Open Mic: Heading for a brick wall

Subtract oil entirely and modern streets soon would be awash in manure

  • Jan. 8, 2015 1:00 p.m.

By Mike Shields

A Chinese saying describes the first step as the hardest part of any journey.

But facilitating public forums in this region over the past 20 years leads me to fear that aspiring to enhance public discourse just might contradict this proverb.

Because regardless of my capabilities or whether it has always been thus, nowadays it seems anyone can be an ‘expert.’

Thus, too common – and too accepted – has become the dismissal of facts as just one opinion.

To wit, in a year in which the Pope acknowledged both the Big Bang and evolution, why need we still afford climate-change deniers equal time?

Layperson contradictions of over 97 per cent of the accredited scientific community so closely mimic ’60s era tobacco industry prevarications as to invoke concerns of memory loss, no?

The moral of Galileo being persecuted for contradicting his society’s belief the sun orbited the earth is not that you, as a contrarian, “will eventually have your day.” It’s that – sorry, flat-earthers – in the end, science won out.

So I’ll acknowledge a statistically irrelevant chance the measured increase in atmospheric CO2 levels might not be the primary factor behind the observed reduction in global ice coverage.

But, in return, please cease demonstrating ignorance of statistical analysis to cherry pick whatever data denunciates the same scientific community that was 100 per cent accurate regarding the chemically analogous ozone layer.

Much more important is that, as true as global warming is, so is our systematic inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter what the western world accomplishes in terms of alternatives, the industrialization of developing nations will neither be denied nor acquiesce to higher costs.

Indeed, the recent collapse of oil prices highlights the extent fossil fuel prices can and will adjust.

Reduce demand via solar, wind or another and the most basic of economic principles dictates market prices will fall in response – potentially all the way to Saudi Arabia’s $10 per barrel production cost.

Per Canadian author Naomi Klein: “It’s the climate or our current economic system, we can’t have both.”

But that said, the reasons our current economic system is not going to change are numerous.

First and foremost is that over the past 500 years, capitalism has proven unparalleled at boosting human living standards.

Arguably, the rates of return will diminish at some point (if only as our population approaches global maximum), but post-Cold War alternatives remain distant if not delusional.

Yet, the climate problem is regrettably as likely to resemble an accelerating teeter-totter as the oblivious frog in a slowly brought-to-boil stovepot.

Increasing permafrost thaw releases additional methane and CO2 in a feedback loop, just as reduced ice caps increase sunlight absorption and thus overall global temperature.

At some point, environmental tipping points – such as decreased salinity altering ocean current flows or disrupting the oceanic food chain may yield effects both sudden and dramatic.

All of which makes the capitalist assertion CO2 sequestration technologies will arise as economic incentives increase even more unlikely than due to the obvious detachment between social costs and privatized profits.

Not that there are easy answers, but choosing to ignore – or worse, obfuscate – the facts is tantamount to closing one’s eyes whilst driving toward a brick wall.

So what to do?

Government imposed solutions may not be perfect, but unmistakably the private sector will resist any and all imposition on our petroleum based economy.

Moreover, subtract oil entirely and not only would modern streets soon be awash in manure, but life expectancy for almost any prescription drug user would be cut in half.

As such, carbon based taxation – both to deter consumption via increased prices, plus generate funding subsidies for prospective solutions is an obvious response, but immensely imposing politically.

Nevertheless, at some point, a society which previously allocated (in 2008 dollars) $22 billion to the Manhattan project, $98 billion to the Apollo program and $2 trillion to anti-terrorism campaigns will face up to the challenge of climate change.

Similarly, those previous generations ignored the evils of totalitarianism or denied the threat of extremists as long as possible, but in consequence paid a significantly higher later cost.

Perhaps our achievement can be not awaiting an environmental Pearl Harbor or 9/11 prior to informing elected officials that for the greater good we can currently pay a little more to drive our SUVs.

Mike Shields is moderator of SFU’s Philosopher’s Café in Maple Ridge, a former MP candidate, and has a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics.