Climate Change and Storylines

The reason for the several-month unannounced hiatus since my last post is that during that time I was finishing, submitting, and defending my PhD thesis. You’ll be happy to know it went well. Perhaps sometime in the next few months, I’ll write a blog post that summarizes it in detail. For now, however, I want to flag up an interesting intersection between my PhD research and my interest in climate change.

My PhD, for those of you who haven’t read my Simpsons-based introduction to it, is about discursive storylines in socio-technical transitions. In more comprehensible terms, that means that I was looking at the ways people understand old and new technologies, when a new technology is in the process of replacing an old one. I did this using two historical case studies of the transition from a rail-dominated transport system to a road-dominated transport system in the United States and the United Kingdom. So essentially I was using a lot of newspaper, magazine, and political archives to look at how people talked about trains and cars while trains were being replaced by cars.

In doing so, I noticed something interesting: People’s representations of rail and road transportation typically have only a passing relationship with the reality on those transportation systems themselves. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • In the 1920s, the United Kingdom was faced with a rash of deaths by car accidents. This was horrifying, because that kind of sudden accidental death in a public space was completely foreign at the time. The solution that was most often proposed for this, however, is somewhat counterintuitive from a modern perspective: Both experts and laypeople typically suggested that the answer was to build more roads. This, they argued, would make the road system more efficient and safer, and would virtually eliminate car accidents. Even George Orwell believed this: On page 12 of The Road to Wigan Pier he writes that “The danger of accidents would disappear if we chose to tackle our road-planning problem seriously, as we shall do sooner or later”. What Orwell failed to realize is that building more roads had the effect of encouraging more car travel, which in turn meant more accidents. The basic storyline that roads, not cars, were at fault for car accidents was nevertheless very compelling.
  • During the 1930s, the railroads of the United States petitioned the Federal Government to extend Interstate Commerce Commission regulations to the road transportation industry. Interstate Commerce regulations, which were put in place starting in 1887 to curb price-gouging by monopolistic railways, were now giving the railways a major disadvantage against the new, road-based transportation system. The Congressional debates about extending these regulations to the railways, however, revealed that many congresspeople were still very worried about unleashing the railway monopolies to do as they liked, despite the fact that the railways would never again have a monopoly over anything. The view that the railways were inherently monopolistic and not to be trusted, which was by then several decades old, was firmly engrained in the minds of many American lawmakers.
  • As the first British motorways were being built in the 1950s and 1960s, they were portrayed as a modernising, civilising force that would ensure safe and efficient transportation into the indefinite future. They even made postcards of the motorways. Here’s a quote from the Daily Mail in 1955, predicting what motorways would look like in the future: “Along the wide, multi-track motorways leading to the sea the holiday traffic surges in orderly streams. Police helicopters and convertaplane patrols of the newly merged Royal Automobile Association hover overhead”. Anybody today who has driven on the M25 would scoff at this, but at this time the view that motorways were a futuristic and exciting change was difficult to challenge.

A postcard from Britain’s golden age of motorways.

I have not recounted these anecdotes so that we can scoff at them. Even the most knowledgeable experts can be seen to have indulged in this kind of thinking. The problem, however, is that some problems are simply too big to contemplate rationally. A transportation system is an immensely complicated thing, comprising perhaps more moving parts than anything else humans have ever built. Add to that all the money, laws, and personal motivations associated with it, and you have something that you could not understand thoroughly even if you spent your whole life reading about it; much less if most of your knowledge comes from listening to the news on the radio while driving your car to work.

So because we can’t keep all the relevant facts in our head at any one time, we take a cognitive shortcut. We construct storylines. Marteen Hajer, who developed the concept of storylines to account for environmental politics, describes them as “narratives on social reality through which elements from many different domains are combined and that provide actors with a set of symbolic references that suggest a common understanding” (Hajer 1995, p. 45). We use storylines to fill in the gaps of our limited understanding of complex phenomena. But we don’t all use the same storylines. That’s because we have different assumptions about the world, and different myths that appeal to us. Some people, such as the road boosters in Britain, believe in the inevitability and inherent goodness of technological progress, and so they interpret the facts in a way that can be used to tell that story. Others, such as the American railroads’ detractors, believe in the inherent corruption of big business, and construct storylines with that fact in mind. Similarly, today, people’s predictions about the future tend to line up with science fiction movies: Star Trek, Blade Runner, or Mad Max.

