Knot Now: Another Year Goes By and Our Pursuit of Fool’s Gold Leaves Us No Closer to Solving Climate Change

Events of 2011 show that no matter how solid the science, some people will never accept that humans are causing global warming.  So how can we cut the Gordian Knot that is manmade global warming?

by Auden Schendler, reposted from the Atlantic

One version of the myth of King Midas holds that he was not greedy. Instead, he loved his daughter so much that he longed to leave her a stable future. When given the chance, he asked for the golden touch as a way to create an endowment. But when they embraced, she turned to gold as well. In trying to protect his beloved daughter, Midas destroyed her.

Some climate change deniers have the same admirable motive as Midas. The actions required to solve climate, they fear, will preclude us from capturing the wealth that can benefit or save many children today. Even the left argues that a rising economic tide lifts all boats, despite the fact that continued growth probably dooms the planet to runaway warming.  Environmentalists fear that no action on climate condemns us to an even more costly fate that threatens every child, forever.

Finding a fix, then, seems close to impossible. What we learned in 2011 –a  banner year for human understanding of climate change and its impact on our lives — helps explain why.

In October, climate-change skeptic Dr. Richard Muller released the results of a two-year study at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project that was funded in part by the Koch brothers, leading climate deniers. Muller’s report, in his own words, found that “global warming is real.” In fact, Muller found warming to be “on the high end” of what others had found. The results were reported in the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page.

2011 also gave a taste of what climatologists have long predicted: that a warmer world will experience more severe weather events, both droughts and storms. PBS reported on “mind-boggling extreme weather” resulting from warming, what Dr. Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology at the Weather Underground, Inc. calls “steroids for the atmosphere.” This summer, droughts in the Southwest matched those of the dust bowl and a tornado outbreak blew away the record 1974 season. USA Today reported how natural disasters were straining FEMA’s budget. In the last week of 2011, Vermont fixed the last of the roads destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Irene.

At the same time, still more peer-reviewed science came out showing that the anthropogenic warming signal is unmistakable. Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf’s paper in Environmental Research Letters stripped out the known non-human influences on climate (El Niño, volcanic aerosols and solar variability, among others) and found human-induced warming to be clear and consistent.

Meanwhile, a new paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society argued that society is at substantial risk of exceeding warming of 2°C, the threshold widely seen to be the difference between something to which we could possibly adapt and disaster.

Last, and least noted, has been the inability of climate deniers to produce peer-reviewed science showing that warming is not human caused. Their anecdotal claims are easily debunked: the sun is at a minimum, despite record global temperatures. Cosmic-ray activity hasn’t coincided with modern warming. Volcanoes emit far less CO2 than humans. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas that is exacerbated by CO2 induced warming. The earth has warmed before, of course, but always with a well understood cause, just like we have today.

One might imagine the economic damage of 2011’s storms would get deniers thinking. Can we continue to rebuild roads and bridges, sump out towns and drench fires, or, might ought we do something about it? And since cutting CO2 emissions will cool the planet, is that not a good place to start?

Well, no. In 2011, the result of the head-smacking obviousness of the science, as Naomi Klein pointed out in The Nation, is that opposition has become even more strident, in large part because deniers are no fools. Fully dealing with climate change, Klein observed, would require “that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency.” The climate message didn’t fail, Klein argued: It simply got through too clearly.

At the same time that the right became more rigid, Leslie Kaufman of the New York Times reported on the radicalization of the environmental movement in response to lack of policy action. She quoted Roger Ballentine, a climate adviser to the Clinton White House:

“The failure to address climate is catastrophic, and young people are justifiably outraged. What we have now is an antagonized grassroots calling for a radicalized approach.” Such an approach did develop, most notably in the form of 12,000 protesters who surrounded the White House and blocked the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring the most carbon-intensive fuel–tar sands oil–into the US from Canada.

In 2011, scientific certainty didn’t clear up anything at all, it just energized the left and the right, in opposite directions, confirming historian Naomi Oreskes’s notion that climate-change denial has never been about the science, it was always about ideology.

So we start 2012 with an unprecedented understanding of climate science and the consequences of warming, and at the same time seemingly irreconcilable differences on what to do, a Gordian Knot of a problem; complex and intractable, ingeniously self-tightening.

Alexander Cuts Gordian Knot

Solutions will require the boldness, innovation, and rule breaking of Alexander the Great, who famously used a sword to cut that knot. But uniquely today, we’ll need the political right and left to hold the blade without killing each other first. Some feel the only path to this future is enough of a climate signal — Manhattan under water — to make action obvious. Others see bipartisan solutions percolating even today: eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a carbon fee, for example, or eliminating subsidies for big oil and using that money for clean energy development, meet goals both left and right.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to understand its cause. Who, for example, tied the legendary Gordian Knot, a good metaphor for the puzzle we face today? It turns out it was a man known by some to be kind and fair, but whose vision of affluence led to disaster. He was a king. And his name was Midas.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book “Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.” This piece was originally published at Atlantic.

