Norway still waiting for the climate fix

We know we have to do something about climate change, but all we're doing is sit with folded hands and wait for a climate fix to fall into our laps. Is it time for Norway to close down the North Sea oil fields?

[Translated from Aftenposten, April 15 2013, Mens vi venter på klimaløsningen.]

We know we have to do something about climate change, but all we do is sit with folded hands and wait for a climate fix to fall into our laps. Should Norway take the lead by closing down the North Sea oil fields?

2013 is one more step on the road to our future climate. We don’t know what that climate will be like. We do know that the climate won’t change equally everywhere. The impact will vary. In some places it may even be positive. But for the world as a whole, the change is likely to be for the worse.

How does one talk meaningfully about climate change? One way is to focus on specific threats, such as sea level rise, species extinction, threats to food production, and the cost of adapting to our future climate. But this is so specific that in a way it actually obscures the central issue. After all, one may think, I don’t live by the sea, I don’t particularly like animals, and I’m an adaptable person who can probably handle whatever the future throws at me. So perhaps I don’t have anything to worry about?

A better way to think about climate change is that we’re rolling the dice in a game we don’t know the rules to, and where everything we own is at stake. The result will affect not only the climate you experience at first hand, like the climate you feel on your skin on a spring day. It will also affect the climate you take for granted: The climate your food is produced in, the climate the economy depends on, and the climate that affects the international situation.

It’s possible that the rules of this game will be nice to us. But it really doesn’t look that way. And we won’t know until it’s too late.

So here we are in 2013, with the sound of dice rolling in the distance. And what are we doing about it? We do what we did in 2012, in 2009, and 2001. We talk about it a bit. This makes us sad, because it all seems so hopeless. And then we shrug and change the topic to something nicer.

The easy climate debate

One of the ways we pass the time while we wait for the new climate to reveal itself is by having “climate debates”, where we discuss whether we can really be sure about any of this. These debates usually start with one of our eternal optimists relaying a piece of hopeful news, such as the tabloid rumor that the world hasn’t gotten any warmer in the last 16 years. Or they’ve heard about an unpublished research paper that indicates that the problem may be slightly smaller than expected.

And then we’re off again with another “climate debate”. When confronted with their desperate and not very scientific optimism, the usual reply is that surely there’s nothing wrong with asking questions?

No, there isn’t. And answering those questions is fun too. Last year I wrote an article where I looked into the current state of affairs among climate skeptics, and discovered that despite all their noise and efforts, they’re no closer to an alternative climate theory now than they were, well, 16 years ago.  I enjoyed doing the research for that article, and I love hearing about the latest developments in climate science. Science is fun. And there are few controversial debates where being up to date on scientific research will help you as far along as it does in the climate debate.

So, yes, we could do a repeat of that, if you like. In response to the “16 years without warming”, I could write a couple of pages about how, when the temperature varies as much from year to year as it does in the atmosphere, it is easy to select a period where it seems to be stable, when in fact the long-term trend is rising. I could point out that only a fraction of global warming goes into heating up the atmosphere, that most of it actually heats up the ocean.

This is exciting stuff. Climate science is fun.

But it feels like a distraction. We’re talking about something that is relatively easy, climate science, while avoiding the really difficult topic: Climate policy. The climate science debate is important in some countries, but in Norway climate skepticism is politically irrelevant. There are some eternal optimists in the Progress Party, but let’s be fair: It’s not their fault that the rest of us aren’t doing anything.

Yes, I could go after the climate skeptics one more time, and a good time would be had by all. But most of my readers will think: Yes, we know this. We’ve known this for years. But what are we going to do about it? Tell us that.

And that question shuts me up. The answer is that I don’t have a clear answer, because every time I think about climate policy I end up running around in circles, until I get dizzy and give up. This bothers me.

Norway seen from the outside

It bothers many of us. We all know that climate change is important, but every time we try to grab hold of this subject and discuss it properly, it slips through our fingers, like smoke. And then we give up, and talk about other things.

Meanwhile, the CO2 level continues to creep upward by about 2 ppm per year, and seems more likely to accelerate than anything else. And we don’t even know how to start talking about it.

