Getting serious about climate change

Mica Prazak in black and white

The key thing that is required for dealing with climate change, and which our society does not yet possess, is seriousness. Seriousness of the kind that accompanied winning the Second World War – far more seriousness than we are displaying now in Afghanistan. We can afford to effectively lose that war, watching control pass back to the Taliban, but we cannot afford the consequences that would arise from decades of additional unmitigated emissions.

The threat certainly justifies an effort on the scale of winning a world war. The business-as-usual outcome of more than 5°C of temperature increase would cause enormous disruption. It is quite probable that it would disrupt global agriculture to such an extent that the global population would drop significantly, amid a lot of bloodshed and suffering. Preventing that requires replacing the energy inputs that run everything with carbon neutral ones: a process that will cost trillions and probably require converting areas the size of states into renewable power facilities.

Where could the necessary seriousness come from? The scientists have already given us a vivid and well-justified picture of what continuing on our present course will do. Some political parties and entities have accepted the direction in which we need to travel, though they don’t really understand how far we need to go along that road, or how quickly we need to begin. In the worst case, seriousness will come with the first concrete demonstration that climate change is a major threat to civilization. By then, however, even action on the largest scale and with the utmost urgency would probably be more of a salvage effort than a save.

Something needs to prompt us, as a global society, to take action on an environmental issue at a scale and a cost never previously borne. Rational scientific and economic analyses are already urging that, but don’t seem to have the psychological motive power to make people stop dallying. Finding something to provide the needed push into serious thinking must be a major task for the environmental movement.

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.

20 thoughts on “Getting serious about climate change”

  1. Seriousness of the kind that accompanied winning the Second World War

    Right now, industrialized states have the opportunity to ‘fight’ climate change like the US fought WWII. That means a lot of industrial mobilization, but relatively little death and destruction at home, since most of that is happening abroad.

    If we wait a few more decades, however, we will have to fight climate change like the Soviet Union fought WWII, with harsh domestic controls, extreme sacrifices, and exceptional damage at home.

  2. I don’t think we will find that seriousness. What I see coming is widespread disaster– coastline destruction, famine, huge refugee populations on the move. Human progress will be knocked back by centuries, possibly millennia.

    But it’s all good. The earth will go on and humanity will survive, with a fresh start at fucking it all up again.

  3. If we exhaust fossil fuels and/or wreck the climate, would a fresh start even be possible?

    Agriculture requires water and stable weather. Also, it is hard to imagine jumping straight from primitive tools to modern renewable energy. Without fossil fuels for an intermediate step, you might get stuck forever at a rudimentary level of development.

  4. R.K.

    I like that analogy a lot. Given the choice between fighting like the Americans did and fighting like the Soviets had to, any sane person would choose the former.


    I hope you’re wrong about us not finding the seriousness. As I have said many times before, we have the chance to pull of a massive one-off step change in how our society functions, moving from an energy basis that is doubly unsustainable (because of depleting fuels and accumulating wastes) to one that we could maintain effectively forever.

  5. Milan, if we were going to find the seriousness, as you put it, wouldn’t we have already started? I don’t see that we have, and I suspect that it is too late.

    Most of what we’re doing doesn’t seem serious at all — replacing the light bulbs, for example, with more expensive and hazardous ones that contain mercury, or burning food corn for fuel. I don’t see much progress toward getting the average citizen out of his car, much less off the airplanes, and even nations that bought into Kyoto, such as Canada, have done nothing to cut emissions.

    So I think it’s just not going to happen. As for whether the human race survives the coming catastrophe, and in what form, that’s for the sci-fi writers to speculate on. Anyway the planet doesn’t care either way.

  6. Seriousness could emerge progressively.

    One way would be to start with a low carbon price, which would be politically acceptable, and people would start curtailing the activities that have the least value, relative to their greenhouse gas emissions. Once the transition starts, carbon prices and associated policies like building and appliance standards can keep getting tougher and tougher.

    We need to change the logic of the economy from one focused on status quo, fossil fuel powered growth to one where emissions are expensive and people work hard to reduce and avoid them.

    There are probably other ways seriousness could emerge.

  7. If we’re lucky, peak oil might help drive people to seriousness. If prices per barrel are rising relentlessly – $100, $150, $200, $250 – it will light a fire under people to develop renewables.

    Fingers crossed they won’t choose coal-to-liquids!

