I’m not sure what to make of our willingness to participate in the terraforming of the Earth. To explore it, I’ll consider an alternative history in which Antarctica was marginally habitable, and colonized a million years ago by woolly hominids who developed a Yeti civilization. Our whaling vessels meet up with them in the 1820s, but it’s so cold down there that nobody feels the need to molest them except for few hardy anthropologists, the occasional overzealous missionary expedition, and the usual cohort of scientists who will study the ends of the Earth, no matter how inhospitable. Inevitably, the Yeti spend some late nights with the scientists in their hot tubs watching the aurorae.
They get to talking about the magnetosphere, some atmospheric physics, and the geology of their ice-clad homeland. One day they decide their lives would be better if they could inhabit the entire continent, instead of just clinging to the coastal fringe, and so with the help of some misguided sympathizers, they develop a vast clandestine industrial complex pumping long-lived fluorinated super greenhouse gasses like CF4, C2F6, and SF6 into the atmosphere to warm things up. These compounds are vastly more powerful warming agents than CO2 and methane. They are also long lived atmospheric species, sticking around for up to 50,000 years. If a serious industrial complex were set up to produce and release them en masse, they would close a good chunk of the atmosphere’s thermal infrared window and radically alter the climate for tens of thousands of years. This atmospheric engineering could be done over the course of an election cycle, especially if the Yeti bastards had help from the cold-hearted Canucks and Russkies.
Would the G-20, the OECD or the UN Security Council stand by while a rogue Yeti nation threatened the billions of people who live in coastal cities, or depend on glacial water supplies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny? Of course not. We’d be more likely to bomb their furry white asses back into the Ice Age.
Would our response change if the timing were slightly different? Because of the climate system’s inertia — the thermal mass of the oceans and the energy required to melt the ice sheets — it would still take centuries for the full extent of the Yeti’s damage to become apparent. Would we believe our doomsaying scientists and take action? If avoiding climate change were as simple as annihilating a foreign culture with high explosives, wouldn’t we have done it by now?
What if they did the damage slowly, instead of quickly? Action wouldn’t seem so imperative then. A few years of emissions wouldn’t completely remake the sky. We’d try to negotiate, at first anyway. What if in negotiations, they revealed to us that they’d been in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, which had given them the technology for controlled nuclear fusion? They refuse to share the technology with us, but as a compromise they suggest that in exchange for letting them alter the atmosphere and melt the icecaps, for the next 100 years they will take care of all our energy needs at a very reasonable price. After that, we’ll be on our own. There will be no option to renew the agreement. Would we really accept that offer? A century of easy living, in exchange for the destruction of our coastal cities, mass desertification, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a world forever unlike the one on which our civilizations developed?
To accept that deal would be to take a bribe. It is structurally identical to the kleptocratic corruption that plagues resource rich countries in sub-Saharan Africa: a few people are deputized to make decisions on behalf of many, and they choose to use that power to enrich themselves, at the expense of those they represent. Instead of bureaucrats cheating their citizens, it is the present generation enriching itself at the expense of the future. I’d like to think we would refuse this “compromise” outright, but I’m not entirely sure. Maybe we really don’t care about our grandchildren, or any kind of posterity, in which case it’s a great deal.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we would reject this offer outright.
A more subtle plan
Now, the Yeti are a patient, long lived race. They’ve spent millennia hibernating in their pale blue ice caves through harsh Antarctic winters. They can wait a little longer for their homeland to thaw, and so they hatch a more subtle plan. Rather than altering the atmosphere themselves, they realize it’s more politic to let us do it for them, by convincing us it is necessary and desirable in the short term. (Since that’s apparently the way our sub-tropical savanna monkey minds think.) Given a century or two and the willing participation of the global economy, they see that CO2 is a serviceable terraforming agent.
First they encourage us to equate prosperity with the consumption of material resources, land, and energy — far beyond any necessary or globally attainable threshold. Instead of using advances in technology to maintain a relatively constant level of consumption, but with increased resilience, flexibility and leisure, the Yeti convince us it would be better to have more stuff and less time, to spend our money as fast as we earn it, and our resources as fast as they can be extracted from the Earth.
