Thursday, August 16, 2007

Another environmentally-friendly post...

Apropos of my last post, below is my latest reply to Raymond Poon over on this blog...

Raymond wrote: "The wake up calls are ineffective as they do not wake people up. We need wake up atomic bombs."

As I said before, I think you're underestimating the public's green consciousness. While they may not have changed their behaviours yet (it takes 21 times to solidify a new habit), but most people in the developed world are aware of the problems of climate change, not least because it's something that they can actually see and feel themselves when they walk out the front door and when they turn on the news.

Raymond wrote: "I am reading a book on externalities which concerns, among other things, plastic bag tax. I may write some notes on the subject later. One point raised by sociologists is that such a tax does not restrict the rich. If you have money, you can use as many plastic bags as you like, or any other wasteful stuff; while the poor suffers."

This is a completely spurious argument on so many levels (And as a sociologist, I must say this does not sound like the kind of arguments that we sociologists would make, I think the term you're looking for is probably "die-hard Keynesian economists"). As I mentioned in my previous post, there ARE eco-alternatives to plastic bags that the shops can provide (paper bags, even the ones from unrecycled papers, are still more environmentally-friendly, as well as cheaper, than plastic bags), so the consumers, whether rich or poor, would not be inconvenienced (or "economically-disadvantaged") by a switch to non-plastic versions.

Moreover, the real world is far more complex than this overly-simplistic economic modelling of "rich" vs "poor" consumers, as shown in actual empirical cases (such as IRELAND). What we found in practice (and as illustrated by decades of marketing research) is that there are many distinct groups of consumers, depending on the product as well as the shop in question. Beautifully-printed paper bags from high-street shops (from fashion to homeware to electronics) are an unexpected positive externality that resulted from the introduction of plastic bag tax, making the switch to paper a desirable behaviour for the so-called "rich" consumers who don't want to pay extra for the old plastic bags even though they could well afford to. As regards low-value items such as groceries, the supermarkets have cheap tote bags that could be re-used again and again, so that even "poor" consumers, whether old-age pensioners or poor college students on grants, can well afford this as it's an "investment" that will last several years and can be used for other purposes. More fundamentally, you're ignoring the fact that, it is often the poor who are most versatile in saving and recycling (in HK, think of the iconic "red white blue" bags that are used by the poor working class to tote their belongings), who would be most used to carrying their own bags, so they would be least inconvenienced by the tax itself. The small plastic bag tax is simply a very effective economic disincentive for the so-called "rich" to continue their wasteful ways. (In reality, the so-called "rich" is actually the majority of the population because the tax is set at such a low level that lower-middle class consumers can well afford to pay if they really want to.) In Ireland, what allowed the 90% reduction of plastic bags to happen is that most people found that they don't want to continue to use plastic bags even when they could well afford them. Our desire for plastic is reduced because, for those who are educated and have a social conscience (which is most of the Irish population), this is the right thing to do and we do it (and we're helped into it by the shops who provide viable alternatives to plastic); and for those who just want to be "seen" to be green and hip, the eco-friendly bags are a new style item (which sounds to me to be quite similar to much of the HK populace).

One should recognise that there are positive as well as negative externalities to every economic intervention, the key for sustainable development is how to create positive externalities (bring businesses on board to create viable and desirable alternatives to consumers) and minimise the negative (ensure the tax is at a low enough level that the majority of the population will still be able to afford if they really them).

As I've reiterated several times, the HK government should be looking at real life case studies as the evidence base for policies, rather than on empty theories that don't stand the test of reality (remember our discussion over your post on the Traveller's Game?).

Raymond wrote: "I keep a copy of the film The Inconvenient Truth. At the same time, I also watched the BBC Channel 4 documentary the Global Warming Dwindle. One of them must be wrong. The facts that all of them agreed are the warming effects like melting icesheets, etc. The conflicting point is whether CO2 precedes warming or otherwise, and whether mankind is guilty or innocent. On the curve comparing historical CO2 concentration and temperature, both agreed that they are correlated, but the two cause and effect theories are just the opposite. I still cannot find the literature on the detailed data."

Frankly, Raymond, I cannot believe you're in actual fact a climate change denier. This whole "question" about whether climate change is man-made or not is the key plank of US Republicans' denial of any need for the government to do anything about it. The "debate" to which you refer is completely manufactured by individuals and organisations with vested business interests, and you cannot "find literature or detailed data" that support this denial because there is NONE. However, the whole international scientific community is in agreement over the link between CO2 from human activities and observed climate change. That's the reason why they are behind the Kyoto accord, which is specifically about committing national governments to changing their population's carbon emissions. So it's not about whether Al Gore is right or wrong, Al Gore's book (and film) is simply a medium to make concrete scientific facts about man-made climate change more accessible to the general public.

