at 4:15 PM  

  • Technically the last budget did reduce gas taxes by reducing the gst, that's what I as getting at.

    I'd be interested in seeing the distribution of gas tax payments vs. income. I'd be surprised that it was so regressive.

    But we can save, the gas tax yay/nay discussion for another post.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:46 PM  

  • Declan, I tend to agree with you. What I don't understand is the pro-Kyoto people who, for all the world, seem to be advocating position 1 in all seriousness. I think that when they do that, they marginalize themselves from the discussion. I would like to see the NDP adopt a sensible position 3 (or 2 with your caveats) attitude.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:13 PM  

  • I'm just waiting for the Fall, for when the Conservatives will reveal their Made in Canada to save the environment through tax breaks.
    Unless the tax break is $10,000 off every hybrid vehicle, I don't really see that making a significant enough difference in pollution.

    By Blogger Saskboy, at 8:48 PM  

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