The Washington Consensus As Climate Governance

A whisper of global government already exists. We don’t call it that, usually, unless we happen to be conspiracy theorists talking about UN black helicopters. Our experience of the all-encompassing modern state makes the fragile spiderwebs of global institutions seem unfamiliar. 

The world government – a framework of agreed action through laws and common permanent forums –  is there, though. It’s found in pretty much the places you might expect – the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the World Trade Organization. Political theorists need to make fine distinctions between global confederation and other forms of government, but when almost every nation is in the club, lines begin to blur.

In this familiar list of institutions, all but one were designed and driven to creation by Cordell Hull’s State Department in the flurry of institution building at the end of WWII. This is not to discount the role of other nations in this multilateral process, but it required extraordinary circumstances, and a new superpower, to bring them to the table.

The exception is the World Trade Organization, which took fifty painstaking, special interest-coddling years to come into being. As an example of the problem, the WTO is an effort to promulgate a Washington Consensus of free trade, but no Washington administration thought it could really commit to it when it came to free trade for its welfare-queen farmers. And the US was by no means unique in this regard, with Japan and continental Europe (later the EU) in the same position.

The Washington Consensus method for climate governance is like the construction of the WTO, or the European Union: get everyone from everywhere in a big room and marinate them in money and compromise until enough people are ready to sign what they were all taught at politician school was a pretty good idea in the first place. (WTO is reheated Ricardo and supra-national republican government is reheated Kant.) Kyoto is fourteen years old and deep in the same sort of diplomatic sausage mince GATT was in for half a century.

In other words, this solution is the solution we’ve been trying for a while now. It has some advantages. The incessant talking and committees are a conflict management technique, the idea being that people talking aren’t shooting one another. This is well and good, but an approach which relies on the benefits of inaction isn’t going to have much near term impact on a problem of industrial and economic inertia. There is always going to be some governments who see national advantage in derailing any more radical change than slow consensus.

My prediction is that we will not have any serious multilateral regulation of carbon, say through a World Climate Organization, before 2050. It and the Kyoto process may be part of the ongoing management of the climate, eventually,  but they won’t be a solution to the current industrial and economic design problem. We’ll be up to our ankles in cholera flavoured glacial melt and ecosystem failure by then. 

Al Gore’s right to say politics can be non-linear: but not in this forum. Solving climate governance with the Washington Consensus would, like the UN,  require a pre-eminent superpower focusing a group of allies on the issue; a climatological Coalition of the Willing. If Kyoto was going to fix climate change, it would have done so by now. It’s a needed process, but solutions lie elsewhere.

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Deliberate Anarchy As Climate Governance

It is informative to think about the science of changing climate as two fields. The first is long-term meteorology, making predictions about how the atmosphere and climatic conditions change over long periods of time. This is about a century and a half old and built on physics, chemistry, and observations from a variety of real time and historical sources such as satellites and ice cores. The current dominant paradigm of long-term meteorology includes anthropogenic climate change driven by atmospheric carbon and other gases. It’s a very successful theory whose dominance has been cemented by a track record of new data emerging and anamolies resolving in ways which confirm it. The discovery that satellite measured temperatures were not accounting for relativistic effects caused by the speed of the satellites, and this was causing almost exactly the anomalous difference between ground and satellite temperatures, was one of the more dramatic of these. This was nearly ten years ago. The existence of a handful of outlying dissenting experts outside the paradigm is just confirmation that it’s a real scientific community; the same phenomenon accompanied Newtonian mechanics and the molecular theory in chemistry too. This is reality, as best we can tell.

The second field is political climatology, dealing with the ways a mass of people and their social institutions deal with the climate of the planet they live on. This is a new field at which we are still pretty awful (including attempts by climate scientists). I use the term political climatology deliberately, by analogy with the political economy, ie, economics, and the constraints that politics as a human behaviour places on it. We are pretty bad at the political economy, though we’ve had a few wins over the last century. At political climatology we are just pants.