Maybe it would help if a sociologist from Mars visited Norway, analyzed us, and helped us to understand the hole our climate debate has become stuck in.

Oddly enough, that is precisely what somebody has done. Not a Martian, but an American, which amounts to much the same. In the early 2000s, the sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard visited a community in Western Norway to study how ordinary Norwegians deal with the prospect of climate change. The result is a book that is somewhat uncomfortable reading, Living in Denial.

Norgaard observes us through the eyes of an anthropologist, making notes about everything from local traditions to the correct equipment for an authentic Norwegian skiing trip. The year she visits this community, Norway has an unusually warm winter, and the local tourist industry suffers from a lack of snow. People connect this climate change, and worry about the future.

But they do nothing about it. There’s no arena in the local community where climate change belongs as a topic. The local politicians see it as a national issue, and bring it up only in the form of rousing but empty rhetoric. (The national politicians do the same, kicking the topic further up, to the global stage.) The local newspaper does mention the warm winter, but fails to connect it to anything larger, doesn’t make an issue out of climate change being a problem with local relevance. The topic shows up in people’s small talk, but only to express a general sense of frustration and worry.

Norgaard observes that when Norwegians try to talk seriously about climate, the conversation quickly ends up in a dead zone, grinding to a halt when everybody realizes just how hopelessly difficult this issue is. People find different ways to cope with this unease. Some cope by being in full control of the facts of climate change, and demonstrating this control with pride, while at the same time having an emotional distance to it, as if it doesn’t really concern them personally. Others cope by changing the topic to “Amerika“, that mythic country far away where the climate bully George W. Bush and his oil buddies ravage the land.

Any American who has had the misfortune of getting into a discussion about politics with a Norwegian can attest that we love to rant about Amerika. And yes, there is little to be happy about in US climate policy. But what about our own responsibility for climate change? What about our own equally ineffective efforts? Well, that brings us back to the dead zone. Fade to black, next topic, please.

Norwegians believe ourselves to be farmers at heart, a sturdy and pragmatic people who live in harmony with nature. But Norgaard reminds us that this is no longer true. We’re urbanites in an oil nation now, no matter how often we go skiing in the mountains. It’s our actions and our oil that causes climate change.

We also believe ourselves to be idealists, people who put ethical considerations above material ones. But our primary response to the climate crisis since it emerged on the global stage in the late 1980s has been to multiply our oil production, and increase our CO2 emissions.

Our part of the problem

It feels a bit impolite for a foreign sociologist to come over here and put us up against the wall like that. What did she expect them to do, these ordinary people in a small community in a small country in Europe?

Well, they could have talked seriously about climate change without joking it away, hoping it away, or shrugging it off. They could have made it a topic in the local newspaper and in local politics. If other people, in other communities, had done the same, this might have created a nation-wide pressure for a meaningful climate policy.

They could have acted as citizens who take responsibility for the world they live in.

They didn’t. Neither did the rest of us. This is why climate change has been sidelined as an issue in Norway, as in so many countries, cared about only by irrelevant parties like the Liberals and the Socialist Left.

We do have a climate policy. It consists of setting climate goals we later abandon, proposing climate fixes we fail to implement, and enacting climate policies that are compromises between the half-hearted and the meaningless.

Here’s our part of the problem: Norway emits just over 50 million tons of CO2 equivalents every year. (The global level is about 1000 times that.) This is the part of the problem we usually talk about. And then there are the 500 million tons of CO2 that are emitted from the oil and gas we export every year. Maybe they’re a little bit our part of the problem as well? We certainly profit nicely from it.

A third of our emissions go to the production of oil and gas, a third to transport, and a third to industry, more or less. Our electricity already comes from a sustainable energy source, hydropower. So in order to reduce our emissions there are two things we need to do: 1) Move our energy use away from fossil fuels, for instance by switching our offshore platforms and our cars over to electricity. And, 2) use less electricity and/or produce more from sustainable sources.

It’s as simple as that.

