World Environment Day

Today, Wellington is hosting World Environment Day, which occasion it is marking with a public debate (yesterday), a free concert (tomorrow), a family day (day after tomorrow)… er, there isn’t really anything on today at all, is there?
The exception being the panel discussion, “How can we decarbonize the planet”, with a pretty impressive panel – climate change Minister David Parker, head of the UN Environmental Programme Achim Steiner, President of Kiribati Anote Tong and head of the IPCC Dr Rajendra Pachauri.
As a dscussion it never really got going. Each person made personal remarks, and after that and a late start there wasn’t much time for questions at the end, and the questions were all rubbish anyway (par for the course at every single public event I’ve ever been to, the questions are *always* rubbish).
The speakers made much of the value of putting price signals into the economic system to encourage responsible behaviour. Pachauri made the (to me) astonishing claim that acting to mitigate CO2 emissions might well incur a negative cost (i.e. make money! All speakers indicated that NZ was not without influence on the global stage, claiming that advancements in carbon emission reduction here would be watched very closely all around the world. Both Parker and Pachauri outright said that New Zealand could inspire other countries into action.
It was a good session, if not particularly stunning and not as enlightening as I’d hoped for. Nice to see the lecture theatre packed to the gills for it, too.

This election is the important one

In New Zealand, in the US, wherever: this election, the one coming up? This is the important one.

“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” – IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri in November 2007

We have three years to start making serious changes to how human life operates. These changes cannot be made at the individual level, or even at the local level. The needed changes must happen through governmental structures. Only governments have the ability to make these changes happen.
I do a lot of thinking about and talking about climate change and what the individual can do. I run a big programme in a university course on this subject, even. Driving less, consuming less, turning off your electronic devices at the wall, using the heater less, all of this is important. But right now, by far, the most important environmental action is political.
This was the message in Al Gore’s 20-minute followup to Inconvenient Truth, which debuted in March this year and you can watch it here, at the TED site. (Bonus: seeing him amend the Inconvenient Truth’s list of countries that ratified Kyoto to include Australia. The U.S. is now all alone in refusing.) This was a key message in the material supporting Annie Leonard’s great Story of Stuff short film resource on the consumption cycle. It’s been turning up everywhere. That’s no accident.
Let’s be clear: unless we, the citizens of our various democracies, forcefully put climate change on the agenda for the governments that will lead us through the next few years, then the entire mode of human life will be pushed into catastrophic change. This is, incredibly, not hyperbole. The stakes actually are that big.

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385 ppm (parts per million) to, at most, 350 ppm” – NASA climatologist James Hansen, April 2008

This can happen. It is entirely possible. But it is up to us.
This TomDispatch is a good overview of 350 movement. Remember that number, you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the next year or two.

[mediawatch] Listener calls out the hounds

NZ’s current affairs mag the Listener has got some stick from me in the past for its editorial policies under Pamela Stirling. A new development put the wind up me even further.
A chap named Dave Hansford in the Listener’s Eco column recently featured a piece on the ways in which climate change sceptics can effectively hack the media machine and get far greater coverage than their fringe perspectives deserve, with significant consequences for public understanding of climate change (and, consequently, limiting political will to make necessary changes).
This, naturally, kicked up a stink with the local climate change sceptics; international sceptic honcho Joseph Bast of Chicago was appraised of the situation and, in a letter published in the April 5 issue, demanded Hansford’s silence forevermore on the subject. The following week, the sceptics had their right of reply printed (opposite another article arguing the case for anthropogenic global warming). All par for the course in a magazine that is, as John Drinnan noted in the Herald blog, “no longer part of the movement”.
Then things took a twist. Hansford was booted from the Ecologic column. Local global warming blog Hot Topic noticed this (or was tipped to it), and made a post suspecting that sceptic pressure was responsible for the dumping. Hansford, for his part, came along to comment his own suspicions that this was the case.
You can read that article here, but not at Hot Topic itself, because it’s gone from there. In its place, a note that the article had been taken down thanks to the Listener and “their friends at [local law firm] Bell Gully”, and an obviously lawyer-drafted post apologising and retracting a bunch of stuff, including things that weren’t even alleged in the initial posting.
That’s when it got interesting to lots of people. I don’t think Hansford was booted because of sceptic pressure, or at least not *just* due to sceptic pressure; but Stirling’s response to this relatively innocuous and balanced blog post is startling. Legal blogger Steven Price of Media Law Journal posted about it with a sensible post, the conclusion of which deserves quoting in full:

