The Zombie Argument

Sunset on a smoggy summer day in Los Angeles during the early 1990’s. You can see faintly the tallest buildings in the downtown area poking up through the mist and smog layer, and you should just be able to make out the Los Angeles River wending its way across East Los Angeles in the foreground, and the Hollywood Hills in the background.
Photograph by Barbara Gaitley, JPL image P-48863A

I’ve been following, via Twitter, the trail of my colleague, David Biello, during his coverage of the Copenhagen conference for Scientific American, where he is Associate Editor for environment and energy.

Aside from his brief reports of climbing a wind turbine “climbing a wind turbine is grueling but pop the top and enjoy spectacular view (at least on Samso) better if they didn’t sway though,” most of the reports I’ve been reading from Copenhagen are downright depressing.

A late-breaking story from Reuters reported that the Copenhagen climate talks will put more carbon into the atmosphere than any previous climate conference – equivalent to the carbon output of over one-half million Ethiopians. Ethiopa, however, and other members of the G77 delegation, disgusted enough with the profligacy of their fellow attendees from developed nations, protested by walking out of the conference today. There simply isn’t enough pressure, they feel, being put on developed nations to reduce greenhouse gases.

The G77’s chief negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, from Sudan told BBC Radio 4’s World at One today: “We decided to stop and reflect on what is happening, because it had become clear that the Danish presidency – in the most undemocratic fashion – is advancing the interests of developed countries at the expense of the balance of obligations between developing and developed countries.”

Asked whether he was simply wasting time, when what was most needed was an agreement between all nations, Mr. Di-Aping said:

The United Nations Climate Change Conference took place from December 7-18, 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Credit: United Nations/COP15

“What we want is a process that is democratic, that allows us full participation, that ensures the safety and lives of the developing countries in Africa and small island states. We want a deal that will save the Kyoto Protocol and we want finance and mitigation targets, the commitment periods signed at this conference. If that doesn’t happen, I am afraid we cannot accept the idea that we are going to create a new legal instrument.”

He accused the European Union of pursuing a strategy of killing the Kyoto protocol, and of hiding behind the US. Both the US and EU have refused to commit to ambitious targets commensurate to the risk they’re asking from developing countries. Developing countries, said Mr. Di-Aping, have only two mandates: one is to mitigate the catastrophic situation they are facing; the second is to insure that developed countries address problems of underdevelopment and poverty eradication in the developing world.

Late this afternoon, the delegates from the G77 returned to the conference.

Bill McKibben, author of such notable books as Deep Economy and The End of Nature, and co-founder,, wrote, in a moving piece in The Huffington Post of attending a service at Copenhagen’s main Lutheran Cathedral – where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave the sermon and Desmond Tutu read the Psalm. He had this to say about what is occurring in developing countries:

“People are dying already; people are sitting tonight in their small homes trying to figure out how they’re going to make the maize meal they have stretch far enough to fill the tummies of the kids sitting there waiting for dinner. And that’s with 390 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The latest numbers from the computer jockeys at Climate Interactive – a collaboration of Sustainability Institute, Sloan School of Management at MIT, and Ventana Systems, is that if all the national plans now on the table were adopted the planet in 2100 would have an atmosphere with 770 parts per million CO2. What then for coral, for glaciers, for corn. I didn’t do enough.”

Ben Goldacre of The Guardian, has a pretty good assessment why everything humanly possible will never be enough.

The reason? The “zombie argument.”

“Zombie arguments,” he writes, “survive, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.”

I can’t help wondering, on a daily basis, when human beings are going to decide to get real.