Which brings me to the subject of climate change. It might not be an exaggeration to say that climate change is perhaps the most complex problem that any human mind has ever grappled with. It involves complex interactions between five of the most complex systems we know of: The atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the ecosphere, the geosphere, and what might be called the sociosphere: The halo of human action that surrounds our planet. Each of these systems is difficult enough to model on its own. Keeping track of the interactions between all five of them is virtually impossible.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. Climate science has proved convincingly that fossil fuel emissions are taking us to a very bad place. But figuring out exactly what is going to happen becomes very thorny, especially once you add human societies, the source of the carbon emissions, into the mix. So instead we tell stories. There are a lot of storylines that have emerged in response to climate change, each of which speaks to much older cultural myths. Here are just a few of them:

The Icarus Storyline: Humankind is flying too close to the sun and is about to come crashing back down to the ocean. We aren’t going to solve the problem, and we’re doomed.
The Apollo Storyline: Humankind is infinite in its creativity and ability to solve problems. We will, through some combination of renewable energy and geoengineering, fix climate change.
The Socialist Storyline: We cannot solve climate change so long as we are wedded to an outdated capitalist economic system. We need to throw out the bankers, and then we will have an economy that does not destroy the Earth.

I’m sure you can probably think of a few more. The point I want to make here is that each one of these storylines can be told in a way that is convincing, both in terms of its internal consistency, and its correspondence with observed facts about the world. They all start from largely the same basic information, and fill in the gaps with compelling narratives.

What this suggests is that none of these storylines is likely to be true in its entirety. History is rarely so clean-cut and binary as these storylines make it out to be. (And this is not the first time in history that climate change has been an important problem). It’s complicated, contingent, and it can almost never be expressed in terms of whether a given problem (such as the Mongols, the Black Death, or colonialism), is “solved” or not. Actions have consequences both foreseen and unforeseen, and both positive and negative. And nobody can predict the future.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be worried about climate change. We should be extremely worried about climate change. But let’s acknowledge our own limitations. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. The best we can do is tell each other stories about it. Surely that fact is both scary and motivating enough all by itself for us to go out and do something about it.

Further reading:

Hajer, M.A., 1995. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process. Clarendon Press.
Hajer, M., Versteeg, W., 2005. A decade of discourse analysis of environmental politics: Achievements, challenges, perspectives. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 7, 175–184. doi:10.1080/15239080500339646

Challenging our High-Carbon Narratives

It has become trendy among climate activists to focus their efforts on the production, rather than just the consumption, of fossil fuels. This has a pretty solid rationale: If we take oil out of the ground, then somebody is going to burn it. If we want to save the global climate, then we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The implications of this are radical, but hard to deny: Most major fossil fuel extraction projects have to be phased out, and we should absolutely not be initiating any new ones such as fracking or drilling in the Arctic. This is not an idle proposition, either; it has motivated a worldwide divestment campaign, as well as some very brave protesters taking on the fossil fuel industry wherever they try to frack some shale gas, dig up some bitumen, or build a new pipeline. These people deserve your support.

We can’t afford to completely forget about fossil fuel consumption, however. Consumption and extraction are very closely linked. Just as somebody is going to find a use for all that surplus oil we’re digging up; if we don’t address high rates of fossil fuel consumption then we can also expect a massive backlash from people who are still dependent on fossil fuels to threaten our progress at keeping oil in the ground. We need both approaches.

Beyond its immediate usefulness, the “leave the oil in the ground” also contains a broader philosophical and strategic implication that we should consider; namely that on any environmental issue, we should resist the temptation to focus on proximate causes, such as people heating their homes, and make sure to take account of the root causes, such as fossil fuel production and the lack of renewable home-heating infrastructure. There are social, economic, and political drivers for every environmentally destructive practice from littering on city streets to nuclear weapons testing. The actual act that harms the environment is often merely the last step in a chain of events that was set in motion in some disparate time and place. Often it would be better to tackle the first link in the chain, rather than the last one.