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9 Responses to Knot Now: Another Year Goes By and Our Pursuit of Fool’s Gold Leaves Us No Closer to Solving Climate Change

  1. snowgeek says:

    Good perspective, Auden – thanks.

    If I recall, Midas came to despise his golden touch – perhaps there are even more lessons for us in that story…

  2. Jim Baird says:

    Most often the best way to solve a problem is to use a Natural analogy.

    e.g. Subduction is Nature’s recycling method hence the process is most likely the best way to eliminate nuclear waste.

    Almost 90 percent of the heat due to global warming has been accumulated in the oceans, mostly in the upper layer.

    Nature’s response to heated ocean water is a hurricane, which convects evaporated moisture to the top of the tropopause where some is radiated back into space and the balance is absorbed as the latent heat of condensation and falls as rain.

    OTEC using a heat pipe which conveys heat by way of phase changes rather than in water produces the same result.

    Patrick Takahashi, Director Emeritus of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii recently blogged:


    The best way to solve the problem is to produce all of the renewable energy 10 billion people will need converting the ocean’s accumulating heat to power.

    In the process you eliminate carbon emissions, increase carbon dioxide absorption (cooler water absorbs more CO2), cool the oceans and prevent potential extinction events due to clathrate breakdown or thermal runaway caused by warming amplification from increased atmospheric moisture.

    Denying there is a problem is one thing.

    Denying there is a solution that could be golden seems completely irrational.

  3. The climate “debate” hasn’t been about science for many years. Its been about ideology and a failure of democracy.

  4. Solar Jim says:

    The Gordian Knot of western energy economics centers around three forms of matter, existing underground in the planet’s lithosphere. These are defined, and financed, as “forms of energy.” They are the Gordian Knot, a trap for fossilized fools. For they are forms of matter, and the implications could not be more profound.

    Our current globalized development paradigm, effected through hundreds of billions of dollars of annual public fossil (and fissile) subsidies, converts these substances (through oxidation or fission) to global contaminants of radiological poisons and carbonic acid. To say, from an earth systems and health viewpoint, that we are playing with fire would be a vast understatement.

    Call it mindsets of arrogance, ignorance and greed. Or call it competitive, nation-state status geopolitics powered by explosives (fabricated from hydrocarbons and uranium) and monopolies of dependencies. In numerous regards, that is what the matter with energy is.

    We are past the time for global revolutions to bring forth ecological and financial restructurings for justice. Or shall we go forth with our current model (lithosphere substances defined as “forms of energy”) and effect complete ecologic, and therefore economic, global bankruptcy and extinctions.

    The 1% says yes. What shall the 99% decide to do? We seem to have an existential discontinuity of immediacy that will test the deepest foundations of moral humanity.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Baird wrote: “Denying there is a solution that could be golden seems completely irrational.”

    Denying the existence of alternatives to fossil fuels does not seem “irrational” to the corporations that are raking in trillions of dollars in profit from fossil fuels.

  6. Jim Baird says:

    What is irrational is to be mute in the face of their denials and imbecilic propaganda like the Ethical Oil argument in Canada.

    Keystone XL roadblocks simply mean the Canadian government puts on a full court press for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which puts BC’s coast line at risk on 2 fronts; from oil spills and sea level rise that will be exacerbated by burning the oil carried in either of these pipelines.

    GWMM OTEC is BC technology that would mitigate both problems and provide an economic benefit to the province far in excess of anything the oil company’s have to offer.

    It provides transportation fuels in the form of electric, hydrogen, ammonia or methanol and thus would make either pipeline redundant.

    The apathy of the province, pipeline protesters and environmental movement plays right into the oil company’s hands.

  7. Actually, they story goes on, is fully apropos, but I had to end it somewhere. Midas DID come to despise his golden touch, and he petitioned Dionysus to let him get rid of it. Dionysus told him to wash in the Pactolus River, to wash the curse away, and that’s why that river is flecked with gold. (To this day, I think.) Here’s the crazy thing: he then became a follower of Pan, he became like a woodland environmentalist!

  8. Chas_raper says:

    All that talk about the past year’s state of the climate and not one word about the failed Climate talks in Durban a month ago.
    It’s not just the skeptics that are slowing progress on a solution to Global warming, it’s governments around the world that are not acting in a timely manner too.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article and a great rhetorical tool. It brings to mind a message on global warming for all:

    Don’t fear the problem.
    Don’t fear the solutions.

    We climate hawks should not fear the problem. Fear clouds our judgement and prevents us from properly addressing the fears of the skeptics — the fear that we’ll make them poorer (“destroy the economy”, “government takeover”).

    Let’s help our skeptical fellows embrace clean energy. They need not fear the solutions.