Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gloom and Doom from the happiest country on Earth

I will say first that I find it difficult to imagine any rich modern country taking climate change more seriously, or being more eager to take concrete actions to oppose it, than does Denmark. Danish individuals, society and government, including every political party, acknowledge the reality of anthropogentic climate change and the very real dangers it poses to (very flat) Denmark and the world. Danes know that Denmark is too small for a drop in its emissions to make much of a difference, but they seem more than willing to do their part by reducing energy use, subsidizing alternative power sources (etc.) and applying what limited diplomatic influence they have. Denmark is economically comfortable enough to really invest in these things and has both a highly functional government and a populace willing to implement the policies that their leaders decide upon. I am sure there are people in Denmark who disagree, but I haven't met (or even heard of) them. Unlike most countries, they have made their emission reduction targets law (although how such a law is enforced is unclear to me).

Because of the above, not despite it, Denmark convinces me that humanity will rush headlong into global ecological disaster. I say this because if any country has the willingness and ability to implement the policies needed to avoid disaster, it is Denmark, and they are not there. For while Denmark invests in weaning itself off fossil fuels, it also invests very heavily in the fossil fuel industry, notably North Sea oil and gas exploration. The Danish government surely believes, probably correctly, that the will does not exist in the populace to give up on the profits of involvement in the scramble for hydrocarbons. So while Denmark is trying hard not to burn those fuels here in Denmark, it is trying hard to sell them to someone else who will burn them, doing every bit as much to submerge the Danish lowlands (aka Denmark). Danes know this, but like the rest of the world (I'm looking at you Canadian Tar Sands) they seem to feel  (again probably correctly) that if they don't do it someone else (Norway, UK, etc.) will.

So I can imagine a possible future in which all countries have become as convinced as Denmark is that humans are hurtling into climate disaster and need to hit the breaks, and that would be great, but I have trouble imagining that even in such a world this peculiar form of the tragedy of the commons would be escapable. As long as there is demand for fossil fuels, there will always be others who will extract and sell them because if they don't do it someone else will. And there will always be countries who, even if they fully understand the global situation, need inexpensive fuel and will burn those hydrocarbons. And as long as that is the case, no amount of individual turning down of heat and biking to work is going to make a big enough difference to matter. The problem is structural and that structure is disastrously profitable.

Unless, of course, and this is me looking for that ray of hope, other sources of energy rapidly become so much cheaper than fossil fuels that there is just not much profit to be made in extracting oil, coal or gas. In which case, we will be able to say that all those solar panels installed in the gloom of Denmark were not in vain, but were a vote of confidence and a wise subsidy for the development of alternative energy


jte said...

W/r/t Danish happiness, a fellow American expat in Denmark shared this with me:

Dan Levitis said...

Well, to call that a one-sided hatchet-job would be to exaggerate its scope and accuracy. Thing actually do, for the most part, work quite well in Denmark. However I think much of the reason Denmark so often ranks as the happiest country in the world is that it is considered boorish and unpatriotic for a Dane to confess unhappiness, and the Danes, it is true, tend to be very patriotic. So an unhappy Dane may be more likely to report happiness than a happy German would be. All those anti-depressants probably don't hurt either.

jte said...

My basic take-away was confirmation of your own pessimism about addressing global warming.

Dan Levitis said...

On that front, certainly. What that article says about Norway, that it boasts of minimal emissions while making a fortune as an oil and gas producer is true, and is where Denmark would like to be. At this point only the petrostates are rich enough to seriously contemplate switching entirely to alternative energy.