The Age of Stupid


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March 14th 2009
Published: March 16th 2009
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It's the third day since a fire was set off in the forest across the Riberão River - almost certainly intentionally. According to Roy Funch's excellent guidebook to the Chapada Diamantina, there are many reasons why this occurs. Often, they are due to cattle farmers who want to extend pastures for their animals, or simply as a gratuitous act of vindication against the National Park which expelled them from the area to protect the local fauna and flora. Less frequent as they used to be, but still of occurrance, diamond prospectors burn out areas to make it easier to identify the most promising locations. Hunters do it if they think it will, on the short term obviously, help them to catch little rodents that will hide underground. Funch even mentions a frequent local belief that, during dry seasons, a good fire will increase the attract rain to the region.

Fires have been less frequent since the creation of the National Park, but they still occur, generally intentionally, although sometimes, during dry seasons, natural fires break out due to the highly inflammable nature of certain plants. The odd, small fire now and then is not too bad. Plants regrow, and the high biodiversity of the region ensures preservation of species. However, a high frequency means that forests do not have enough time to repopulate devastated areas before the next fire. Some plants and animals simply disappear.

I don't often talk about climate change. I don't know that much about it, and feel uncomfortable speaking about something without a good grasp of the topic. Plus, as many know, I loathed my "Science de la Vie et de la Terre" classes at school, and still today biology tends to bore me to death.

I tend to keep at a distance of environmental activism, too. As a general rule, I am wary of hot-headed protests that rely on simplified and often simplistic arguments, appealing mainly to emotions and a frequent desire, especially amongst students, to revolt against 'the system'. Not that I am averse to political action or debate: I simply appreciate much more a well constructed reasoning, and put much more trust in the implacable force of a carefully thought out argument, the power on the long run of cold logic outdoing by far the sporadic effects of irrational protest, in my opinion.

So climate change really pisses me off. I like to think about big issues over time, I am overall an optimist believing in human progress, in the step-by-step improvement of society, often through unsatisfactory compromise, but nonetheless in the right direction. I am told, however, that climate change won't give me this luxury. According to most scientific reports, we only have a few years to actually make the changes necessary to avoid irreversable damage to the environment that sustains us. Not that I think we're 'destroying the Earth', so to speak. If we wanted to do that, I'd rely on our nuclear arsenal. Simply we seem to be changing the world we live in into a place within which life will be much more difficult. Of course, you also have scientists that debate the veracity of those theories along with others that try to downplay what they perceive as a minority movement of doom tellers and hippies.

Reality seems to differ, and the overwhelming majority of scientific reports, along with the sound nature of climate change theory, suggests something should be done. How soon? The more research is done about the problem, the more it suggests we have little time left. And there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the capacity of governments to the right thing. Climate change is not an immediate problem, and governments are more concerned with an electoral cycle that generally runs between 4 and 8 years. Furthermore, it is a long held habit for governments to hardly ever reach the objectives they set themselves. Thus, even if governments promised to reduce energy consumption by the right level, that would almost certainly not happen. A better strategy would be to set a target about twice as high, and then maybe there'll be a chance of success in the matter. The last point I would mention (but certainly not the last you could mention) is the beggar-thy-neighbour nature of carbon emission reduction. Everyone benefits from one State reducing carbon emissions, so, if a very large number of States all decide to, at a cost, reduce carbon emissions simultaneously, there is an incentive for each State to free ride on the others' efforts, and to reduce emissions by less than they should - but if all States 'cheat' (which is rational), the entire strategy falls apart. Incidentally, that is also a concern right now in the world of macroeconomics, as an incentive exists for all States to free ride on the others' fiscal stimulus to escape a potential depression.

It seems like something clearly should be done. There is no end in the number of arguments. Sir Nick Stern, using the concept of discount rates, showed it would be much cheaper to reduce pollution today than to 'clean up' the mess in the future, if cleaning up is even an option, and obviously not taking into account some of its irreversable aspects (loss of species, and the so-called 'tipping points'). Also reminiscing Peter Holmes' Micro 2 lectures and the Coase therorem, one can understand how an incentive exists for individuals and industries to pollute the environment, which belongs to no one: pollution is an unregistered cost, an 'externality' as economists call it, which deserves to be taken into account if we want to price things correctly.

This brings us to solutions. A plausible way to 'internalise' pollution, that is to take into account its environmental cost, is to put a price on it. One could simply tax pollution. But a more sophisticated response would be to create a carbon trading system. Give companies 'pollution vouchers', which allow them to emit a certain quantity of greenhouse gasses. It costs certain companies much more than others to reduce their costs. These companies can buy other companies' vouchers, or permits, which means whilst carbon emissions are reduced to the level intended (pollution permits are emitted in limited quantity), this is done at the lowest possible cost. I've heard a lot opposition to this idea, mainly by people arguing that this would allow rich people and States to pollute and would shift the burden of carbon reduction to poorer States. That kind of misses the point, in my opinion, as, if this were to occur, the rich would have to give a lot of money to the poor in order to pollute. Another way of selling the idea would be to say it's equivalent to a much more efficient carbon tax (excluding possible side effects such as speculation, which the oft-praised invisible hand seems unable to avoid - the current crisis is an example of that).

Anyway, I should really stop writing, as I'm sure by now I may have bored even my most faithful readership (ie my family and other polite friends who feel sorry for me).

One of the reasons I wrote this article is the premiere, this weekend, of a new fiction/documentary film on climate change, called "The Age of Stupid". My clever friend Dan Vockins is working on its promotion, so I've had more news about it than most. The film features Pete Postlethwaite as an old man, in 2055, looking back, along with the audience, at current video footage of the world, as asking the question: "why didn't we save ourselves when we had the chance?". It's a good question. If climate change, as it appears with ever-increasing certainty, is a real and dangerous threat to the world, why are we doing nothing? The film is intended to show in a vivid way the likely future effects of climate changes, in a strong attempt to influence public opinion before the Copenhagen conferences on climate change. I am not likely to see it any time soon (Lençóis doesn't even have a cinema), but from the trailer it seems a bit too 'shock and awe' for my taste. However, you could say that it's necessary given the context. Not sure.
Anyhow, I strongly encourage you to see it and to think carefully about the matter in order to make up your mind.
The Age of Stupid website can be found at:
www.ageofstupid.net

As for me, I am certainly worried. What will I be thinking in 2055? Will I regret not having done more to avert this disaster (if disaster there indeed is)? And how much can my little self actually do? The uncertainty of climate change is the thing that really kills me though...

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17th March 2009

Pior ainda
I am not being rude to write in portuguese,I am only rendering homage to our truly brilliant blogger,and try to give an incentive for others to learn languages(specially to those with computers)Mas e se tudo fosse apenas o começo da quinta glaciaçao?vou ter de começar a por acentos

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