It gets a bit more complicated than that, because fossil-fuel extraction is not the only thing thing that sets in motion a chain of events leading to fossil-fuel combustion. Another one, which I want to address here, is our narratives of consumption. Think about the last major purchase you bought. Were your reasons for making that purchase completely rational? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not a Vulcan, then the answer is probably ‘no’. Our lifestyle choices are, at least on some level, performative. We do things, spend money, and, yes, emit carbon, because doing so allows us to align ourselves with certain cultural story-lines. One of my favourite examples of this is travel. If you’ve any kind of overseas backpacking holiday, then I would wager that you did so at least partly because you bought into story-line that says that such travel experiences will change your life. Unfortunately, they also emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I don’t mean to shame anybody with this post. The fact that we base our life choices on cultural narratives is perfectly okay, and is probably a fundamental part of how culture and society works. My point here is a more positive one: The fact that these narratives can be a major driver of carbon emissions gives climate activists an in. Because these stories are always at least a little bit arbitrary. Particular narrative exist for a reason, of course-each one is probably a complex combination of historical and psychological factors, but there is more than one potentially compelling cultural story-line about any given thing. In other words: Our high-carbon narratives, like fossil fuel extraction, are just one of the many root-causes that we can tackle.

At this point, I have to turn to British Comedian David Mitchell’s rant about climate change:

The basic point of Mitchell’s rant is that we should stop pretending that climate mitigation will be fun, because we will never be able to compete with people like Jeremy Clarkson if that is our strategy. But I’m not so sure. To take one of Mitchell’s examples, who says driving a 4×4 to the North Pole while drinking gin is actually that much fun? To me, it sounds cold, dangerous, hangover-inducing, and mostly monotonous once you’ve been doing it for a day or so. Of course, very few of us actually drunk-drive large vehicles to the planet’s polar regions. But we can similarly re-frame the discussion around more everyday driving. Our myths about driving tell us that it is the ultimate freedom, because it allows us to go wherever we want completely autonomously.

I don’t deny that there are some specific cases in which driving fits this description. Despite my frequent anti-motorist killjoying, I am in fact familiar of the sense of freedom and fun that comes with a good road-trip with friends. But that’s a tiny subset of the driving that people do. Lots of things about driving are the opposite of freedom. Drivers are saddled with the responsibility to find parking spots and feed the meter, to fret over the price of gas at the nearby station versus the one in the next town over, and to ensure they remain sober enough to get themselves home safely and legally. As a non-car-driver, by comparsion, I am perfectly free to jump on a train to the other end of the country whenever I want. Once I have arrived, I can step right off the train into a city centre with no need to look for parking, and I can go to the pub without worrying about whether I will get a DUI on the way home. I enjoy a similar freedom in local travel: My bicycle can be locked up almost anywhere, and can be safely left there overnight if I decide to take the bus home instead. So while you can tell a story in which driving is something that gives you the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule; you can tell a different one in which driving imposes a whole set of extra responsibilities on you that severely restrict how you can live your everyday life.

The choice between the two narratives I just presented is somewhat arbitrary. There is no scientific experiment or logical argument that could actually determine whether cars embody freedom. Furthermore, the freedom I experience as a non-driver is contingent on having public transit options and cycle infrastructure available to me. The point I want to make, though, that there is a cultural battle here that climate activists should be fighting. It is, thankfully, already being fought in a few places. And not just in terms of transportation, either. Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, in particular, is doing a great job dismantling some of the myths driving consumption, and replacing them with a very appealing narrative about frugality and a life of leisure and autonomy. We should do more of this. We should be challenging the adventure narratives that make people carbon-intensive holidays to other continents, the personal fulfilment narratives that make people buy a bunch of useless and environmentally-destructive stuff, and the health and fitness narratives that make people feel like they have to eat meat every single day of the week. Because ultimately, asking people to live more sustainably while continuing to perpetuate myths of conspicuous consumption is about as sensible as digging up a bunch of fossil fuels and asking people not to burn them.

A Transitions Perspective on Carbon Offsets

Those contrails contain A LOT of carbon. We have to stop doing so much of this. Image from

Last week, I complained about how hard it is to take a ferry to Spain, and used that as a jumpoff point to write a somewhat rambling post about the complex ways that our unsustainable travel habits are entrenched . This week I’m going to continue on that thread, by discussing the way I ultimately and reluctantly wound up booking my travel to Valencia, namely flying. I’m going to consider if there’s any way that such an environmentally destructive form of transportation reasonably justified, particularly through the mechanism of carbon offsets.