Moreover, can you provide the link to the documentary you're referring to? One thing you should realise is that BBC and Channel 4 are two different British broadcasters, with different programming departments, so is this documentary you're referring to BBC OR Channel 4? I watch both channels regularly here and I haven't seen the one that you mentioned. And I must say, well-respected as these broadcasters are (actually Channel 4 not as well-respected especially after their racist Big Brother debacle), I cannot believe you're basing your arguments over 1 television programme as a rebuttal to decades of painstaking research by scientists all over the world.

Raymond wrote: "However, while the debate goes on, the Earth gets warmer. It is high time to think of living in a warm Earth, such as protecting land from the rising sea, and alternative sources of fresh water."

Again, I must say I'm a bit gobsmacked that somebody as well-read as you are seem not to realise that there are already technological advances made in these areas.

There are already well-established water treatment technologies to collect rainwater from the roof-tops of both high-rises and individual houses to reduce water consumption from the mains. These have been in use in recent skyscraper projects in Manhattan; while the UK government has grants for individual home-owners to install rainwater recylcing systems for their houses.

And if you look to countries like the Netherlands, they already have advanced systems and contingency plans (including floating houses!) for tackling the rise of sea levels. This is what a good government should do - they listen to scientists and plan for the long-term and they put money where their mouth is and invest in projects that serve the public interest. Disasters like the Hurricane Katriona in the US happened precisely because the government don't care and didn't do the required maintenance work on their levee systems.

It's funny, but scientists have been developing these technologies for decades, way before members of the general public finally began to catch on and think it's "high time" to start thinking of these things!

Of course, others would be able to present the arguments for all global citizens to do something much more effectively than I could above. In particular, I am really excited about the upcoming indie film, The 11th Hour. It promises to be even more comprehensive than Al Gore's seminal "An Inconvenient Truth", with interviews from a whole range of prominent scientists and engineers and economists and even politicians. Here's an excerpt of what has to say about it:

[...] what's so remarkable about Petersen and Conners' experts is the sheer breadth of expertise they offer. There are big thinkers able to discuss the overarching topics of human history and technology, like environmental scientists Stephen Schneider and David Suzuki, mathematician Stephen Hawking, and authors Nathan Gardels, Richard Heinberg and Bill McKibben.

Every so often in the movie, one of those guys drops the kind of paradigm-shifting bomb that clears your mind and your sinuses. Suzuki observes that the specific evolution of the human brain, which allowed us to conquer the planet and ensure our species' survival, has now put both the species and the planet in grave peril. Gardels summarizes the problem of consumer society in a single sentence: "You can never get enough of what you don't really want." Thom Hartmann says that we've been borrowing the energy of "stored sunlight" for the last 150 years, without developing a strategy about what to do as it gets harder and harder to find.

Just as important, at least in deflecting right-wing naysayers and critics, is the fact that the filmmakers call on numerous experts in specific scientific or philosophical disciplines to illuminate particular problems and their potential solutions. They've got engineers, architects, economists, physicians, oceanographers, land-use geographers, theologians and environmental scientists. They've got eco-activists, New Age gurus and Native American spiritual leaders, sure. But they've also got a former World Bank senior economist (Herman Daly), a former head of the CIA (James Woolsey) and a one-time world leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (Mikhail Gorbachev).

What all these people have to say adds up to a fairly simple message: You can't separate one environmental issue, like global warming, from a huge, interconnected complex of issues that include air and water pollution, deforestation and habitat destruction, hurricanes and floods, famine and drought, and the toxic dumping that is poisoning poor communities all over the world. Nor, in the final analysis, can you separate environmental and economic problems. The global environmental catastrophe is not a problem for rich, white Westerners to worry about; if anything, rich, white Westerners will face its most devastating effects last. And finally, it's really not a question of "saving the planet" but of saving ourselves. In the long, long arc of genetic and geological history, the planet will probably be OK. Whether people will still be able to live on it -- that we don't know.


In a sense, the filmmakers and their sources argue, the problem and its solutions are straightforward. We need to transform the world's economy, and do it yesterday. Yes, some groundbreaking research is still needed, but it's not as if the technology for both intermediate solutions (hybrid and electric cars, biodiesel, wind farms) and more long-term ones (solar power and possibly hydrogen fuel cells) does not exist.

Still, if these people are right and we've now arrived at virtually the last moment for avoiding total disaster, the obstacles are daunting, even terrifying. On one hand, no political leaders anywhere in the world -- not even the pious bureaucrats of the European Union -- have come near the kind of mega-Manhattan Project determination needed to address these issues. But we can't really blame the shortsightedness and corruption of politicians, which is after all their nature; that's like blaming an alligator for eating chickens. If we're not willing to rouse ourselves, individually and collectively, from the consumerist stupor that defines life in, well, everyplace where people aren't literally starving to death, then perhaps the species isn't worth saving.

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