What might turn the tide?

by Milan on November 14, 2011

in Climate change, Economics, Ethics

All over the world, there is evidence of ongoing climate change. The evidence is physical, in the form of things like retreating glaciers and Arctic sea ice. It is also chemical and nuclear, as specific isotopes of carbon can be identified in ever-greater quantities in the atmosphere. It can also be seen biologically, as the ranges of species change, the timing of flower blooming changes, and so on.

While the evidence is ample and interconnected, it seems fair to say that the evidence that climate change is really harmful remains less clear-cut for now. There is every reason to believe that will eventually change, as more and more people realize that weather conditions that used to be exceptionally uncommon have become relatively commonplace.

How some corporations could come to support mitigation strongly

When that happens, the common front that currently exists among corporations is likely to be fragmented. Right now most corporations only see the costs associated with taking action on climate change. They do not see the costs associated with continuing on this dangerous path. As a result, Chambers of Commerce everywhere tend to be fierce opponents of carbon pricing, and the only corporations endorsing strong climate policies tend to have a clear self-interested reason for doing so. For example, they may be manufacturers of solar panels and dependent on feed-in tariffs for their profits.

Corporations must be expected to behave in self-interested ways, which is what makes it interesting to speculate about how the world will chance when climate change becomes a major and obvious cost for many of the world’s corporations: insurers dealing with losses from extreme weather events, agricultural corporations trying to deal with increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns, and so on.

There may come a time when powerful corporations with large numbers of employees and large amounts of political clout actually become strong advocates of solving this problem by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. If that happens, real progress may result, well beyond the limited successes of carbon pricing here and there and the efforts through the Kyoto protocol and UNFCCC. The inadequacy of our efforts to date is proven by the fact that global emissions continue to rise. Solving the problem basically requires global emissions to fall to zero.

Of course, corporations that become newly serious about the risks of unrestricted climate change will be opposed by fossil fuel corporations whose entire business models depend on a world that continues to burn hydrocarbons – but we do have other energy options, and the fossil fuel companies are not all-powerful. As the rest of the economy comes to really understand the risks associated with climate change (and the opportunities associated with zero-carbon energy), the blocking efforts of the worst delayers should eventually fail.

We may not get a ‘warning shot’

Whether that change in behaviour can come quickly enough to prevent catastrophe may depend on how quickly the first big negative effects of climate change are felt by those who are rich and influential. Generally speaking, human beings do not have a great record when it comes to perceiving the suffering of those in distant places and taking meaningful action to help. For example, based on our behaviour it is fair to say that basically nobody in North America or Europe cares about the plight of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been suffering from appalling violence for decades. We are equally unlikely to care about climate refugees in Bangladesh, or at least to care enough to alter our lifestyles to lessen their suffering. It may only be when people who we see as similar to ourselves begin to suffer seriously that we will feel our concern about the risks from climate change growing stronger than our love for cheap energy and unfettered use of fossil fuels. It may be a sad fact of human nature that we only take a danger seriously when we ourselves feel vulnerable.

The scary possibility is that there will not be a generous lag between the first serious effects of climate change in the rich world and utter climatic disaster. We may only get a major warning once the process is too advanced to substantially retard. That possibility is the major reason why politically engaged citizens need to keep pushing for action on climate change now, before we get a personal taste of the worst things it may involve. Taking preemptive action may be the only way to avoid locking ourselves into a deeply undesirable future characterized by radical climatic instability.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebeka November 14, 2011 at 11:52 pm

it’s not fair to say that “we” don’t care about people in DRC, Bangladesh, etc. What do you define as caring? From personal experience, I know many Canadians pressure our government to provide needed support to peacekeeping forces in Sudan and Chad, and to find the best way to address human rights violations perpetuated by the Sudanese government.

This region is not an exception either: people care about suffering in far off places, no matter how removed, and are willing to alter behavior– but how to alter behavior in a way that helps others? When it comes to climate change, slowing the atmospheric co2 ppm is the clear way, yes. But we are embedded in a system that makes it difficult for individuals to go carbon neutral. People need to help bring about systematic change, not be blamed for not caring.

Finding the best way to effect change is different from caring and efforts falling short of achieving anything measurable.

Rebeka November 15, 2011 at 12:04 am

that sent away before I was done. Sorry the end does not make sense. But I really just want to say that you do not convince me that human beings in place A cannot be brought to care about about the different human beings in place B in a way that has impact. I think they can, and finding out how to best tap into that has to be part of the solution. Look at 350.org — this is what they’re aiming at.

Milan November 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm


It seems undeniable that the state of things in the DRC is basically a non-issue for virtually everyone in North America. How much media coverage has it received in mainstream publications? How much has it been debated in Congress or Parliament? How many people have contacted their elected representatives about it?