When you really look at the data concerning the emissions generated by flying, the results are actually quite shocking. Carbon calculators differ on the exact measurements, but based on a survey of a few of the options, it seems entirely plausible that if you include the radiative forcing caused by contrails, a single round-trip transatlantic flight contributes more to climate change than an entire year of commuting 60 kilometers every day in a hummer. That means that despite my cycle commuting, preference for train travel, and quasi-veganism, my flight home for Christmas already makes me a profligate contributor to climate change, even by first-world standards. Even more depressingly, nobody appears to be working on an electric jet engine or any other form of more sustainable aviation. Apparently there is simply no way around it: Suspending human beings in the air and accelerating them to near-supersonic velocity so that they can travel across and between continents will always consume a very large amount of energy, and that energy will probably come from fossil fuels. The inevitable conclusion is that we need to stop flying so much.

This is a tough pill to swallow, particularly for progressive environmentalists such as myself. The progressive world-view tends to value travel and cultural exchange, and so while you will find most of the political left enthusiastically advocating personal sacrifices such as cycle-commuting and veganism in the name of mitigating climate change, our practice of flying around the world remains conspicuously unexamined. When the question is brought up, the answer is normally to purchase carbon offsets, which pay other people to reduce their emissions in order to negate the extra emissions you cause by flying, or driving, or any other high-carbon activity. The idea basic idea of carbon offsets is not a bad one, though some environmentalists have compared them to the papal indulgences of medieval Catholicism. I’m not going to go into all the details of that argument, but you can find a good summary of carbon offsets here. In the rest of this post, I’m going to apply a transitions perspective to the problem, and ask whether the offsetting of activities like flying can do any good in a long-term transition to a sustainable economy..

If you’ve never purchased carbon offsets before, one thing that will strike you about them is how cheap they are. I can offset each of my round-trip tickets to Toronto for about $30. This is because we’ve done such a terrible job promoting a sustainable economy so far that there are a lot of low-hanging fruit. The free distribution of energy-saving lightbulbs to people who would not ordinarly buy them, for example, is a very cheap way to cut a lot of emissions. Building renewable energy infrastructure, particularly in the developing world, is another popular option. The good news about this is that it means that it is possible for a lot of people to be able to afford to offset. The bad news is that if all goes well, carbon offsets will eventually mean that the world is full of energy-saving lightbulbs and wind turbines, making it much harder to offset emissions from our flights. At that point, offsets are going to get much more expensive, because we will have to pay other people to change their lifestyles in order to accommodate ours.

On the one hand, a big pool of free money available for projects to install sustainable infrastructure that wouldn’t ordinarily be installed is definitely a very useful way to encourage a transition to a more sustainable economy. Niches for new technologies to develop before they are economically competitive are a very important part of any transition, and ideally carbon offsets should provide a ready supply of funding for engineers and entrepreneurs working on low-carbon technology. Once these innovations are sufficiently developed, carbon offsets can provide a powerful incentive for their adoption.

But on the other hand, a transition to a more sustainable economy must ultimately change more than just infrastructures and technologies. It must also change habits. The only reason that citizens of developed countries can all continue to fly around the world while offsetting their emissions is that there is a huge mass of much less wealthy people on Earth who emit far less than we do. But if the situation of these people improves (as it should), then this will no longer be the case. If the entire population of India suddenly has the money to fly to islands in the Indian Ocean for vacations, and if these people are in the habit of offsetting, then the price of carbon offsets will skyrocket. Given the very high emission generated by flight, the only possible way to avoid climate catastrophe is to make sure that not very many people fly. Currently this is accomplished by economic disparity. First-world climate activists therefore have two possible choices in the long term: stop flying so much, or keep the poor down. No amount of carbon offseting will change that.

The dilemma here is that while carbon offsets can provide an incentive to make technological systems more sustainable, they provide an active disincentive for people to make changes to their daily lives. And both things are required if we’re going to stave off climate catastrophe. The only solution to the dilemma that I can see is the absolute commitment of first-world consumers to offset their emissions, regardless of how expensive the offsets become. That will force people to change their habits when they can no longer afford to offset them.

Based on this, I can offer three rules that we should ideally follow around offsets:

  1. If you must fly, drive, eat meat, or do anything else that emits a lot of carbon, then you must offset. You should commit to offset all your emissions to the point that your net carbon impact is around 1.5 tons CO2 per year (which should be our goal by 2050, according to this guy). Persuade others to do the same.
  2. Maintain that commitment regardless of how expensive offsetting becomes in the future. If you can no longer afford to offset your lifestyle, then you have to change it. No exceptions.
  3. Accept that this will mean your flying days are numbered. The same thing probably goes for eating meat every night of the week, or commuting by car. Plan accordingly.

