Scopes Climate Trial

I had the fortune to see Kevin Spacey’s “Inherit the Wind” at the Old Vic during its run. The film is a fictionalized account of the Scopes monkey trial which pits nature against religion in the strictest sense (for a full summary click here) in a court room. Watching Spacey's version of "Inherit the Wind," for me parallels a friction that exists in a neo-secular modern world: where evolution science becomes climate change/ new-economics and creationism traditional Market capitalist ideology. This is a dichotomy I’ve run into with increasing regularity in the last few months.

“Progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it! Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “Alright, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam you may vote but at a price: you lose the right to retreat behind your powderpuff or your petticoat. Mr, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline. Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came but for this insight, this knowledge, we must abandon faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.”

Beyond the American Chamber of Commerce’s backwardness on climate change and the American penchant for putting ideas on trial, the new evolution science is climate science. Strikingly similar to the evolution of evolutionary theory the story has a conspicuously missing middle: we know the world is changing but we're fuzzy about the extent and rapidity of that change, much like the missing evolutionary hominids during Darwin’s time. Put another way, climate science is uncertain to the extent that changed world-wide average temperatures will have on individual places and people.

A study by O’Gorman and Schneider at the MIT and Caltech Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change find that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature increases the likelihood of extreme weather events by 5 to 6%. Another study from the same program by Sokolov and Prinn (et al) finds that by 2100 there is a 90% chance that average global temperatures will rise between 3.5-7.4 degrees Celsius. While it is clear that our lives will change, we are collectively grasping at straws about what to expect.

No one (except maybe backwoods rednecks and dedicated, disillusioned contrarians) doubts climate science anymore. But what climate believers still doubt is the necessity to alter our value systems or our ability to do it. Marketing green the same way, well, everything has been marketed in the past: green is the new black, strategies to sell climate change to the consumer. There are two telling examples of this:

The IPPR released a report called “Consumer Power: how the public thing climate change can be made mainstream.” The report recommends continuous re-consumerization of sustainable products and behaviors into “objects of desire,” to attract a key group of consumers: the Now People. The report goes on to suggest not to mention climate change when selling climate change (and not to mention environmentalism either) because it isn’t “cool.” It suggests talking about climate change with humor because humor will “sustain the attention” of the “Now People more than communications that are overly serious.” The report finally recommends that anyone talking about carbon emissions substitute the word “pollution” for emissions because emissions are invisible but pollution isn’t. While the report discusses a certain subset of people, marketers being marketers, it’s safe to assume that these suggestions will be used to market green to everyone. (As an aside, a psychologist friend of mine looked over the report and said that it was typical of marketing psychology, that the approach worked best for the general public but that the Now People wouldn’t be fooled.)

The other indicative example is the extent to which the carbon derivatives market (still not properly regulated-- warning bells should be going off) is said to expand in the near future-- to £4.3 trillion by 2015. According to the report Fortifying the Foundation: State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2009, trade in the voluntary carbon market around the world more than doubled in 2008 from $313 million to $705 million. Most of carbon market is voluntary: 48% world wide and over 45% in Asia alone. As little as three years ago there were over 20 carbon offset standards in the global carbon market and today there are fewer than 10.

The extent to which the free market has made carbon derivatives markets more “efficient” is probably over-- the market has consolidated. The extent to which it can be manipulated-- well, the “carbon cowboy” era maybe ending but prospect for vast manipulation remains. As long as national markets remain unintegrated, regulation within and between borders is ambiguous, the more complicated the CDM process at the UN, and the longer explicit offsets are delayed the greater the prospect for near future manipulation, a near future in which these markets need to work (leaving aside the debate on whether or not they are a good idea).

What has been done in both instances: the Now People marketing strategy and the Carbon market has just carried on old, market economics and old climate change science. For all the talk Stiglitz et al (Duncan Green over at Oxfam has a great discussion of it here) and NEF make about revaluing the economy there are very few people and fewer world leaders who either get it or are willing to engage in the debate (new economics/climate change science). Very bluntly, while we accept that climate change is real, the ambiguity with which it will present itself and its effects on our lives is keeping us from fortifying our societies for earth shifting changes we physically face as a species.

Evolution versus creationism hasn’t ever been settled and thus “Inherit the Wind” remains perennially relevant to the American political sphere. But new economics versus market capitalism is a debate that must be settled. And it must be soon. In almost two years past the beginning of the financial crisis we’ve done very little to re-regulate financial markets, to say nothing of the house cleaning needed in the carbon markets. I would hate to see welfare reformed growth metrics discussion on the international stage go the way of the creationism- evolutionary debate in the US.


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Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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