Solving climate change by stealth

First Nations art in the Museum of Civilization

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.

Decarbonizing infrastructure

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.

Pricing carbon

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Solving climate change by stealth”

  1. I don’t think the criminal justice system works quite in the way you assume. Part of the problem is that you are making a claim about dogs that didn’t bark – cases where people didn’t break the law – but it strikes me as very unlikely that the reason that people choose to remain within the framework of whichever legal system they do remain within the framework of is because of its punitive power. People don’t go round making calculations about payoffs between crime and not-crime; most crimes, particularly crimes of violence, seem to lack the kind of premeditation you’d associate with that kind of reasoning, and even where we think crime is largely opportunistic, there are an awful lot more opportunities than crimes. What seems to be doing the work instead is the way people conceive of their self-interest in the first place: there’s a kind of discontinuity between crime and not-crime, where we just don’t (usually) take up criminal means to our ends. But that looks like a kind of moral suasion rather than an alteration of the payoffs given a fixed set of motivations. In a fairly minimal sense, the Humean point that every government – for which read system of coercive rules – depends on the consent of those it rules, since those it rules administer the rules and no system of rules is such that it could cope with everyone rejecting it simultaneously seems to apply here. Some kind of acceptance of moral obligation is going to be necessary, because otherwise the capacity of states to enforce the relevant sets of payoffs may well not be enough.

  2. In the second place, this approach is profoundly elitist and technocratic.

    Only in the way a central bank is. We recognize that politicians think from election to election, so we remove the power to do a certain kind of long-term harm in pursuit of a short-term end.

  3. we should simply build a society with stable greenhouse gas emissions

    You know perfectly well that this is not enough. Emissions don’t just need to be stable: they need to be stable and equal to the emission absorption of sinks. That means stable around 5 gigatonnes, not at today’s 27.

  4. I agree that underlying structural change is likely to be far more effective than attempts at suasion without addressing the current distribution of interests and rewards. However the first poster makes a valid point that governmental programs need to be generally viewed as legitimate – unpopular policies can be hard to enforce and (occasionally) bring down governments – poll tax, for instance.
    That leaves us with the question, how do we persaude the public to accept (or even lobby for) the societal changes that are required? Not, perhaps, a question to which there is any easy answer.

  5. “This report’s summary was the first to acknowledge that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could result in a substantive sea level rise over centuries rather than millennia.

    “Many of my colleagues would consider that kind of melt a catastrophe” so rapid that mankind would not be able to adapt, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University who contributed to the IPCC.”

  6. The IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, an engineer and economist from India, acknowledged the new trajectory. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” Pachauri said. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

  7. The world has already warmed by an average 0.7C in the past century. Temperatures in polar regions have increased the fastest, with 5C rises in some areas.
    Another 1.3C of warming is inevitable because of greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere.
    Alpine ski resorts will be left without snow and many rivers will dry up. In Africa up to 250m more people will suffer water shortages by 2020.
    Worldwide agriculture could be devastated, especially in parts of Africa and Asia where some crop yields could halve by 2020.
    Tidal flooding will increase. Global sea levels are rising by 3.1mm a year and accelerating. Most is due to warm water expansion.
    Emissions of CO2 – the main greenhouse gas – grew by 80% between 1970 and 2004. Its concentration in the atmosphere is the highest for 650,000 years.
    The amount of CO2 emitted by humans will rise by up to 90% by 2030 unless action is taken.

  8. “To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you only have to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence.”

    Friedrich Nietzsche

  9. People will participate by choosing among sustainable options; the role of government must eventually be to exclude unsustainable ones.

  10. “We have only two modes—complacency and panic.”

    —James R. Schlesinger, the first energy secretary, in 1977, on the country’s approach to energy

  11. Pingback: Taking one action
  12. The third sign of hope comes from what I’ll call “stealth policy.” Even though the U.S. government hasn’t been able to pass climate legislation, it has the tools for de facto policy through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, and other mechanisms. Along these lines, President Obama has, with industry cooperation, set strict standards for vehicle efficiency that mean cars in America will get 55 miles per gallon by 2025, a huge increase. Last month, the EPA issued limits on carbon pollution from new power plants, and the agency is legally obligated — by the Clean Air Act and Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency — to regulate existing power-plant carbon dioxide emissions too. Electricity generation is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions, so this is big news. Without any new legislation, the U.S. can — and slowly is — reigning in major sources of carbon pollution.

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