Climate of Failure

Environmentalists are just now waking up to the reality that if we're going to stop global warming, we're going to have to be a lot more politically savvy.

The heady days of early 2009, when advocates for global action on climate change anticipated world leaders gathering later that year around a conference table in Copenhagen to reach a global agreement, are but a distant memory. Today, with many of these same leaders focusing their attention on jumpstarting economic growth, environmental issues have taken a back seat. For environmentalists, it may seem that climate policy has dropped from the political agenda altogether.

They're right. The world's biggest emitters have reached a consensus of sorts, but not the one hoped for in Copenhagen. In the United States, President Barack Obama has borrowed his energy policy -- "all of the above" -- from the Republicans. Europe has dithered on any further commitments to emissions reductions as governments have been completely consumed by the euro crisis. China and India have used the follow-on conferences to Copenhagen, held in Durban and Cancun, to decisively push international climate negotiations into the long weeds. Leaders' attention to climate policy is not coming back -- at least not in any form comparable to the plans being discussed just a few years ago.

Copenhagen will likely be remembered as the moment when advocates for action lost their innocence. For more than a decade, expectations had been raised for a grand global bargain to put a price on carbon that would compel a major reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions -- notably carbon dioxide -- over the coming decades. To understand why this bargain failed requires a basic understanding of where carbon dioxide comes from and how it is reduced. A very simple but powerful framework for such an understanding was proposed in the 1980s by Japanese scientist Yoichi Kaya. Kaya explained that future carbon dioxide emissions would be the product of four factors: population, economic activity, how we obtain our energy, and how we use that energy.

We can simplify these four factors even further. Population and income together are simply GDP, or aggregate economic activity, and the production and consumption of energy reflect the technologies of energy supply and demand. The resulting Kaya Identity -- as his equation has come to be called -- simply says:

Emissions = GDP x Technology

With this simple equation before us, we can see the fundamental challenge to reducing emissions: A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable.  Right now, leaders on six different continents are focused on efforts to grow GDP, and with it jobs and wealth. They're not as worried about emissions.

If you spend any time in the midst of the climate debate, it won't be long before you will be assailed by those who would like to argue that economic growth is unnecessary or even wrong, and stopping it is a key to reducing emissions. I hear these arguments mostly from wealthy liberal academics in posh university towns across the richer parts of the world. Noted environmental activist Bill McKibben, for example, frequently makes the case that "growth may be the one big habit we finally must break," and he is far from a lone voice. But of course, no candidate has ever secured political office on an anti-growth platform. One has to live in a thickly insulated bubble to think that stopping or reversing growth could ever be a feasible way to reduce emissions.

So what's the solution, then? The Kaya Identity tells us that instead of GDP, the focus must be on technology, and here the math is surprisingly simple. Stabilizing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would require more than 90 percent of the energy we consume to come from carbon-free sources like nuclear, wind, or solar. Policymakers often discuss reducing annual emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels. But emissions today are already more than 45 percent higher than in 1990, so that higher level implies a need to cut by more than 90 percent from today's levels. Put another way, in round numbers, we could keep at most 10 percent of our current energy supply, and 90 percent or more would have to be replaced with a carbon-free alternative. Today, about 10 percent of the energy that we consume globally comes from carbon-free sources -- leaving a long way to go.

Frustratingly, this 90 percent threshold for carbon-free energy supply is largely independent of how much energy the world consumes. Every major projection of future energy consumption foresees growth in energy demand around the world, which makes sense when you consider that today 2 billion people or more lack basic access to energy. Energy demand is skyrocketing in China and India, and eventually will in Africa. But even letting your imagination go wild and envisioning a future world that consumes half of the energy we do today would still require that more than 80 percent of our energy supply be carbon-free. This isn't a statement about the feasibility or desirability of improved energy efficiency; it's just math.

Consider this: If the goal is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level by 2050 (in precise terms, at 450 parts per million or less), then the world would need to deploy a nuclear power plant worth of carbon free energy every day between now and 2050. For wind or solar, the figures are even more daunting.

For several decades, the dominant view among climate specialists was that imposing a high price on carbon emissions -- whether through a tax or a traded permit system -- would create the economic incentive necessary to stimulate the green energy innovation needed. Unfortunately, the track record of such schemes is not encouraging. Any policy that depends for its success on creating economic stress on consumers (or voters) to motivate massive change is a policy doomed to fail. Voters typically respond to higher energy prices by voting out of office any politician or party who is perceived to be working against their economic interests. Supporters of carbon pricing have no good answer for the politics.

Australia has tried to get around this problem by subsidizing its relatively low carbon tax with broader income-tax reform -- that is, the government is returning to consumers more money than is collected by the tax. But the policy still remains wildly unpopular, with 38 percent of the public feeling worse off under the tax and only 5 percent feeling better off one month after its introduction, despite consistent strong support for non-specific action on climate.

