Politics & Environment


There are host of well-known environment groups that an educated individual can support, join and contribute. Political action is always required and is always frustrating. Effective political lobbyists have insights into human nature, communication skills and a good understanding of political processes.  Climate changes require intelligent, responsible politicians to act quickly and decisively to avert looming disasters. They are in short supply.

The University College London established the Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science. They wrote:” The Commission explored the role of climate scientists in contributing to public and policy discourse and decision-making on climate change, including how highly complex scientific research which deals with high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability can be effectively engaged with public and policy dialogue. The Commission also examined the insights that scientific research and professional practice provide into how people process and assimilate information and how such knowledge offers pathways for climate scientists to achieve more effective engagement. Finally, the Commission sought to identify the approaches that climate scientists can adopt to effectively communicate their messages and to make clear recommendations to climate scientists and to policy-makers about the most effective ways of communicating climate science.”

Politics is about the strategies of control and leadership of human groups. Humans have a deep tendency to form groups, to develop and defend boundaries and to treat outsiders as enemies. All groups have interests, privileges and costs of membership. All groups have hierarchies and competition for privilege and prestige. The effort to create tolerance and an ideal, egalitarian state counters these deep tendencies and probably will never be stable and enduring. Political groups advance the interests of their members, tending toward ideologies that oversimplify complex issues and average fears and beliefs so that a spectrum of individuals can belong.

Group Dialectics

Politics has revealed basic human tendencies that require understanding. The questions are: Why are their democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives? Why doesn’t everyone have the same preference and come to the same conclusions, given most of the facts? Why isn't everybody nice? The conventional view of political opinion recognizes a spread of political preference from left to right. This metaphor is misleading at best. Political arguments are about the distribution of wealth and resources, the use of force and the regulation of individual activity. The dialectic can be traced back to root group dynamics and the ever-changing balance between self-interest and group interest, between belligerence and peaceful negotiation. Most scholars investigate local, specific examples of divergent tendencies, but a skilled negotiator must focus on root tendencies and understand political arguments in terms of a range of expressions of innate characteristics. In the simplest case you could argue that some humans are nicer, more generous and more tolerant than others. Some humans are irritable, unstable and belligerent. Some humans are sociopathic.

Failing Democracies

Democracies have carried politics to an advanced level of refinement or absurdity, depending on your point of view. An ideal version of democracy proposes that every citizen can advance his point of view and vested interests in a public forum. The ability to speak well is an essential skill to succeed in a democratic forum. Other essential skills are the ability to understand local issues and the ability to affiliate with and influence others. Politics in the best case is art of gathering information, skill in creating public policy, skill in speaking and having an aptitude for affiliation and negotiation.
As groups grow in size, ideal representative democracy becomes impractical. A few representatives take on the job of speaking, affiliation and negotiation. The transition from individual participation to group representation has numerous problems. Hierarchical organization prevails in human and animal societies. Elected politicians now are preoccupied with manipulating their constituents with all the techniques of propaganda, advertising and public relations.

Battersby reviewed the attempts to study the interactions of governments that hoped to achieve consensus and sustain cooperation. He quoted Hardin: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” It has proved to be a powerful idea.

To Hardin and others, the same grim logic was behind many of our biggest problems. Common resources, such as fisheries, forests, and even the air are threatened by selfish individuals and nations taking what they can, even though they know the resource will be wiped out if everyone does the same. Hardin’s solution was to cede our freedoms to the state, to be bound by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”. “`On the global stage, the greatest tragedy of the commons is climate change. Despite knowing of this looming threat, countries have delayed taking real action for decades, quarreling over costs and responsibility, failing to build trust, all the while continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even in the wake of the Paris Agreement, the 2016 United States election has placed the status of a major player in doubt. Lacking any higher authority to rein in the selfishness of nations, are we doomed? “

“For the past three decades, countries have been trying to forge climate treaties based on voluntary national reductions in greenhouse gas emission. This works much like the classic cows-on-the-commons case that Lloyd described in 1833. The best outcome overall is if everyone cooperates, but each individual can do better for themselves by not joining in: let everyone else do the hard work of emissions reduction while I merrily pollute.

In game theory, this is akin to the prisoner’s dilemma: cooperation would be best overall, but you gain by betraying the other culprit (or resource competitor) no matter what they choose to do. Barrett’s experiments show that when real people communicate, they often start out in a spirit of cooperation, and many will make contributions to cutting emissions. But some opt out. Cooperators see these free-riders as depriving them of economic advantage; those cooperators start to drop out until soon none remain. Could this arrangement work better if we name and shame those who drop out, as the Paris Accord now promises to do via its pledge-and-review system? Dannenberg and Barrett have tested this idea with experiments too. It makes people promise more, but hardly alters their actual contributions. Tinkering with the game doesn’t help. “It was only in the last year that I finally understood the general point. “Countries are good at coordinating and bad at cooperating voluntarily.” 

USA Political Disaster

In 2017, the USA is suffering a political disaster with the election of Donald Trump as president. Mckibben summarized the new administrations anti-environmental stance: 

”President Trump’s environmental onslaught will have immediate, dangerous effects. He has vowed to reopen coal mines and moved to keep the dirtiest power plants open for many years into the future. Dirty air, the kind you get around coal-fired power plants, kills people. It’s much the same as his policies on health care or refugees: Real people (the poorest and most vulnerable people) will be hurt in real time. That’s why the resistance has been so fierce. But there’s an extra dimension to the environmental damage. What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet’s climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it’s time itself that he’s stealing from us. What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating.

"Trump is trying to give gas-guzzlers new life and slashing the money to help poor nations move toward clean energy; he and his advisers are even talking about pulling out of the Paris accords. He won’t be able to stop solar and wind power in their tracks, but his policies will slow the pace at which they would otherwise grow. Other presidents and other nations will have spewed more carbon into the atmosphere, but none will have insured, at such a critical moment, that carbon’s reign is extended. The effects will be felt not immediately but over decades and centuries and millenniums. More ice will melt, and that will cut the planet’s reflectivity, amplifying the warming; more permafrost will thaw, and that will push more methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The species that go extinct as a result of the warming won’t mostly die in the next four years, but they will die. The nations that will be submerged won’t sink beneath the waves on his watch, but they will sink. No president will be able to claw back this time — crucial time, since we’re right now breaking the back of the climate system. We can hope other world leaders will pick up some of the slack. And we can protest. But even when we vote him out of office, Trumpism will persist, a dark stratum in the planet’s geological history. In some awful sense, his term could last forever."

See The Environment by Stephen Gislason