What can we do to stop Climate Change?

Note: Reflecting on what matters to me most, I feel increasingly conscious that the only issue I care about deeply is Climate Change. In my mind, all other issues pale in comparison to the devastation to which we – you, reader and me – are condemning future generations because of our indifference and wilful ignorance.

How do we stop Climate Change?

We can’t.

We can’t stop Climate Change because the process is already well underway. We are already experiencing human-induced Climate Change and we are committed to many decades more global warming, even in the most optimistic of scenarios.

Given this dismal reality, reducing the extent of the Climate Change to which we are committing ourselves and our children is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge facing humanity.

But I don’t know what to do other than two things: (a)Try to emit less carbon dioxide personally – a real challenge while living a ‘normal’ life. And (b) tell everyone I know that I think this is the greatest challenge facing humanity.

Who needs to act? 

Our schoolchildren are striking to try to force us ‘grown ups’ to do something. I support them. But perhaps we are ‘grown olds’ rather than ‘grown ups’.

‘Grown ups’ often look to serious-minded economists for guidance. Economics is seen – by the establishment at least – as a more sober and practical activity than science – less prone to doom-laden negativity. The 2006 Stern Review was a clear-headed and practical economic plan to address climate change. As far as I can tell, it has been ignored in practice.

The extent of the failure of Economics to address the challenge of Climate Change was made clear to me the other week reading The Economist’s Free Exchange column. Paraphrasing:

The implicit criticism of the economic approach to climate change is not that it is flawed or politically unrealistic, but that it is a category error, like trying to defeat Hitler with a fascism tax.

Might a fascism tax have worked? No, I don’t think so. Stopping Hitler required general mobilisation of the entire population. It involved commitment from all to a goal that made sense despite the hardship and sacrifice

But in fact economics is not just failing to provide a solution, or a mechanism for a solution, it is at the heart of the problem. It currently doesn’t make economic sense to do things which will minimise the global calamity. This is so at the grand scale – where Oil Companies are valued based on reserves which it would be insane to exploit – and on the micro-scale – where insulating a house requires investments that don’t pay back.

Economists would argue that what we need to make the price of emitting carbon dioxide reflect its true long-term cost via a carbon tax. Then the action of the market will efficiently find solutions. But I don’t think this will be any more effective than a fascism tax would have been against Hitler.

Rather, limiting Climate Change is  likely to require something akin to general mobilisation. The effort will require near universal commitment despite the detriment to almost  every facet of almost every activity in almost everybody’s life.

But as have seen in both the UK and France, at the moment people are not prepared to undergo even modest hardships.

  • The gilets jaunes in France were initially protesting about increases in the price of fuel aimed at reducing fuel use – a carbon tax.
  • In the UK, the Fuel Price Escalator was abandoned because increasing fuel prices, even modestly, is unpopular.

Weaning ourselves off carbon consumption is unpopular. People suffer. And as always, poor people suffer the most.

Why is it so hard?

Weaning ourselves off carbon is hard because burning fossil fuels is easy, cheap and brings immediately appreciable benefits to humanity. That is humanity in general, and also humanity’s individuals – you and me.

  • People love the freedom to move around cheaply. It allows them to earn money in new ways. It allows for the efficient concentration of manufacturing and distribution of goods that makes consumer goods cheap. We have no consciousness at all that for every 8000 km (5000 miles) we drive in a typical car – we emit (roughly) one tonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yes. A TONNE! This carbon dioxide will continue to warm the atmosphere for roughly one hundred years – long after the people who emitted it are dead.
  • People love cheap energy. Cheap electricity brings light and heat and gadgets to our homes and allows for low manufacturing costs. We have no consciousness at all that for every 4 units (kWh) of electricity we use (cost ~ £1) – we emit (roughly) one kilogram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In 2017 I used around 6000 units of electricity at home resulting in the emission of roughly 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide which will continue to warm the atmosphere for roughly one hundred years – long after my death.

Is there any cause for hope?

… Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all…

GK Chesterton

Personally, I don’t see any. I acknowledge that:

  • progress has been made already – we now emit less carbon dioxide for each unit of electricity delivered than we did even 10 years ago.
  • there are positive political developments. There is talk of Green Deals, political actions that will transform the economic landscape and drive a transition to a renewable energy economy.
  • the practical engineering solutions exist now which can take us from where we are to a post-carbon world a decade or two. No new technology is required.

But these solutions will generally involve people like me, in places like the UK, using less energy, travelling less, and consuming less. I’d vote for these this things in a heartbeat, and pay for these things, but I think I would be in a minority.

Unless people are convinced of the rationale for the changes – changes which will make life materially worse and bring them no benefit in their lifetime – they simply won’t entertain the inconvenience of any practical solution.

So hopeless as I feel, the best I can do is to explain as clearly as I can to everyone I know – and other people I don’t know – why I think that Climate Change is the greatest challenge facing humanity.

And as GK Chesterton also said,

If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”.

One Response to “What can we do to stop Climate Change?”

  1. edhui Says:

    If you allow me a shameless plug for my ‘Discovery’ lecture at Teddington School at 7pm on 22 March, I promise I’ll mention climate change on the night…
    Actually I’ll mention it anyway!

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