I am certainly not saying that we should not be concerned about the DRC – just recognizing that most people don’t act as though they care about the suffering of people far beyond our borders. That makes it more challenging to make people concerned about climate change, and making people take meaningful action is even harder.

People need to help bring about systematic change, not be blamed for not caring.

I very much agree with your first statement. We need change at the societal level. At the same time, I think people do need to be blamed for not caring. It is very easy to adopt a parochial attitude where you only care about the immediate state of your local economy and other factors that directly affect your own life. As a global society, we need citizens who do more than that: anticipating long-term problems, showing real concern for people in distant places, and being willing to alter our lifestyles.

So far, though, the evidence is that we are seriously failing. Emissions keep going up, the international negotiations to find a successor to Kyoto look unpromising, and the attention of countries like Canada is arguably shifting from mitigation (protecting everyone) to adaptation (trying to just protect ourselves).

Milan November 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm

As encouraging as the partial success of 350.org and others on the Keystone pipeline has been, it also gives a sense of just how bad a place we are in. It took all the efforts of the environmental movement to delay one major project, at a time when all sorts of other fossil fuel proposals are moving forward – from new coal mines and power stations to natural gas fracking and offshore oil platforms.

Meanwhile, global emissions keep growing and growing.

If we are going to deal with the problem of climate change, we are going to need much more mainstream support and a much greater willingness to do things differently.

How do you think those things could develop?

. November 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm

How many of us have wondered at some point in time who we would have been as bystanders in Nazi Germany? Can we possibly compare this moment to that one? It seems to me that we have to: however limited and problematic the comparison might be, nothing other than genocide even comes close to being an historical parallel of our moral landscape. This is where we find out who we are and what we’re capable of; it’s both the challenge and the honor of being alive at this moment in time.

When whole nations of otherwise decent people allow something monstrous to happen, three factors are often at work (these are different from what makes people actively do monstrous things): the thing happening is in some way invisible (taking place mostly out of sight, in the case of Nazi Germany, taking place over generations, in our case—distorted by those in power, in both cases); it is so unspeakably ugly that we hope very much for it not to be true; and (pace Gore) it is highly inconvenient—threatening to profoundly disrupt our normal, reasonably blameless lives…with something unspeakably ugly, which we tell ourselves we’re not really sure is happening, anyway: most days, it sure doesn’t seem to be, after all. Most days seem perfectly normal. And Americans in particular, after all, prefer to approach life positively, looking at the bright side.

The inertia instilled by these three things can be nearly overpowering. Once even one shifts, though, something new can take place—sometimes remarkably quickly. For many people, with climate change, the first thing to change is the unwillingness to believe in the ugliness of the possibility—as Senator Whitehouse points out in the video linked above, if there’s even a small chance that your daughter needs surgery to survive, the only sensible thing to do is to listen to the scientists who understand the disease. If you find that 97% of them agree on the need for surgery….well, most of us are reasonably sensible, and the veil starts to fall.

. November 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm

It has become quite clear over the last few years that the climate movement does not have any real political power. That sad reality has been revealed by the Waxman-Markey bill, Copenhagen, and the complete lack of policy response to Upper Big Branch, Deepwater Horizon, and Fukushima. Kicking the Keystone can down the road does not redeem Obama’s failure to take advantage of his unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to turn the tide of climate change. Take a look at Rolling Stone’s recent article about 10 things Obama can do for the climate. If you really expect him to do many of those things, here’s some cat videos while you wait. The question is: How does the movement gain power?

Special interest groups don’t have political power because of their nice personalities and good looks. Groups with power got it by demonstrating they were willing to take politicians out of office. That’s why Barack Obama needs to lose in 2012, and he needs to know that it was our fault.

. November 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Why firms go green
Despite governments’ failure to put a price on carbon, more businesses see profits in greenery

SHORTLY before the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, many companies got into green. The summit was expected to lead to new regulations restricting greenhouse-gas emissions. Dozens of chief executives came to see history being made and to be seen on the right side of it. But Copenhagen was a flop. Most firms turned their thoughts elsewhere. Only four bosses showed up at the next annual climate meet, in Cancún. Few are expected at this year’s bash, which begins in Durban on November 28th.

Alas, that represents a realistic assessment of the Durban summit’s chances of delivering anything like the long-term certainty that businesses crave. Of 300 bosses of big global firms recently quizzed by Ernst & Young, 83% said they wanted to see a legally binding multilateral deal struck in Durban to update the ailing Kyoto protocol and help to put a price on carbon emissions. But only 18% expect this to happen. The absence of a clear climate policy helps explain why, for example, investment in British clean technology fell from around $11 billion in 2009 to $3 billion last year. It would also suggest that any firm factoring a steep carbon price into its plans—as Shell does, assuming a notional price of $40 a tonne—should quietly lower it.

. December 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded
Published: December 4, 2011

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.

Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.

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