Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Numbers to obfuscate

(I'm still alive; I've just been working on my dissertation, which is due in two and a half weeks.)

If you are familiar with climate change regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol, or even the tenuous Copenhagen Accords, you'll know that there is a differentiation between the countries of the world. (We do this anyway, calling parts of the world "New" and others "Old", "developing" and "developed", "North" and "South", "capitalist" and "communist".) In the Kyoto Protocol, countries are either Annex I (industrialised, OECD countries) or non-Annex I (industrialising) countries. The responsibility of a country to scale back its greenhouse gas emissions depends on what bin the country is placed in--Annex I countries tend to have greater responsibilities than non-Annex I countries. There has been great debates about some of the countries placed in the non-Annex I bin--countries like India, China, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa--because these countries, while spewing tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases and pollutants into the atmosphere, will have fewer responsibilities. Countries like the US, Canada, and Australia fight tooth and nail to have such countries assume greater burdens, while at the same time not really wanting to do much themselves.

As you can tell, it matters what you are binned as and called. Being called a "small employer" allows you tax incentives and loopholes. Being called an engineer allows you to do engineering things that non-engineering people, who may be fully experienced and qualified, cannot do. Calling oneself an "individual" is the first step to throwing your hands up in the face of systemic problems. So people will go to considerable lengths to come up with ways to obfuscate responsibility. Divide the population of the country with some non-sense economic statistic, multiply that number by some other made up metric, and raise that to the power of some voodoo polynomial, and WALA! Your country is no longer responsible for its actions. The number says it, not me!

This is exactly what two researchers, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and  Sustainable Worldwide Transportation have just done in the widely circulated and read American Scientist magazine. Their piece, titled Accounting for Climate in Countries' Carbon Dioxide Emissions (which also appalled my advisor) is exactly the kind of work that will continue to allow people, institutions, and organisations to get away with ecological degradation and environmental injustices. They found a way to use the number of days people in various countries have to use heating and cooling to live comfortably. These, they claim, are a sort of sunk cost. (Fair enough, I might be able to agree only to a certain degree with that.) But the key to their findings is the following figure:

The rankings for countries by their carbon dioxide emissions can shift considerably when the variable of climate is incorporated. The first column above shows the 15 lowest (top) and highest (bottom) emitters in a set of 157 countries based on emissions per capita. The second column shows the rankings that result when each country’s emissions per capita are divided by that country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita; countries that move into the top or bottom 15 under this index are shown in yellow. The rankings for the third column are calculated by dividing the results found for the second column by the average number of heating and cooling degree days each country experiences, a measure of how much typical temperatures vary from a set point. Countries that move into the far ends of the spectrum when all three factors are included are shown in purple. Under this measure, Jordan (which has a relatively mild climate) joins the heaviest emitters, and Sweden (which has a relatively cold climate) joins the countries with the lowest emissions. The numbers in parentheses show each country’s relative emissions, normalized to the lowest emitter. For instance, when population, GDP and climate are included, South Africa, the highest emitter, produces 60.8 times more emissions than does Chad, the lowest emitter. From here.
As you move from left to right, you see that the countries that are initially the highest polluters slowly disappear. You start with the Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Luxembourg (all countries that the United States has close ties to) and the United States, and you end up with Libya, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and South Africa. These are the countries that must be held accountable! Not the US or its cronies! And it is toward the end of the article where the authors make their crowning remark:
Our results suggest that taking climate into account makes a significant difference in how countries fare in carbon dioxide emissions rankings. Because people respond to the climate they live in by heating and cooling indoor spaces, an index that incorporates climate provides a fairer yardstick than an index that does not. We hope that our approach will stimulate others to further refine this index to reflect even better the complexities involved in ranking countries on emissions (emphases added by me...of course).
Let's feel good about living the lifestyles we do! The Earth and its oppressed peoples be damned!

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