I don’t just mean we are awful in that we have lousy outcomes, I mean the whole structure of the discussion and the seriousness of institutional design is lacking. The entire debate is in the wrong place. There are interesting arguments within climate science, and there are major and controversial policy decisions to be made. We have a science built on all the sophistication of the Englightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and a monster set of interlinked problems caused by the wondrous success of the same. Meanwhile our toolset for discussing and organizing around it as a society is like five drunk old men with head injury debating the existence of an iPhone.

There is one intellectually tenable policy position which can be shared between someone serious about seeing the world as it is and the fairy land tales of climate fabulists or deniers. That is the policy of deliberate neglect. Accepting the fact of human driven climate change, we choose not to make governments act to remediate it.

Though the changing climate is indeed something to dread and gird ourselves against, the argument goes, any political solution would cause damage too great to our institutions. 

Usually this is framed as economic cost, and people like Jim Manzi argue, contra Stern et al, that the GDP costs of mitigation are simply smaller than the benefits.

There are technical problems with Manzi’s argument: scenario choice is highly selective, and GDP is a lousy basis for century scale prediction. That latter post also suggests in an ecological catastrophe, money may not be everything. (When The Economist suggests you are suffering compulsive quantification disorder and need to sit back and smell the drowning flowers, something is up.) Nevertheless Manzi’s willingness to grapple publicly with scientific reality in arguing policy, something that say, George Monbiot, does routinely from a different political tradition, gets towards the type of debate required.

Climate change is a global problem, and worse than that, a global collective action problem. It’s also larger than a few percent of GDP. In the history of the world, there has been environmental catastrophe, but there has never been democratic world government. Dan Hannan, among others, argues that this is a straightforward function of the distance of the government from individual concerns. It helps to know that Hannan is a ferociously euroskeptic MEP, and has more recently found it convenient to disparage the science without fully disavowing it. Even souveriniste libertarian conviction politicians have bases to mollify, I guess.

The sorry record of corruption and bad policy in global institutions does rather support Hannan’s position, though. Indeed, even the experience of the smaller, transnational, EU supports it – technocratic, with little democratic check, and corrupt to the degree its accounts have not been signed off by an auditor in a dozen years. For those who support a different factional football team, consider the IMF, or the WTO. And as beautiful as the vision of the United Nations is, the power there is with the Security Council, a standing committee of Great Powers and their proxies. 

This is not a screed about UN black helicopters and mind control rays. We simply need to be clear-eyed about the state of our global political institutions before we hand them the Earth’s thermostat. This is especially since decades of dithering makes geoengineering more likely, or necessary.

Some (say, certain large, industrial, non-democracies) may  take the utilitarian line that political niceties are a luxury in the face of catastrophe – a case of give me liberty and give me megadeath. And certainly geophysics doesn’t care about politics. However, the argument for ecofascism is not only rather odious in itself, but highly centralised government has an appalling environmental record. Capitalism and democracy have their environmental failures, but communism is the most toxic pollutant man has yet devised. Contrast the Cuyahoga River and the Aral Sea. 

The environment, in this argument, is too important to be passed off to a global bureaucracy to create a Common Fisheries Policy for carbon. Human nature and its politics will not change any time soon. Better for liberty and ecosystems alike that nations remain in productive mutual anarchy.

That is not my position – this note is a way of thinking through the problem. There are other approaches. The world almost tried one with Kyoto-Copenhagen. Tech can change faster than human nature, and different social contexts allow it different expression. Deliberate anarchy is credible enough to be the benchmark. We can easily do worse. Can we do better?

花雨从天来 /已有空乐好 – 李白:寻山僧不遇作

A light rain fell as if it were flowers falling from the sky, making a music of its own – Li Bai, Looking For A Monk And Not Finding Him, Allen trans.

Subtropical Lawn Care For Green Incompetents

In late 2009 we moved back to Brisbane, and in keeping with the low density suburban vibe that predominates in this city, acquired responsibility for a lawn. It takes up the remainder of a 400 m^2 block after a small worker’s cottage, a largish shed, and a few small gardens and trees are taken out.