  8. Maybe it will take a revaluing of how we measure economic success. The Gross Domestic Product doesn’t really work because it doesn’t look at the neccesary costs to environment, health and well-being of nature, citizens and society. When an oil tanker springs a leak, or our nation goes to war the GDP goes up. One of the things we could do is revalue our economy on a Net based system that accounts for the eviro,social, and health impact that a certain industry has and rate them by a new set of criteria.

  9. I don’t know if that is necessary here.

    When it comes to the damage that could be done by climate change, it seems like conventional GDP figures can do a decent job of expressing it. If we continue to emit greenhouse gasses on a business-as-usual course, we will probably see 5.5°C to 7.1°C of temperature increase by 2100, with huge consequences for the economies of both rich states and poor ones.

    While there is a strong case to be made that there are kinds of values not well captured by GDP, we can make the case for investing in mitigation, so as to end dependence on fossil fuels and avoid dangerous climate change, without having to develop a more holistic standard of value. This is well illustrated in the economic assessments that have been done, such as the Stern Review and Garnaut Review.

  10. Less insane standards of value already exist. GDP doesn’t take account of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, which results in decreased utility from the same total consumption.

  11. The problem isn’t GDP, which is an abstraction and an approximation, but rather where we get our energy from. It’s not clear to me why changing to a different abstraction and approximation would help us deal with that.

  12. P1 Climate change will disproportionatly hurt the less well off rather than the more well off

    P2 Increasing disadvantage of the less well off can reduce to increasing productive efficiencies in the form of lower labour costs (understood in the wide sense to include the possibility of lower safety and health standards)

    P3 Increasing productive efficiencies can lead to increases in GDP

    C1 In certain cases increased GDP can be a result of reduced overall value (from P2 and P3)

    C2 Measuring overall value by GDP will under-reflect the decrease in overall value caused by global warming. (From P1 and C1)

  13. “Numbers that don’t motivate people aren’t much use.”

    People increased in increasing GDP rather than overall value might use this argument to argue in favour of global warming. Increasing GDP at the price of overall value has been the rule of thumb for market regulators since end of Bretton Woods. That’s why as per quality of life indicators, most people are worse off now than they were in 1971, despite GDP drastically increasing.

  14. That’s why as per quality of life indicators, most people are worse off now than they were in 1971, despite GDP drastically increasing.

    I really don’t think this is true. If you look globally at factors like life expectancy, infant mortality, education, incidence of disease, etc, the figures for this year look a lot better than those from 1971. In particular, a huge number of people in Asia who have escaped extreme poverty.

    On the broader point about how to assess welfare, while there might be some scope for motivating some people through changing methods, I really doubt that this is a mechanism through which societal seriousness of the kind required can be created.

  15. Human Development Index (HDI) scores have risen in all regions since 1975, though least so in Africa.

    The HDI takes into consideration life expectancy at birth, the adult literacy rate, the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrollment ratio, and the natural logarithm of gross domestic product per capita (note that this takes into consideration some of the distributional criticisms you mentioned).

    What I do not dispute is that a lot of this improvement has arisen as the result of unsustainable practices, especially reliance on fossil fuels. It will be a real challenge to switch over to renewable sources of energy without losing some of these gains (or even having the HDI reduced to a pre-1975 level).

  16. Strategically, there are three things that can be done about seriousness:

    1) Work with the level of seriousness that already exists

    If people are willing to go forward on improving car standards a bit and researching non-emitting energy to an extent, work on those things. Make sure that the resources are well deployed, and that people see the results of efforts.

    Try to overcome institutional barriers to action, such as lack of coordination.

    2) Convince people to get more serious

    This is probably the most important thing the IPCC has done: convince people of the potential severity of climate change, and what is involved in addressing it.

    3) Prepare so that when people do get more seriousness, you know what to do and are ready to act

    Make sure that every incremental increase in political will goes towards letting a worthwhile new initiative go forward. It may be too much to hope for a carbon tax this year, but be ready if a government five years from now is willing to try it.

    Similarly, on technology, projects, etc.

  17. I believe that the battle of public opinion at least is now being waged and hopefully being won. It seems every national leader in the West must at least pay lip service to climate change (note the focus of the recent G-8 summit). This is dramatically different from 5 or 10 years ago.

    Credit goes to the widespread efforts at various levels including through this blog to raise awareness of climate change.

    It may be helpful is we stop measuring the state of our well being not by GDP but rather by some Wellness Index. I understand that there are efforts to promote doing so.

  18. As I said before, I am not sure that dealing with climate change requires us to broaden our definition of quantitative human welfare. What it does require is treating the welfare of those who will be alive in 50, and 100, and 500 years seriously.

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