This post has focused mainly on flying, but it applies to our first-world lifestyles more generally. First world consumers in particular have an absolute ethical duty to fight against climate change, since they are the cause of so much of it and they will be among the last to feel its effects. This means we need to choose smart strategies not only to alleviate the effects of our lifestyles in the short term, but also to wean ourselves off of these lifestyles in the long-term. Carbon offsetting is one possible way to do that, but only if it is applied with both intelligence and commitment.

I have to confess that I’m being a bit hypocritical with this post, as I’ve never bought offsets before. But I’m going to start right now, with that trip to Valencia. So should you.

Boats and Borders: A Longwinded Meditation on our High-Carbon Society

Cars embarking on the cross-channel ferry at Dover. Is this really the most efficient way to carry people across water?

I’ve recently been invited to speak at my first conference. Even more exciting than that is the fact that the conference is being held in Valencia, Spain. So within literally half an hour of receiving my formal inviation, I came up with a very exciting plan: Go to the two-day conference in Valencia, and then go find a nice Spanish beach to lie on for the rest of the week. I immediately commenced procrastinating from my real work by planning my trip from Manchester to Valencia. Being a bit of a hippy environmentalist who loves trains and boats and hates sitting in front of screaming babies on planes, I looked for a some combination of rail and ferry networks that would get me there. This turned out to be frustrating, however. Partly because the Spanish rail network is an a bit of a shambles, but more importantly because many of the ferries from Southern England to Spain do not allow foot passengers on board.

It is this last point that I want to riff on a little bit in this post. If the fact that many of our major water-borne transport networks can’t be boarded without a car isn’t a knockdown demonstration of car culture, then I don’t know what is. Even those ferries that do allow foot passengers often put them at a considerable disadvantage. I know from experience that such boats often require foot passengers to disembark using a bus that drives off the boat after all the drivers have already left, which effectively adds at least half an hour to the journey time. And port facilities are rarely well-connected to railway or bus terminals. I’ve had to walk over a mile to catch a ferry in the past.

The reason this is so problematic is that ferries are the only really sustainable way to travel over water. My flight to Valencia, which I reluctantly booked after two days of fruitless searching for a viable ferry itinerary, will emit 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide each way, which will add up to a whopping 40% of my ideal annual carbon budget over the course of the whole trip. So if we are going to transition to a sustainable economy then ferries are going to have to play a big role. The problem here is that, under the status quo, in order to avoid using the most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet (flying), it is highly advantageous and sometimes mandatory to own a car, which happens to be the second-most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet. There is very little space for people who choose to forego both technologies, and this is a problem.

What I’d really like to see here is an alternative ferry system, designed specifically for foot passengers. It would involve boats that are big enough to carry a large number of passengers safely across the English Channel, but not the behemoths designed to carry cars and trucks. I would like to see these boats making quick, cheap, efficient trips across the channel, in which people would embark on foot from a small pier, rather than having to wait for countless vehicles to be painstakingly loaded on at a gigantic terminal. Of course, I have to confess that I know virtually nothing about the ferry business, and there are probably a lot of very serious problems with the suggestion I have just made. It would, at the very least, require considerable changes to port infrastructure and dominant travel habits. It would also require a major change to how customs and immigration services are managed. More border guards would have to be built at more ports, and they would have to be built with foot passengers, rather than a stream of motor vehicles, in mind. I’m no more an expert on customs and immigration than I am on passenger marine travel, but somehow I doubt that border agencies could easily be persuaded to do such a thing.

This brings me to the final point of this somewhat rambly post: Maybe border guards are an unexamined part of the transport system. Border stations are expensive, and immigration agencies probably save money by building a small number of big checkpoints at major transport hubs. I’m willing to bet that a small ferry entrepreneur couldn’t simply request one wherever she needs it. Since most long-distance travel takes place between separate sovereign states, modes of transport that connect to pre-existing border control points at airports and large ferry terminals have a major advantage over alternatives. This locks in established unsustainable transport systems. Even the land border between Windsor and Detroit-the most highly trafficked border in the world-requires pedestrians to board a “tunnel bus” in order to cross the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. So groups like No One Is Illegal can add one more argument to their arsenal: Borders contribute to climate change.

The general point I’m trying to make here is that the systems that entrench environmentally destructive technologies manifest themselves in complex and surprising ways. We build boats that can only be boarded by cars, and the legal structure of international travel encourages the use of pre-established transport systems. If we want a more sustainable future, then we need to be critical of all this stuff. And we need to have the courage to change it.