blog 143. Blaming the consequences of climate

We experience events, not the global situation, but the world seems simpler if we can trace each event to a cause. However, within a complex system, an event cannot be ascribed to a unique “cause.” Birds flock and fish school and the stock market tumbles due to the many interactions among the participating individuals. Within crowded fast-moving traffic, a bump on your fender might an event be initiated by a driver changing lanes far ahead, followed by the wave of brake lights and panic moves that propagates through the system. However, to pay for the damage, we seek one driver (you?) to blame. It’s simpler that way.

We humans like to blame someone or something for any bad event. It’s part of being right by making someone else wrong. Unfortunately, blaming and denial both feed the echo chamber in which we listen to electronic voices that support our chosen blame (or our ignorant denials) rather than engaging face-to-face reasoned discussion about solutions.

Consider one particular hurricane, one particular drought, one particular hot week. You can’t say which one of these is due to “global warming.” Climate change is scientifically predicted by the measured rise in carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas) in the atmosphere. Climate change can be demonstrated technically by trends in the average July temperature, or the average number of category 3 hurricanes, or the average rainfall. However, we humans experience events, not trends, and we try to blame rather than to analyze. It’s simpler that way.

Case in point: During 2018, each of 58 California wildfires ruined structures, killed people or burned more than 1,000 acres. A total of 1.8 million acres burned. The “Camp” fire alone destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed more than 85 people. Who or what is to blame? Dead trees, climate change, arson, campfires, cigarettes, a faulty vehicle, power lines, or the construction of urban areas in wildlands?

Big blame equals big bucks.

Fearing thousands of lawsuits blaming the northern fires on improper power lines, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has declared it will file for bankruptcy, thereby continuing to operate while delaying court action. PG&E used bankruptcy as a tool for financial survival in 2001, although it reportedly paid its officials some $17 million in bonuses that year and more than $160 million in bonuses later. Thus, PG&E is likely to receive little sympathy from citizens if the lawsuits and bankruptcy proceed as expected. One big question: If you live in wilderness and you demand electric power, are you responsible for your own risk? A bigger question: will we recognize that climate sets the stage for the events, or will we find persons and institutions to blame?

The current “blame” argument foretells the future.

That’s how we will progress while climate problems emerge as successive events. Rather than to recognize universal responsibility to reduce the emissions now converting the earth to a hothouse, we will select individual persons, wealthy institutions, and political groups for blame. Political breakdown amid suffering and shortages will generate appeals for dictatorial powers. Why? Because being a member of the in-power group satisfies a sense of belonging and generates a sense of revenge. The power group will in every case find someone to blame—never recognizing the need for different rules within the complex social system with billions of connected members. Politicians win by making someone wrong.

Being right by making someone else wrong doesn’t really make you right.  And it never cures the problem.

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