The proper response would have been a one-line letter politely telling the Listener to sit on its thumb. I doubt that any further action would have been taken. But bloggers, and those who host their blogs, can’t always be that brave. That’s what makes leaning on assertions of legal rights in situations like this reprehensible, I think. I would have been much more persuaded by a thoughtful and factual response from the Listener’s editor on the blog itself setting out the magazine’s version of the story. It would have been much cheaper. And much more in keeping with the Listener’s commitment to open inquiry. And it wouldn’t have produced what’s likely to be an explosion of interest in the criticisms…

So that’s what I’m doing here – adding to the ‘explosion of interest’. Pamela Stirling’s continued dalliance with climate change scepticism is disheartening, but her response (and it is, presumably, her personal response) to this affair has been foolish and vicious and is worthy of condemnation. This is not how things should be done here. Not only that, I’m certain it’s convinced a lot of her critics that she’s guilty.
If you’re a Listener buyer, skip it next week, or the next couple of weeks. Email or ring to say why.
[Hat-tip to Poneke, who has covered this affair pretty damn well.]

The Attitude-Behaviour Gap

A lot of my thinking about sustainability kept coming back to the fact that good intentions often don’t become action. This is a special case of a general psychological problem, the gap between attitudes and behaviour. It’s been tackled a bunch of times over the years, but never comprehensively or convincingly explained. (And it won’t be by me either, my Masters research is looking at how being in a group can help to bridge the gap, not figuring out what causes it.)
Anyway, PsyBlog published this a few days ago: a nice little article on what the attitude-behaviour gap is, and a description of Lapiere’s famous Chinese couple study from the 30s.

You see it all the time. People say they’re worried about global warming and yet they drive around in a big gas guzzler. They say that money isn’t their God, yet they work all the hours. They say they want to be fit but they don’t do any exercise.

If you are curious about the whole human behaviour thing, do take a look.
Also of interest: Why we do dumb or irrational things: 10 brilliant social psychology studies

Kim Stanley Robinson on facing massive change

Considering I’ve read precisely one book by the guy (the awesome Red Mars), I have a lot of affection for Kim Stanley Robinson. If I read more SF/F, he’d be up there in my reading list I’m sure.
Making Light linked to this KSR interview, which I found compelling reading. He’s written a lot on the subject of massive planetary changes – either human induced, as in the Mars books, or the 40/50/60 series describing the Earth undergoing significant climate change. In the interview he discusses some of the interface between psychology and change, and expresses quite succinctly how we are living, as a species, unsustainably:

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

I love that first bit – an ‘alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet’. That’s fascinating stuff. There’s a massive headshift needed so we see the planet and our dynamic interactions with it in a more comprehensive way. A whole new frame for “the environment” is kicking its way into discourse, slowly – for example, thanks in no small part to Al Gore, there is now widespread acceptance that planetary-scale systems can be sensitive and responsive to human activity, which is a massive change in perspective compared to pretty much all human history before now.
KSR also waxes lyrical about the value of low-impact pleasures such as walking in the park and having a drink with friends. His claim that the new high-impact diversions we’ve created for ourselves are fundamentally psychologically unsatisfying is dubious, but I’m fully on-board with the idea that low-impact pleasures should be celebrated. These pleasures often sink out of view in the consumer society – there’s no money in going for a walk in the park, so there’s no marketing of that form of recreation. (As an aside, part of my great affection for roleplaying games is that they are low-impact activities; essentially they’re a structured form of hanging out with friends. There’s some interesting politics to RPGs. But that’s another post for another time.)
Anyway, go read the whole interview. It’s great and full of insights and quotable bits, and there’s a neat photo of Jimmy Carter inaugurating the White House solar panels in ’79, among other cool visuals. If you’re interested in sustainability, KSR’s perspective is worth your time.