And it’s a global warming buzz again

Climate change. The subtle, drip by drip change which we are not evolutionary wired to detect. The steady pace at which mankind set out to turn its destiny upside down by implementing its thirst for progress – or the mere instinctive drive to develop solutions which prove to ameliorate our contingencies – both interpretations of the tale of recent civilisation suffer from the spell of another inbuilt bias, that of shortsightedness. While the magnitude of the first atomic explosion awakened the global awareness of technology’s blind and ruthless potential for destruction, the steady rate at which global emissions raised since that very occurrence has summed up to a total of 85% of total human carbon production1)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html. Fortunately, science is an auto-corrective enterprise and headline’s prestige does not protect one from severe critique. Climatefeedback.org just released a fact-check of NYMag’s article, rating its scientific credibility as low (-0,8): “Our review simply addresses the scientific accuracy of the article. The reviewers found that some statements in this complex article do misrepresent research on the topic, and some others lack the necessary context to be clearly understood by the reader. Many other explanations in the article are correct, but readers are likely left with an overall conclusion that is exaggerated compared to our best scientific understanding.”. We are sufficiently trained to recognise the perils of civilisation when hit by shocking events, but much less accustomed to parse upcoming threats which grow slowly, and therefore silently.

Show me hundred of thousands of corpses, burned by the American nukes on Japanese soil, and I’ll tell you there’s something wrong there, fast and assuredly. Tell me about the thousands of people who died out of heat in a hot summer, add up the statistics for future impact of ocean acidification, or even the likelihood of trapped viruses in the Arctic ice to spread back into the world2)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html… and I’ll likely find a way out of that intricate web in order to justify the tiniest of my current habits, not to change any of them.

 

On Saturday 9th, July 2017, the NY Times Magazine went out with an article which hit my Nuzzel feed with over 31 sharings. “It’s a rare occurrence, given how rarely I breed my Twitter network.”, I thought. The day after, dozens of articles – from The Atlantic, to Mashable and Grist – not to count tweets and Facebook posts, flooded the Internet with vivid answers. The widest response?

if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.3)http://grist.org/climate-energy/stop-scaring-people-about-climate-change-it-doesnt-work/

 

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

Many have called into question the veracity of data which have been reported, as if the author needed an extra pump to inflate his apocalyptic outlook. I’ll leave those to environmental journalists and experts, as going through tables, papers and citations isn’t really my thing. David Wallace-Wells made my conscience shake up quite a little, and made me reflect on what am I currently doing to actively engage with the problem. I am a student who looks just average with respect to carbon emissions (a 0.3x compared to the average American – but many know that a US citizen has a 3x ecological footprint than a European one. CarboTax evaluator enticed me with a feeling of environmental superiority before I actually realised that its values have been tailored for the average American citizen.) A sort of anti-radical-chic claim and a little bit of social pressure made me abandon vegetarianism in favour of modest meat consumption. I am not studying to become a software or hardware developer, nor a biotechnology researcher, so I won’t come up with resolving technological innovations. I am not headed toward journalism either, if that means covering the latest news about environmental issues, periodically swinging between a benign optimism after an encouraging discovery and a desolated pessimism following the umpteenth out-of-target environmental report.

That article made me much more aware of the complexities of the environmental problem4)As soon as one is able to lift himself out of the equivalence “global warming = rising sea levels”, then one has made significant progress toward a bare understanding of complexity and interdependence. Among the many cascade effects of which I could not think of, cited in the NYmag article, you would find that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide reduces cognitive capacities; that an increase in heat is correlated with an increase in crime and war rates – though that assertion has produced much controversy on the web; that global warming dynamics have been proposed as a ‘filter effect’ to explain the Fermi paradox., and of how much we cannot allow ourselves to take any solution for granted. Enthusiasm and trust in the scientific and technological progress should not make us blind to the possibility that viable options to address the problem may lie in a too distant future5)Who is prone to similar setbacks would understand the enthusiasm with which I turned to cellular agriculture and artificial meat (The man from Utopia: story of a win-win ethical mindset), only to discover after a few months that is not going to be that easy.. Popperian physicist David Deutsch would call out such a judgement as pessimistic philosophy – that is, to deceive ourselves into believing that no solution is available. I believe that technological progress has been shown to be such a powerful tool, that combined with necessity, no metaphysical reason should forestall success; when the lives of present and future generations (not to mention current environmental catastrophes) are at stake though, we should come up with solid plans, and not allow ourselves to slip into the comfort of technological hopes.

