Recently, I suggested that perhaps there is a division between ethical questions that are hard to answer and those where the answers are merely deeply inconvenient.
Something a bit similar is probably true of climate change policies. There are a few things we should obviously do, but many large questions outstanding.
Something clear: carbon pricing
For example, I think it’s clear that we need an economy-wide price on carbon. Every activity that produces greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution causes harm that isn’t reflected in its price. When you buy a car, or gasoline, or a laptop, or airline tickets, the cost should include some reckoning of how much harm is being done by the GHG pollution you are causing. As I mentioned before, the purpose of this extra cost isn’t to pay compensation to the victims, but rather to discourage the harmful behaviour. As such, the price on carbon needs to be set high enough to drive people to change their behaviour.
There are those who object to the idea of pricing carbon at all – often because they distrust capitalism and market mechanisms. I can understand the sentiment, but I think the urgency of climate change obligates us to develop mechanisms that are capable of working within the general systems we have. Carbon pricing fits the bill. (More on my fantasy climate policy is here).
Something uncertain: nuclear power
One question with no clear answer is what ought to be done with nuclear power. In a weird reversal of their stereotypical roles, The Economist is now calling nuclear power “the dream that failed” while George Monbiot is emphatically encouraging the British government to stick with nuclear because of the importance of cutting GHG pollution.
I have written before about the tricky balance involved in the nuclear decision (PDF). I don’t think the answer is clear. Nuclear power stations have certainly played a role in making GHG pollution levels lower than they would have been in a world without nuclear power. At the same time, nuclear power stations are dangerous, both in terms of accidents and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In terms of cost, I still think the figures that are available are too contradictory and untrustworthy to be used as the basis for sound decision-making.
In the end, humanity only has one shot at this. We have one planet that we will warm to a greater or lesser degree and one global civilization that we will power to a greater or lesser degree in one way or another. We have options with varying levels of risk and types of risk (risks of doing nothing, risks of geoengineering, etc). Finally, we have governments that have largely failed to appreciate the seriousness of the issue, and a powerful assortment of industries dependent on fossil fuels that have been very effective at pressuring governments to do nothing major about the problem of climate change.
One way or another, the people who are young today will probably live to see which way the world will go. If we keep burning fossil fuels in the way we are now, the best science suggests that we are headed for a world more than 4°C warmer with sea levels several metres higher and other serious unpredictable effects. Alternatively, if we get serious about the multi-decadal project of decarbonizing the global energy supply, people who are young today may live to see the emergence of a global civilization that runs on renewable forms of energy within a stable climate.
P.S. I think the question of what individuals can most productively do in response to climate change is pretty clear: lobby your elected representatives. If you really want to focus on reducing your personal impact instead of changing the system, the best choice may be to travel less, eat less meat, and avoid having children.