Round and round in circles

Well, in theory, anyway. Creating climate policies that achieve this in real life is considerably harder, as we learned when the NRK investigative program Brennpunkt looked into Norway’s “green certificates” policy last year. Green certificates are a subsidy of renewable energy sources. They were introduced in 2012, and are currently causing a large expansion of our hydro and wind power capacity.

But as the Brennpunkt reporter discovered, it is doubtful if the policy actually does anything to reduce CO2 emissions. Yes, we will produce more electricity from sustainable sources, but the offshore industry has no plans for switching to electricity any time soon. Even if they, the gas they’d no longer use at the oil platforms would just be sold off to be used somewhere else instead. Electric cars aren’t likely to take off much in the next years either, so we can’t use the power there. We could sell it, but because we’re part of the EU trading system for CO2 emissions, this will simply enable others to increase their own CO2 emissions.

The CO2 trading system effectively sets a limit on how fast European countries can reduce their emissions, and is designed so that it is often more effective for Norway to pay other countries to reduce their CO2 emissions than it is for us to reduce our own. The designers of the system may see this as proof of its cleverness, but the side effect of treating it as a law of nature is that there are CO2 emissions we actually could reduce, but choose not to. With most of the world reluctant to doing anything meaningful at all, that’s not a luxury we can afford.

There’s this moment anyone who thinks seriously about a climate solution eventually comes to, when we discover that we’re running around in circles. Here’s a nice idea A, but it won’t work because we’re not also doing B, and B won’t work because we’re not also doing A, and they’re both incredibly difficult. One may be a technological pipe dream, another may be politically impossible, and a third may have perverse side effects. And so round and round we go, until we exhaust ourselves and give up.

Objections like those brought up by Brennpunkt are clever, but perhaps they’re actually too clever. They remind me of Zeno, the ancient philosopher who proved that it is impossible to run 100 meters, because before you can do that, you must first have run half the way, and before you can get half the way, you must first have run half the way of that again, and so on down into infinity. And in a sense Zeno was right, because while you stand there and think about this paradox, you won’t get anywhere at all, while your less intelligent buddy doesn’t know any better, and just starts running.

It’s easy to forget just how simple the solution is: We need to emit fewer greenhouse gases. In order to do this, we will need to build more sustainable energy sources. And that’s it. The fact that small efforts are often ineffective is not an argument for doing less, but for doing more, and thinking bigger.

What you can do about climate change

By thinking bigger I don’t mean convincing everyone to turn off the lights in your rooms when you leave them. If everybody does a little, we achieve only a little, as David MacKay points out in his excellent book on sustainable energy. Climate change, unfortunately, requires a political solution. We use politics for many dumb things in Norway, and we ought to stop doing that. But important and difficult problems like climate change are exactly the kind of problems we need politics for.

This is where you enter the picture. Yes, there is something you can do about climate change, because a political solution requires political will. So you need to tell the politicians who represent you how important this issue is to you. Tell them what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Could you live with higher taxes? Could you accept subsidies that aren’t immediately effective, as in the “green certificates” case? How about windmills on the horizon? And one day we might start talking seriously about nuclear energy in Norway. What will it take for you to accept a nuclear power station in your home town?

Politicians do hesitate to solve climate change because they lack ideas, but because they think you will hate them. Tell them that they’re wrong. They’ll find that interesting, because politicians rather enjoy getting reelected. That’s what you can do about climate change. This is especially important of you vote for a major party. I think we all understand that nothing big will happen about Norwegian CO2 reductions until Labor and the Conservatives get behind it.

Ending the oil age

In climate policy debates everyone wants to be realist. But I feel like ending this article on a note of unrealism. I want to return to those 500 million tons of CO2 that are emitted from the oil and gas Norway exports every year. That’s ten times our own emissions, and one hundredth of the entire world. These CO2 emissions pay for our future pensions, through their funding of the petroleum fund, but we curiously silent about them. We remember the income, but not the cost this places on others.

So here is a thought experiment. Let us imagine that Norway today announces that as far as we are concerned, the oil age is over. We will not be looking for any more oil and gas, neither in Lofoten or anywhere else, and we will from now on be gradually phasing out production in our existing fields. After a while it will all be over. Everyone will pack up and return home.