What needs to be kept alive are the standards of inquiry and conversation among people – that is the best way we have to address complex matters, when in fact our instinctive reaction may just be that of closing the gates and keep reasoning the way we are used to. That, in fact, has been the first reaction I had after reading the NYMag article, and I totally subscribe the view6)Not that I need to endorse something which has been shown by much psychological research: first of all, the popular work of Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge. that fear isn’t the best strategy to address change, especially if issues are complex and need our logical brains to be tackled. Aka keep the flight-or-fight mode as far as you can.

 

I resolved to accentuate the role of science not in a naïve attempt to give consistency to desirable sci-fi scenarios, but rather to counter the perception of science as an obscure force which aims at changing behaviours and imposing new rules out of undecipherable amounts of data. The recent Italian vaccine debate exemplifies how one cannot take scientific literacy for granted – not even among European countries, albeit Italy’s poor performance is well-known.7)http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-italy.pdf Denialism is driven by aversion to change, but it is happy to take a stance against science every time it can. Just as opposing overt scientific consensus for unclear (or sometimes even too clear) reasons is immoral, not trying to stop that trend is equally dishonest. “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”.8)http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

In the past, I repeatedly thought of carbon dioxide extraction – alongside with special bacteria who would eat plastics, or ideally carbon dioxide itself – as one of the most technological promises to solve global warming. There is some consensus9)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html around the fact that even stopping carbon emissions today, would not be enough to reverse the trend; it is, therefore, likely that by lowering carbon concentrations to pre-industrial levels, we could definitely have managed the issue. Some researchers even suggest that carbon extraction is economically more viable (and therefore more likely to be implemented) than substituting fuels altogether, thereby giving some extra buffer space for proper conversions to be actualised. So my research actually began by tapping “carbon extraction from air” on my keyboard, and it showed among the very first search results a site that has within its “popular post” parade two articles on “working” magnetic motors. It is hard for me to believe how my browser’s research history could have eventually been infected with alike woo-woo contents. That was definitely not what you could call a ‘scientific blog’, not even a remote one; still, they were enthralled so much by technoenthusiasm (they call themselves The Green Optimistic) that it turned into denialism: you can’t possibly talk of magnetic motors in the XXI century.

Finding the news about carbon extraction among such unscientific babble made me think that there is an opposite side to denialism. I felt as though I had been prone to cultivate big hopes too – the belief in a feasible and dream-like solution for global warming – against the real pains of climate change. Just as articles critical of doomsday-like approaches predicted, fear could well turn into denialism.

Unjustified optimism bears similar byproducts too. The point is that only a method like the scientific one – in its broadest possible sense, which includes confrontation, fact-checking and fallibilism – makes us less vulnerable to similar pitfalls. It is inevitable, and vital for our creativity, that we cut the world off at some point and start to build stuff on our own; but we need to keep an eye on what happens outside, and always be willing to change our mind in presence of better explanations. That, in essence, is the frail ideal of rationalism: it does not work as a law, it just seems to be the best way we have to tackle problem-solving.

 

So, what about those who accuse David Wallace-Wells of leaning “very hard on the EXTINCTION PORN angle, and almost not at all on the BUT HERE’S WHAT WE DO angle”10)https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/is-the-earth-really-that-doomed/533112/? The Drawdown project seems really the most promising place to start from: 100 available solutions, ranked by magnitude of impact and economic feasibility, to cut carbon emissions and reach point drawdown – that is, when air concentration of carbon dioxide and other dangerous gasses would begin to decrease. I regret to say that carbon extraction is among the “coming attractions”: it is not yet a fully-developed technology. Drawdown’s aim is to point at available solutions, and it is valuable, for it does not leave room for unnecessary techno-panic (would that magic trick see the light before Apocalypse catches us?). So if hardware feasibility is not the real problem, what is? Economic sustainability. Just as windmills did not become affordable simply out of a greater demand, though, but also as technological improvement made materials and design fitter and cheaper. Innovation never stops.

Even though conspiracists mostly like to think in Marxist terms – there is always some financial, crooked aim behind every problematic issue – we should acknowledge that when problem-solving intercepts business solutions, then even addressing climate change seems more doable than it was, when the only viable answers were cutting down expenses and rates of consumption. Welcome the economic slice of the cake. Technology developed on a small scale within university labs has a chance to bear impact only if it is taken up by businesses around the world. Extracting carbon from the air into nanofibers looks like a true promise in that direction. Among recarbonisation strategies, a company is currently offering a solution to extract carbon dioxide in order to produce “clean fuels”. Carbon extraction research has been around since 1999 at least, but it is only through market tests that we could see its scalability.

