Thursday, December 18, 2008


Plato's Remnant: the Way to Tackle Climate Change?

Neither city nor polity nor man will ever be perfected until some chance compels this uncorrupted remnant of true philosophers, who now bear the stigma of uselessness, to take charge of the state whether they wish it or not, and constrains the citizens to obey them. (Republic, Book 6, 499)

Plato argues in his great dialogue against democracy, which ensures governance by the uncritical, uneducated, easily fooled mass of mankind, and for an oligarchy of philosopher-kings. This is his uncorrupted remnant, not the humble but just remnant of the Old Testament, but a highly trained elite. He describes this remnant as hearken[ing]to fair and free discussions whose sole endeavor is to search out the truth at any cost for knowledge’s sake... Considering that the world teeters on the brink of catastrophic climate change, and that voluntary restraint has not made a dent in rapidly accelerating CO2 emissions, it may be time to embrace Plato’s oligarchy. And we might be forgiven for substituting a fearless, uncorrupted search for a rational basis upon which to govern energy usage for Plato’s original search for pure knowledge.

The time is ripe, and whether it is divine will or Tyche, the goddess chance, at cause, we have but a few years for significantly shifting our ways of consuming energy. The give-and-take, the deals, the compromises of normal democratic legislative processes would be hard-pressed to deliver the enormous reduction levels, now approaching 100% by 2050, with immediate (by the next election) sizable cuts, required for the survival of civilization and perhaps higher life-forms on earth.

The philosopher-king and his cadre of knowledgeable advisors needs to rise up in one of the leading world powers, producers of the greatest carbon emissions, but also having the greatest potential influence on the behavior of other nations. The likely candidates are the US and China, though there are other outside possibilities: Japan, India, or a major country in the Eurozone - UK, Germany, France. Both Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy continue to show strong leadership on climate mitigation, but Angela Merkel, heretofore a leader as well, waffled at the recent talks in Poland, citing economic constraints.

Since China is an autocratic state, once the leadership decides to act, it can move directly to effect that action, constraining its citizens to obey.
They proved this already with their institution of a one-child policy, without which the world would be in even more dire straits than it now is. China’s climate scientists have the ear of its rulers, and the struggle between unprecedented economic growth and braking emissions, especially from coal-fired plants, is underway, with tougher laws governing emissions already on the books.

In the US, the recent election poises us to vault from the biggest hold-out on the Kyoto protocol to leading negotiations for its sequel, which needs far tougher caps and closed loopholes in emissions trading. The whole business of trading, though fine in theory, may need to be replaced by a carbon tax scheme which is fair to all parties, and less vulnerable to manipulation.

Last night Barack Obama announced his Green Dream Team, an outstanding group of experienced and knowledgeable professionals. But the targets he has in mind are out-of-date, as Al Gore’s speech at the end of the latest round of climate talks in Poland implicitly acknowledged. Neither Obama nor Congress is there yet, but unlike the previous administration, which muzzled and misrepresented scientists, skewing their findings to fit a preconceived agenda, he respects science and experts of all kinds. His door is open to advice from US members of the IPCC, including the prophetic warnings of James Hansen, our leading climate scientist. Hansen has already sent him an open letter ( laying out options in the face of a limit of 350ppm CO2 emissions – rather than the 450 that was the consensus of the last IPCC report. At 387ppm, we are well past that level of emissions, which doesn’t even take into account the huge amounts of methane being released in Siberia as the permafrost melts.

If the evidence convinces the president-elect, then he needs to risk his mandate by acknowledging that we are in a state of war, not with terrorists, but our own consumerist tendencies, and that extraordinary measures must be taken. To his credit, he has already warned of sacrifices that will be necessary for us to pull through our present crisis. But economic crisis pales beside what the military reported to Bush was the greatest risk to national security: rapid climate change. We will not win this war by half-measures, for the Climate Beast does not haggle. Runaway climate change is at our doorstep, and we need the philosopher king and his oligarchy of educated prophet-advisors to step forward commensurate to the task, solving the greatest moral challenge our species has ever faced.

If he wins this improbable bet, he will be re-elected, which will only happen if the electorate matures rapidly enough to realize that war requires sacrifice from everybody. Energy consumption is not a matter of self-interest, not just the interest of the human community. Every election henceforth will be about the biosphere. We need to prove Plato wrong in his criticism of democracy by choosing wise rulers and keeping them in office.

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