Or consider Germany, where the government, having expressed a desire to shut down nuclear and fossil-fuel power altogether, is quickly waking up to reality. German politicians have begun to realize that their present choices are more carbon-intensive fossil fuel, more nuclear, or letting the lights go out. The impotence of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, due to an excess of tradable permits resulting from the economic downturn, actually creates incentives for more coal -- in 2012, black coal consumption is expected to increase by 13.5 percent. The Economist recently concluded that for Germany, "Greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to be higher than they would have been [without the nuclear shutdown] for quite a while to come."

Efforts to secure a high carbon price to create incentives for change still have staunch advocates in the environmental community, despite the little evidence that it can work. Advocates for carbon pricing typically argue that the costs are low or even nonexistent. The typical basis for such claims is an economic model that projects net costs over the better part of a century, with claims of low costs based on that aggregated, hypothetical sum. Such models, often laden with dodgy assumptions -- such as predictions of the magnitude and pace of future technological innovation in energy -- offer little solace to the politician who runs for election every two years and whose political fortunes hinge on the actual short-term costs.

The evidence that a high carbon tax is politically infeasible seems irrefutable, based on experience and common sense. Yet, even so, to try to push the debate forward, advocates constantly seek to demonstrate that climate change is taking place with high tangible costs, as if to try to rebalance the cost-benefit math. Such efforts to stoke alarm have no apparent limit, no matter how tenuous the science. For instance, even though scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have observed that the magnitude of drought in the central United States has actually decreased over the past century, there has been a rush to attribute the 2012 drought solely to human causes. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian economist, cheered on the drought and its devastation, writing "It sounds harsh, but in light of these realities, this year's U.S. drought is good news ... fears about imperiled food security may be our best hope for breaking through widespread climate-change denial and generating the political pressure to do something."

Science and nature provide enough varied data to paint anyone's political ink blot, ensuring that the debate over the weather sustains without end. In this debate ostensibly about the science, the opposing camps have created names for one other -- "alarmists" (who say the costs of inaction will be high) and "deniers" (who say that the costs of inaction will be low or even zero). The end result has been neither to win the debate nor secure a political mandate, but to politicize the science itself.

Even Foreign Policy has played this game. When in 2010 I observed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had made a rather silly error in its report by including a graph that could not be found in the scientific literature (and was erroneous to boot), FP included me in a line-up of alleged "climate deniers." Rather than seeking to get the science right, the magazine sought to enforce conformity of view. The good news is that the IPCC error has been widely recognized (even by the IPCC author who created the questionable graph) and the FP effort to discredit my views lives on only in the bowels of blogospheric debates over climate, dredged out occasionally by those relying on ad hominem attacks in the never-ending climate wars.

So what's the next step? For years -- decades, even -- science has shown convincingly that human activities have an impact on the planet. That impact includes but is not limited to carbon dioxide. We are indeed running risks with the future climate through the unmitigated release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and none of the schemes attempted so far has made even a dent in the problem. While the climate wars will go on, characterized by a poisonous mix dodgy science, personal attacks, and partisan warfare, the good news is that progress can yet be made outside of this battle.

The key to securing action on climate change may be to break the problem into more manageable parts. This should involve recognizing that human-caused climate change involves more than just carbon dioxide. This is already happening. A coalition of activists and politicians, including numerous prominent scientists, have argued that there are practical reasons to focus attention on "non-carbon forcings" -- human influences on the climate system other than carbon dioxide emissions. The U.N. Environment Program argues that actions like reducing soot and methane could "save close to 2.5 million lives a year; avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tons annually and deliver near-term climate protection of about half a degree Celsius by 2040."

Some of these opportunities are political. For instance, in the United States, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a loud and theatrical opponent to most action related to climate, supports action on non-carbon forcings, particularly efforts to reduce the amount of particulates in the air. As he explained to the Guardian  "Al Gore probably would be against automobile accidents and I am too. This has nothing to do with the CO2 issue." The lesson here is that if Gore and Inhofe can find common political ground on one important aspect of the issue, then there is plenty of hope for progress.

Other human influences on climate, such as those caused by chlorofluorocarbons, which are also known to impact the ozone layer, offer other tantalizing opportunities for progress while circumventing the most gridlocked parts of the debate. Similarly, the global demand for huge amounts of energy in coming decades provides a compelling rationale for energy technology innovation independent of the climate issue.

Of course, we can't ignore carbon dioxide. Carbon emissions will remain a vexing problem because they are so tightly bound to the production of most of the world's energy, which in turn supports the functioning of the global economy. But even here the situation may not be hopeless. America's recent boom in the production of shale gas illustrates the virtuousness of innovation: In the United States, shale gas has become widely available and inexpensive due to technologies developed by the government and private sector over decades and has displaced large amounts of coal in a remarkably short time, dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 were lower than those of 1996, even though GDP increased by more than 40 percent after inflation.

Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the challenge of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, because it is still carbon intensive, but the rapidly declining U.S. emissions prove an essential policy point: Make clean(er) energy cheap, and dirty energy will be quickly displaced. To secure cheap energy alternatives requires innovation -- technological, but also institutional and social. Nuclear power offers the promise of large scale carbon-free energy, but is currently expensive and controversial. Carbon capture from coal and gas, large-scale wind, and solar each offer tantalizing possibilities, but remain technologically immature and expensive, especially when compared to gas. The innovation challenge is enormous, but so is the scale of the problem. A focus on innovation -- not on debates over climate science or a mythical high carbon price -- is where we'll make process.

The vast complexity of the climate issue offers many avenues for action across a range of different issues. What we need is the wisdom to have a constructive debate on climate policy options without all the vitriolic proxy battles. The anger and destructiveness seen from both sides of this debate will not be going away, of course, but constructive debate will move on to focus on goals that can actually be accomplished. To paraphrase the great columnist Walter Lippmann, politics is not about getting people to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. The climate issue will never be solved completely, but it's still possible for us to make things better or worse.

I'm all for doing better.



God and the Ivory Tower

What we don't understand about religion just might kill us.

The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel's National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia's elections last October, "We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel."

On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government's commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.

But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion's less celestial cousins -- from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop -- faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James's 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that's a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea's Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire's overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society's ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don't understand what religion is all about. That's the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn't fly blindly into the storm.

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities -- that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features -- talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky -- make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner -- fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs -- surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish -- which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might "have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish." The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.

For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that "providence" or "nature" bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species' existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war.

Insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating outsized commitment that allows them to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Consider the American revolutionaries who defied the greatest empire of their age by pledging "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" for the cause of "liberty or death." Surely they were aware of how unlikely they were to succeed, given the vast disparities in material resources, manpower, and training. As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, Syria, "George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That's what we're doing. Exactly."

But the same logic that makes religious and sacred beliefs more likely to endure can make them impervious to compromise. Based on interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin, and others demonstrates that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Such backfire effects occur both for convictions with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, sharia law) and for those that are at least initially nonreligious (Iran's right to a nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees' right of return).

According to a 2010 study, for example, most Iranians think there is nothing sacred about their government's nuclear program. But for a sizable minority -- 13 percent of the population -- the quest for a nuclear capability (more focused on energy than weapons) had, through religious rhetoric, become a sacred subject. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it.

Although this sacralization of initially secular issues confounds standard "business-like" negotiation tactics, my work with political scientist Robert Axelrod interviewing political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other's values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants, and may enable subsequent material negotiations. Thus, we find that Palestinian leaders and their supporting populations are generally willing to accept Israeli offers of economic improvement only after issues of recognition are addressed. Even purely symbolic statements accompanied by no material action, such as "we recognize your suffering" or "we respect your rights in Jerusalem," diminish support for violence, including suicide terrorism. This is particularly promising because symbolic gestures tied to religious notions that are open to interpretation might potentially be reframed without compromising their absolute "truth." For example, Jerusalem might be reconceived less as a place than portal to heaven, where earthly access to the portal suffices.

If these things are worth knowing, why do scientists still shun religion?

Part of the reason is that most scientists are staunchly nonreligious. If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain's Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren't about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it's no longer necessary to believe. "New Atheists" have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. They contend that science has now answered questions about humans' origins and place in the world that only religion sought to answer in the days before evolutionary science, and that humankind no longer needs the broken crutch of faith.

But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little factual support. Although a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan indicates that people are less prone to think religiously when they think analytically, other studies suggest that seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious belief, especially among groups welded by ritualized sacrifice in the face of outside threats. Norenzayan and others also find that belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are primed with awareness of death or when facing danger, as in wartime.

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion -- that it is history's prime instigator of intergroup conflict -- does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored "God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history's most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as "humanity" arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire's majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what's going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion -- and the values it imposes -- can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes "Holy Land." Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs. It turns out there may be a neurological component to such behavior: Our work with Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian calculations; neuroimaging reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

Historical and experimental studies suggest that the more antagonistic a group's neighborhood, the more tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward other groups. Investigation of 60 small-scale societies reveals that groups that experience the highest rates of conflict (warfare) endure the costliest rites (genital mutilation, scarification, etc.). Likewise, research in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism -- that is, willingness to sacrifice for one's own group, such as Muslims or Christians, but not for outsiders -- and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks. This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

So why does it matter that we have moved past the -isms and into an era of greater religiosity? In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

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