There is more to add to the pile of economic impulses. Unsurprisingly, yet powerfully influencing our behaviour, much of the status narrative is carbon-driven. Tesla is a rare bird. International job positions are more influential than local ones; private jet flights are among the most evident status-symbols… oh, did I mention that most touristic destinations are hours of flight away? Almost needless to say, every rung of the ladder implies a greater ecological footprint (let alone nerdy revolutionaries who create wealth with little more than a laptop). If we believe, as Milton Friedman did, that human creativity is at least partly driven by its willingness to earn a bigger slice of the cake, and that the only way to climb the social ladder requires higher and higher material investments, then we need to change the narrative and reframe success as positively contributing to global warming issues.

 

In the end, what should one do about global warming? How do we avoid getting back to business as usual, to episodic criticisms on politics’ ineptitude at tackling the problem? Aren’t we, simple citizens, entitled to receive one, simple, accomodating instruction that we can work into our daily routines, while keep moving with our lives?

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

Moving to a plant-based diet might be the single best choice which rests entirely on our own 11)http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/plant-rich-diet. Offsetting your carbon emissions might be the next option12)Effective altruists, with their distinct scrupulousness, have tried to detect the single best action that would bring the most positive impact on global warming and recommend giving to Cool Earth. But lots of other solutions wait social collaboration to be implemented, and if I had to take away one thing from this little journey, it is the cognition that isolated actions do not suffice.

When one hears about the best solution to address climate change, it is desirable that a spark of skepticism arises: how does one decide what the “best solution” is? Still, we cannot allow that metaquestion to fade into rock-solid immobilism. I believe that attempts at building a frame to solve that puzzle should be praised with delight and scientific curiosity, knowing that we are not dealing with a quest for an immutable answer nor for the silver bullet, but rather with a nest of competing, and often mutually enriching frameworks to fill pragmatic schedules on how to proceed.

Here is where philosophy might finally becomes a piece on the board. It is of extreme importance and astounding actuality that we abandon representational theories of truth and standards which speak of objectivity as something that could not be achieved for metaphysical reasons, which doom us to paralysing skepticism. Theoretically expunging Cartesianism will bear practical consequences as well.13)American pragmatism is, among philosophical traditions, that which took extra care to point at Cartesianism as an untruthful view, and proceeded to engineer clever alternatives.

References   [ + ]

1. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html. Fortunately, science is an auto-corrective enterprise and headline’s prestige does not protect one from severe critique. Climatefeedback.org just released a fact-check of NYMag’s article, rating its scientific credibility as low (-0,8): “Our review simply addresses the scientific accuracy of the article. The reviewers found that some statements in this complex article do misrepresent research on the topic, and some others lack the necessary context to be clearly understood by the reader. Many other explanations in the article are correct, but readers are likely left with an overall conclusion that is exaggerated compared to our best scientific understanding.”
2, 9. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html
3. http://grist.org/climate-energy/stop-scaring-people-about-climate-change-it-doesnt-work/
4. As soon as one is able to lift himself out of the equivalence “global warming = rising sea levels”, then one has made significant progress toward a bare understanding of complexity and interdependence. Among the many cascade effects of which I could not think of, cited in the NYmag article, you would find that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide reduces cognitive capacities; that an increase in heat is correlated with an increase in crime and war rates – though that assertion has produced much controversy on the web; that global warming dynamics have been proposed as a ‘filter effect’ to explain the Fermi paradox.
5. Who is prone to similar setbacks would understand the enthusiasm with which I turned to cellular agriculture and artificial meat (The man from Utopia: story of a win-win ethical mindset), only to discover after a few months that is not going to be that easy.
6. Not that I need to endorse something which has been shown by much psychological research: first of all, the popular work of Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge.
7. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-italy.pdf
8. http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/
10. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/is-the-earth-really-that-doomed/533112/
11. http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/plant-rich-diet
12. Effective altruists, with their distinct scrupulousness, have tried to detect the single best action that would bring the most positive impact on global warming and recommend giving to Cool Earth.
13. American pragmatism is, among philosophical traditions, that which took extra care to point at Cartesianism as an untruthful view, and proceeded to engineer clever alternatives.

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