There is a lot of talk about engaging people in the fight against climate change. In the spirit of prompting thought and discussion, I propose the opposite.
Rather than trying to raise awareness and encourage voluntary changes in behaviour we should simply build a society with stable greenhouse gas emissions and do so in a way that requires little input and effort from almost everyone.
Critically, that society should emerge and exist without the need for most people in it to think about climate change at all. For the most part, it should occur by means of changes that aren’t particularly noticed by those not paying attention. In places where change is noticed, it is because the legal and economic structure of society now requires people to behave differently, without ever asking them to consider more than their own short term interests.
To do this, you need to make two big changes: decarbonize our infrastructure and price carbon.
When a person plugs their computer or television into the wall, they don’t care whether the power it is drawing came from a dam, from a wind turbine, or from a pulverized coal power plant. Changing the infrastructure changes the emissions without the need to change behaviour. Given how dismal people are at actually carrying out behavioural change (a scant few individuals aside), this is a good thing.
The change in infrastructure needs to go way beyond electrical generation. It must take into account the transportation sector and agriculture; it must alter our land and forest management practices. People can then broadly continue to do what they have been: eat meat, drive SUVs, etc, while producing far fewer emissions in the process. We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the changes required. Moving from a high-carbon society to a low-carbon one is a Herculean task – especially if you are trying to do it in a way that does not produce major social disruption or highly intrusive changes in lifestyles.
There are some who would argue that putting a price on carbon is all your need to do, whether you use a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to achieve that aim. Set a high enough price for carbon and the market will change all the infrastructure for us. This is naive both in terms of economics and political science. No democratic government will introduce a carbon price draconian enough to quickly spur the required changes in infrastructure. Governments copy one another and follow the thinking of voters: if other countries are investing in ethanol and voters think it is green, governments will often pile onto the bandwagon, almost regardless of ecological merit. In economic terms, carbon pricing is inadequate because it lacks certainty across time. If one government puts in a $150 per tonne tax, industry may reason that it will be overturned by popular outrage in a short span of time; infrastructure investments will not change.
What pricing does, in combination with infrastructure change, is eliminates the kind of activities that just cannot continue, even when everything that can be decarbonized has been. The biggest example is probably air travel as we know it. There is no way we can change infrastructure and keep people jetting off to sunny Tahiti. As such, pricing will need to make air travel very rare – at least until somebody comes up with a way to do it in a carbon neutral way.
Advantages and issues
The general advantages of this approach are that it relies on people making individual selfish decisions at the margin, rather than trying to make them into altruists through moral suasion. The former is a successful strategy – consider macroeconomic management by central banks or the criminal justice system – the latter is not. People will use emissions-free electricity because it will be what’s available. They will run their cars on emission-free fuels for the same reason. Where emissions cannot be prevented, they will be buried.
The disadvantages of this approach are on two tracks. In the first place, it might be impossible to achieve. There may never be an appropriate combination of power, technical expertise, and will. Without those elements, the infrastructure will not change and carbon will remain an externality. It is also possible that decarbonizing a society like ours is simply technologically impossible. Carbon sequestration may not work, and other zero-emission and low-emission technologies may turn out to be duds. In that case, major lifestyle changes would be required to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations.
In the second place, this approach is profoundly elitist and technocratic. It treats most citizens as machines that respond to concrete personal incentives rather than their moral reasoning. Unfortunately, ever-increasing emissions in the face of ever-increasing scientific certainty suggests that the former is a better description than the latter, where climate change is concerned.