Institutional lemmings

By Bryan Walker 14/02/2011

I was struck by a passage in Noam Chomsky’s conversational remarks on climate change in the video clip Gareth recently posted. Commenting on the campaign waged by powerful business lobbies to convince the public that global warming is a liberal hoax, he pictures the people responsible as trapped by their functions in the institutions they work for. He put it rather starkly:

’Those same CEOs and managers who are trying to convince the public that it’s a liberal hoax know perfectly well that it’s extremely dangerous. They have the same beliefs that you and I have. They’re caught in a kind of institutional contradiction. As leaders of major corporations, they have an institutional role — that is, to maximise short-term profit. If they don’t do that they’re out and someone else is in who does do it, so institutionally speaking it’s not a choice that’s going to happen in the major institutions.

’So they may know that they’re mortgaging the future of their grandchildren and in fact maybe everything they own will be destroyed, but they’re caught in a trap of institutional structure. That’s what happens in market systems.

’The financial crisis is a small example of the same thing. You may know that what you are doing is carrying systemic risk but you can’t calculate that into your transactions or you’re not fulfilling your role and someone else replaces you…and that’s a very serious problem. It means we’re marching over the cliff and doing it for institutional reasons that are pretty hard to dismantle.’

Chomsky was speaking with a degree of informality, and I don’t want to put his statement under close scrutiny. Nor am I necessarily expressing agreement with all that he says. But I thought the general drift of his remarks had point. Something happens in the very structure of society to prevent a rational response to the threat of climate change.

I often find myself wondering what is going on in the minds of people whom one would normally expect to be respectful of major scientific endeavour but who when it comes to climate change seem to be able to relegate that respect, if not to the point of denial at least to the level of a secondary consideration, which in reality it clearly isn’t.

I’ll leave the corporate field to Chomsky and take a look at what the New Zealand government has to say about the 2050 emissions target which they propose gazetting and for which they are inviting public submissions by the end of this month. The Minister, Nick Smith, has put out a position paper in support of the target of a 50 per cent reduction from the 1990 level by 2050. The paper acknowledges and accepts the basic science and the impacts predicted by the IPCC 2007 report.  There’s no suggestion of denial. But nor is there any acknowledgement of how serious those future impacts will be for humanity. Nor any hint of the possibility that on such a question as sea level rise this century the IPCC estimate appears likely to be exceeded, perhaps considerably. The language outlining the science is flat. The paper moves to indicate that New Zealand has a unique emissions profile by comparison with other developed countries, mentioning the high level of emissions from livestock farming, the lower than normal level of CO2 emissions from electricity generation, and the significant impact of forestry planting and harvesting on our emissions level. From there the emphasis is on where we fit into the international picture, not at all on the imperative posed by climate change.  This sort of statement:

’The world is changing and other countries are recognising the reality of a carbon-constrained future. It is in New Zealand’s long-term interests to begin taking steps towards a low-carbon future.’

Emphasis is given to how it is more challenging for us than for most other developed countries to reach a given level of emissions reduction because of our unique emissions profile. Satisfaction is expressed that a 50 per cent reduction by 2050 is nevertheless in line with what most other developed countries are aiming for and the conclusion drawn that we are certainly doing our fair share.

By now the statement has left far behind any consideration of what the science demands, not only of us but of the community of nations. It has become an exercise in positioning ourselves, doing enough to satisfy our international partners but nothing that might seriously disturb the economy we are used to.

’Setting a target is a balance between achieving the reductions in greenhouse gases we want and the impact on the economy and our lifestyle. Achieving the 2050 emissions reduction target could mean higher costs for consumers and businesses as we transition to a low-carbon economy. However, a less ambitious target would undermine New Zealand’s clean, green environmental reputation. The proposed 2050 emissions reduction target balances these demands and reflects a fair contribution by New Zealand to the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’

Nick Smith and Tim Groser must be aware of the science and of the seriousness of the danger ahead if emissions are not far more drastically reduced than the international scenario they relate us to. No one will argue that the economy and lifestyle don’t matter. But how can they somehow ‘balance’ the need for action to reduce emissions?  This looks very like what Chomsky identifies as institutional contradiction. It’s not as gross as short-term corporate profit, or as the anti-science denial seemingly rampant in the US Republican party, but in a lesser way does it not reflect the same phenomenon? The role of the politician is restricted by the need to keep happy those vested interests resistant to changes to the economy and those citizens judged incapable of facing reality. Protecting future generations, let alone those poorer populations already being impacted by climate change, is not part of the role and is not rewarded. Chomsky acknowledges those institutional reasons are hard to dismantle, but meanwhile, as he says, we’re marching over a cliff. Reason enough for the dismantling to begin.