What would happen if we actually did this? First, it would create a big stir, shocking, scaring and inspiring people all over the world. Perhaps climate activists in other oil countries would point to us and say, “Look to Norway – they’re leaving the oil age. We can do that too.” Others will laugh at how incredibly stupid we are.

Next, our economy will suffer. Oil and gas revenues will dwindle away. We may manage quite well for a time, but then perhaps a future global crisis pushes us over the edge and reveals what the pessimists have been fearing all along: That oil has made us spoiled and unproductive. Then we’ll be lying there with a broken back like some Mediterranean country.

The climate certainly won’t thank us. By reducing our own oil and gas production we simply make it more profitable for others to expand theirs. Norwegian natural gas may be replaced with coal, which emits far more CO2.

So it’s a bad idea. Or is it? Norway will have to wean itself off its oil revenues sooner or later. The decline in production has already begun, and the investments we need to make to keep up our production level are already dangerously large. If our oil and gas income is currently hiding major weaknesses in the Norwegian economy, might it not be better to uncover these weaknesses sooner, rather than later?

Might it not be better to drop the dream of easy money and return to an older, more viable model: The one where you learn a skill the world needs, and then use that skill to make a living for as long as your mind and body is up to it? You’ll have a pension and welfare benefits to fall back on, but not as much as you deserve, because we have no magic wand that creates stuff. All we have is what we do. Today we have more, but that’s just luck. It won’t last. We should not grow dependent on it.

And in the long term, the world is going to have to leave a lot of oil, gas and coil in the ground, unused, if we’re serious about slowing down climate change. Unfair? Perhaps. But nature isn’t fair. Nature just is what it is. And what it is, is a system we should not release a lot more CO2 into, preferably no more than 565 billion tons CO2 before midcentury. The problem is that there are currently 2795 billion tons of CO2 in the world’s known deposits of oil, gas and coal.

At some point we are going to have to stop, and leave the rest in the ground. There’s no reason why Norway shouldn’t be the first to do this.

The realists respond

It feels liberating to be unrealistic, doesn’t it? And there would be something clarifying, I think, about the criticism and idea like this would be met with, if it were proposed by someone with political weight.

The criticism would come in four waves. First would come a vanguard of climate skeptics, with their usual mix of internet rumors, misconceptions and pet theories. Then, the naive rationalists would join in – those who have calculated that climate change isn’t all that dangerous, so we might as well cool down and see what happens. They’re cousins to those economists who, when the economy sees good times, advise you to place yourself neck-deep in debt, because their theories say that the good times are here to stay.

Then the real heavyweights would join in the criticism: The selfish, who will remind us that the oil and gas is, after all, our property, and nobody has the right to ask us not to use it. And finally will come the realists, who will tell us that, although potentially a good idea, it is political and economically impossible. Nobody else will be doing it either, so we might as well accept the climate we’re getting, and try to make the best of it.

These last two waves will be the hardest to deal with. The selfish because selfishness tends to win, and the realists because realists tend to be right.

And with these same arguments we can dispose of all other climate solutions as well, from the most cautious to the most radical: Electrification of the North Sea oil platforms, CO2 tax increases, and subsidies for electric cars and sustainable energy. They can all be dismissed with the same arguments, from the same critics. Only the cheapest climate solutions survive, the ones that don’t matter.

But if this is how it is going to be, let us at least be honest with ourselves. Let us admit that the fairy tale we’ve stumbled into is not one of the traditional Norwegian ones where a poor but kind-hearted boy finds great riches and lives happily ever after, but the H. C. Andersen one where your magical shoes keep on dancing even when you no longer want them to.

And let us also admit to ourselves that our self-image as idealists and simple, pragmatic farmers is undeserved. We’re not those people any more, if we ever were.

We’re certainly allowed to keep on hoping, though. I’m sure the politicians will think of something, eventually. Or perhaps the scientists? They’re awfully clever. For there’s one part of the Norwegian national character nobody can take away from us, as we sit here and wait patiently for others to deliver the climate fix: Our beautiful, dumb hope.