By the late 1980s we realize that we are living beneath a subtly different sky. We begin to wonder whether there aren’t some “side effects” to combustion after all. By this time things we once thought of as extravagant luxuries have become both entitlements and induced necessities. We decide that we are each entitled to a private automobile. Our cities are re-built around this expectation and they become necessary. We decide we are entitled to fly thousands of miles every year, and so think little of scattering our friends, families and businesses across entire continents or hemispheres. We decide we are entitled to meat at every meal, and so we look the other way while our agriculture is subsidized, industrialized, and rendered utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
Today the Yeti tell anyone who listens that change is unnecessary. The unconvinced are told that change is impractical, that more research is needed, or that we will have to make great sacrifices. To the stubborn few who are willing to make those sacrifices it is hinted that their actions are futile, so why not live it up while you still can? It is vital to the Yeti plot that the developed world avoid or at least delay reevaluating its behavior. We are setting the example of resource intensive prosperity they want the rest of the world to emulate. If we voluntarily abandon consumer culture, it would suggest others re-consider the shape of their aspirations.
In the poorer parts of the world, the Yeti highlight how unfair it is that we have enjoyed this fossil fueled prosperity while the majority of humanity has been left behind. They make us out to be a hypocritical elite, intent on maintaining our wealth at all costs. Ignoring physical constraints, they do their best to convince the developing world that they too are entitled to the material wealth we have attained over the last half century. The pent-up ambition and consumerist desires of those nations find their way into a world of depleted natural resources, with atmospheric CO2 at nearly 400ppm instead of 300ppm. Note also: there are ten times as many people in this round of industrialization as there were in ours.
The Yeti plan will advance as long as the consensus is that the West’s model is the best option available. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether it’s a desirable model, it’s actually not globally available. We’ll eventually choose to do something else. We might cynically decide to allow high rates of consumption among a hedonistic elite while forcing the vast majority of humanity to remain impoverished. This would be both unfair and unstable. More darkly, we could choose to wipe out most of humanity and start over. If the Yeti get their way we’ll just keep on mining the Earth, burning ancient sunlight and then burying our garbage like deranged plastic munching squirrels, until material constraints force us to adopt another way of life. At that point it will be too late; the Yeti homeland will be assured.
Are these thinly veiled retellings more disturbing than reality? Would you be more outraged if you knew there were actual white-haired apes quietly orchestrating our long, slow folly? If some of our politicians and bureaucrats were actually sleeper agents, ensuring massive and unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions? Or if we allowed the anti-ice cap propagandists to purchase airtime during the Super Bowl?
I’d like to think it would be a scandal if we discovered our governments had been funneling half a trillion dollars a year to support of the Yeti efforts, and giving their foreign shell companies massive tax breaks. I want to believe that we would be upset to find that the mines from which the Yeti extract their greenhousing materials had been quietly exempted from environmental regulations in order to facilitate the project. I’d prefer we were disturbed by collaborations between our intelligence agencies and the Yeti security forces, aimed at protecting their terraforming stations.
You’d think the conspiracy would justify at least a little bit of a good ol’ Joe McCarthy style White Scare. Unfortunately, we don’t seem paying any attention to the hirsute hominid behind the curtain.
Meanwhile, back on Earth…
What’s the difference between the real world and the slow Yeti conspiracy described above? How do they compare to selling the climate to aliens in exchange for a hundred years of fusion? Functionally they all seem virtually identical. In all three cases we get easy energy for a little while, followed by serious and permanent negative consequences. But they do feel different somehow. Being bribed into sacrificing the world of our grandchildren feels more wrong. I think it has to do with the decision being mediated by a third party. The Yeti are devils we make a deal with. A deal that benefits them much more than it does us, and that doesn’t feel fair.
There are times when you have no choice but to accept a lousy deal. If it’s bad enough, it’s called extortion. Those who offer such deals have every incentive to convince you that there’s no other option. They want you to feel trapped and helpless, so you accept their unfavorable terms. You can’t trust them to lay out all the possibilities for you honestly; you have to find them for yourself.
The fossil fuel dilemma is awkward because we feel as if we’re simultaneously the perpetrators and the victims. So long as we feel responsible for it, it comes off as self destructive behavior. Some groups have ended up identifying more strongly with the role of victim. The Maldives for instance, or Vanuatu — tiny low-lying island nations that don’t burn much because they’re poor and tropical, and that will be the first to get snuffed as the oceans expand. The billion people who live in the world’s coastal cities within a couple of meters of sea level might soon realize they’re in this camp, but the realization will be fraught, since they also derive benefits from our current energy system in the short term.
I think most of us have failed to name a corresponding and cohesive They to demonize. It’s annoying that we seem to need things framed that way to get riled up, but we’re tribe forming animals so maybe deep down inside that’s just the we’re wired. Retelling the story with the Yeti as the obvious perpetrators and beneficiaries creates a They. Victims have an incentive to identify themselves, but perpetrators need to be outed. We have to name them, and set them apart if we want to have a fight, and it unfortunately looks like we need to have a fight if we want to win.
More than anyone else, the real Yeti are Old King Coal, and his regicide is long overdue.