Climate activists like to portray their foes as plutocrats, corporations, conservatives and deniers, a term I heartily hate.
The truth is, their biggest and most implacable enemy is the poor.
Due to advances in science and technology since around 1750, there are close to 2 billion people today who live better than the kings of that time.
Due to improved sanitation and the fortuitous discovery of things like penicillin, (and of course also to the dedicated research efforts of thousands), a middle class person in China will probably live a longer and healthier life than King Louis IV., eating healthier food and drinking cleaner water, wearing cleaner clothes and having some security in the potential for similar lives for their families.
They will have at their command not only the greatest thoughts, songs, plays and hymns of 1750 but also the combined works of art created since then–and rather than trotting out the old carriage to trundle into the city, they can choose to enjoy them in the comfort of their homes.
Although some will dispute that it’s an improvement, we new Proto-Royals can treat calligraphy as an option due to keyboards, arithmetic as a set of inputs to a calculator, memory as a service outsourced to Google and can consider getting lost as an optional game rather than one of the most terrifying experiences known to humans. What does the G in GPS stand for?
Of course there’s energy. The kings of old could measure the energy available to them in horses, slaves and servants. As Matt Ridley pointed out in his book The Rational Optimist, the modest consumption of a middle class family in the developed world puts royalty to shame. How many horsepower does your car have? How long do you have to work to pay your energy bill?
This incredible increase in the amount of energy available to the average human has actually decreased some of our environmental impact on the planet–about half of the land under the plow in the U.S. in 1900 was used to grow feed for horses. But clearly, the exothermic reactions used to let us live like kings also polluted the atmosphere and warmed the planet.
Warming the planet–oh, yes, that’s what this is about, even if I took a circuitous route to the subject. Although the extent and duration of our contribution to a warming planet is still very much an open question, there’s little doubt that the planet is warming and we are contributing in various ways.
If we were to freeze development of civilization to today’s standards and extent, what we are doing to the planet would not be considered extreme–at least not by historical standards, which saw us destroy forest and plain, wantonly exterminate species (as well as each other) and let our waste fall anywhere convenient. Our impact on and stewardship of this planet is vastly improved.
Despite all the conversation (which I consider incredibly silly) about extreme weather events, the political exploitation of the modest global warming that has occurred to date, the attempts to wrest corporate control of energy production from one set of corporations and turn it over to another, we do face a climate conundrum, precisely because we cannot freeze development at today’s rate. ‘Every man will be a king.’
That is the implicit promise and premise that has legitimized the current version of the world order. Not that we will all be rich as Croesus, but that we will have the technology and its fruits that enable us to live better than the richest of the past. This promise has kept us in line, willing workers expressing modest preferences at the polls and increasingly passive members of the polity.
And sadly we are less than a third of the way done. We must make this style of life available to another 7 billion people by 2075. Every forecast, from Stern to the IPCC to the World Bank to the IMF starts with that assumption–that economic growth will power the planet to an upper middle class income level and lifestyle during this century.
It is this promise that keeps both the Chinese employee at Foxconn and the U.S. FedEx delivery driver in line, in post and part of the river of progress. And it requires energy. Americans use about 308 million btus per person per year. The Chinese use 59 mbtus. They will not be satisfied until they reach American levels.
Because the Chinese (and Indian, and Indonesian and… and…) fuel of choice is coal, even a Lukewarm low sensitivity of the atmosphere to CO2 will not be adequate insurance against the rolling tide of emissions that will make today’s CO2 levels look like the quaint prelude they are.
If this is not in our thoughts today, by the time that ‘every man is a king’, he (it will actually be more likely to be a she) will be the mistress/master of a kingdom that cannot be seen through the smog, but will be felt as a kingdom transported to a warm and wet distant place.
Two degrees Celsius rise in this temperature–it will not destroy our civilization, but it will transform it in ways we would not choose today.
We may have to work to earn those crowns.