15 December 2011

Nothing Else Matters

In political debates there exists the interesting phenomenon of the single-issue advocate. The single-issue advocate in the most extreme form cares about one issue and one issue only. The clarity of focus held by the single-issue advocate helps him or her to paint the world into blacks and whites, those who are evil and those who are not. Issues related to science and technology seem to have more than their fair share of single-issue advocates in areas such as medicine, environment, agriculture, energy and so on. But like anything else, in the extreme focus goes from a virtue to a vice.

Here is an example in an op-ed in The Balitmore Sun today, focused on what else, but climate change:
If 1.4 degrees gets us a soon-to-be-ice-free Arctic and nearly nonstop extreme weather worldwide, what will 11 degrees bring us?

Well, it's safe to say AIDS would be the least of our worries in such a world. We could even find a cure for AIDS — eliminate the disease completely — and it wouldn't matter in a world 11 degrees warmer. We could cure cancer itself and it wouldn't matter. Instead of good health, we'll have the nightmare of chronic food shortages, persistent new diseases like malaria and dengue fever spread across North America, and untold misery and death from heat waves in cities like St. Louis, where high temperatures could be well over 100 degrees 25 days every summer.

Withdrawal from Iraq? What does it matter? We could disband the Pentagon completely and end all wars everywhere, and it wouldn't matter with 11 degrees. We wouldn't have peace. Violence, instead, would be our daily fare: violent weather, violent ecological upheaval, violence to our civilization.

The economy? An envoy from God himself could bestow jobs on every worker and forgive all debt — from credit cards to the federal budget deficit. But it would be no good with 11 degrees. Wall Street will be under several feet of water, and our commercial infrastructure — harbors, bridges, airports, rails — will literally bake, erode, buckle and break.

Of course I'm not opposed to our nation's current efforts to end disease, reduce war and increase wealth. It's just that the policies don't make sense without a simultaneous national effort to avoid 11 degrees.
You hear that? Seeking to end disease, reduce war and increase wealth "don't make sense" unless the government adopts some crash effort on reducing emissions. Nothing else matters.

What would such a crash effort involve according to some prominent single-issue advocates in the environmental community?

At Grist, Dave Roberts explains that sharp emissions reductions "would require substantial institutional reform and possibly even a period of economic contraction."  And Joe Romm explains of climate change, "It is indeed humanity’s self-destruction. We must pay any price or bear any burden to stop it."

In one of Andy Revkin's email chains yesterday, I tried to draw out Dave Roberts and Joe Romm to specify more clearly what they meant by "economic contraction" and "bear any price."  Although the discussion was certainly cordial, neither was forthcoming with a direct reply.

Romm went so far as to argue that of course no one argues for economic contraction (apparently not reading Roberts' post or The Climate Fix;-).  Of course he'd say that and Roberts would avoid answering -- single-issue advocates who argue that nothing else matters (including human suffering) except mounting a major response to their issue sound absolutely nuts.