I am not a huge lawn fan. We might convert some of it to garden, in the medium term, but even after that some sort of lawn seems inevitable. B floated the idea of letting it return to meadow, and sowing wildflowers. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, but there are a few drawbacks. In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly describes a person who restores meadow environments in the US, and it is actually pretty hard work. In the same book, he quotes Freeman Dyson’s critique of Biosphere 2: that the great successes of a closed system like that will be weeds. (It was not exactly the original experiment parameters, but that’s just what happened). Rather more prosaically, typical scrub grass in South East Queensland grows to about a metre high. That’s taller than my son.

So rather than invest in tracking technology and snake wrestling lessons for the youngster, I resigned myself to participation in the ritual cleansing of the yard using a lawnmower.

I don’t really like lawnmowers either. Never have, they are coughing, loud, awkward things awash with fumes that always need filling up with petrol. Plus we have, with varying degrees of seriousness, been trying to go through what Alex Steffen describes somewhat derisorily as The Swap:

Many of these ideas are still being presented as support for the idea that we can conveniently retrofit North American 20th Century suburban life for the 21st Century. We still see hundreds of stories a day promoting the Swap — the idea that we can change the components of suburban, high-consumption, auto-dependent lives without have to change the nature of those lives — but that idea itself is non-reality-based.

To me the Swap is not sufficient but it’s a good start. And anyway, where does The Swap end and The Solution begin? So instead of another petrol lawnmower I bought a push mower off Ebay with $25 and an armful of enthusiasm. That’s push mower as in with your arms, not electric. It’s an old Flymo 5/40. Electric mowers have their place but require more financial commitment. And a really really long extension cord, or you take another big leap in expense.

We had a push mower when I was a kid so I was not entirely ignorant of its pros and cons. But here are some lessons learnt.

  • Consistency. These push mowers work best on short grass, so a philosophy of little and often works best. Once the grass grows a bit it will wrap around the internal axle, and also just stop the rotation of the blades. To make progress you then need to do many short sharp pushes on the same segment, rather than a relatively smooth walking pass. The effort increases in a brutally non-linear fashion relative to the length of the grass. When the grass got long, I ended up spending nearly a third of the mowing time on the most lush 5 metres square patch
  • Summer will beat you. We had record rainfall this summer as a long drought ended. Together with a few weeks away on business, bone idleness on my part, the wet ground and summer sun-fuelled grass vaulting ever skywards, I had to resort to borrowing a petrol mower a few times just to reset the playing field. Ok, what actually happened, even more humiliatingly, was my retired father just came and mowed it when I wasn’t home. Now we are on the edge of winter I am keeping up pretty easily. It’s still a net carbon win, but a bit frustrating to have to cheat in this manner. I suspect that without forking out for a lawnmower bike a few passes with the petrol mower will still be needed each Christmas though.
  • Grass types make a difference. For a lazy lawnmower like myself, broad short kikuyu grass is great. Shorter thinner grass like cooch or other even snobbier varieties used down south are dense pains in the neck (and back and shoulders).
  • Whipper snipper. It is harder to fudge edges with a push mower, as you can’t lift one wheel and push with that dangerous but widely used tilted petrol mower technique without losing almost all cutting power. Once I had established to myself that this push business wasn’t just a fad, by mowing for a month or two, I bought an electric whipper snipper. We recently switched to 100% green power at home so the carbon footprint is restricted to the manufacture and transport. Since I never did the edges properly before anyway, the place actually looks better now.
  • Profile. Our lawn is pretty flat and rectangular. Even so, there are a few dips and holes in it from trees removed long ago. They are a pain as well. We are trying to fill in the holes, but so far everything put into them has trickled down out of sight in a few weeks. They must have been big trees, possibly with roots in another plane.

I figure some people pay for the gym to get their exercise. I hate the gym, and this way we can still traverse our yard without a compass.