The main obstacles

“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Why can’t we quit fossil fuels? The British newspaper The Guardian published an article by Duncan Clark, based on the book ‘The Burning Question’ by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark (published on 20 April) which tried to give some answers to that basic question.

It is a well-written piece which should be compulsory reading to everyone, whether climate change means anything to you or not. In an orderly manner it explains the current insanity we are seeing.

» The Guardian – 17 April 2013:
Why can’t we quit fossil fuels?
Despite all the mounting scientific concern, the political rhetoric and the clean technology of the past decade, the growth rate in global carbon emissions has not reduced at all. Why? Because we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels more than ever before. By Duncan Clark

“The gas industry has lobbyists everywhere. The gas industry has former staff everywhere. And when the main determinant of the gas industry’s future profits is the decisions of today’s politicians, you can bet that no matter what the problem, someone will argue that the answer is gas. It’s not climate change that needs to be tackled in Australia; it is the entrenched political power of the fossil-fuel industry. And unfortunately for those paying attention to the climate science, that battle has barely begun.”
Richard Denniss – in The Monthly

The moral paradox

In one of the hundreds of comments to the article, a commenter who calles him/herself Teratornis wrote on 17 April 2013 at 9:59 pm:

“There are going to need to be a number of massive disasters clearly attributable to climate change before significant united action will be taken (in my opinion).

I’m not sure how massive disasters would change the fundamental moral paradox of climate change. For example, even the victims of Hurricane Sandy whose homes were destroyed aren’t about to stop burning fossil fuels. That’s because as individuals they are only responsible for about a billionth each of the climate change that may have played a role in the disaster that befell them. Even the victims of climate change have no purely selfish reason to stop contributing to climate change. As Stanisław Jerzy Lec observed, no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Humans are causing climate change because the unit of climate change causation is the individual human, and at the moment the individual human typically places more value on (a) consuming the short-term benefits to self that result from making his or her individual contribution to climate change than on (b) minimizing his or her individual contribution to climate change.

This is also true on larger decision-making levels (corporate, local and national government). Every action that can be taken by any decision-making entity to protect the climate produces marginal benefits that are captured mainly by people (and species) other than the decision-maker.

For example, take the UK as a whole, which has about 0.9% of world population and produces about 2% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. If the UK undertakes a World War Two-scale effort to cut its emissions to zero by say the year 2030, it will reduce or slow global warming by something like 2%, and any resulting benefits will be distributed among the whole global population. Thus about 99% of the direct climate benefits will likely be captured by people other than those who made the effort to cut the UK’s emissions.

This is true even for the whole country of China, with about 19% of the world’s people, which despite being the world’s largest carbon polluter still accounts for only about quarter of the total. The climate benefits of anything China does to cut its greenhouse gas emissions will be distributed globally, and therefore about 81% of those benefits will be to non-Chinese people. But in fact China is not a monolith – it consists of over a billion individuals all acting to some extent independently. The individual Chinese citizen faces the same moral paradox as an individual in any country – why should they sacrifice immediate tangible benefits to self, to give diffuse long term benefits to vast numbers of strangers?

This remains true even if there is a binding global agreement that tries to force everybody to cut their emissions – every single individual, corporation, and national government will still have a powerful incentive to burn fossil fuels for its own immediate benefit. This is called the free rider problem in economics.

Thus the only conceivable solution to climate change must involve a massive advance in moral reasoning. Every individual and organization on the planet must place a higher value on minimizing their personal or organizational contributions to man-made climate destruction than they currently place on the benefits to self that result from contributing to that destruction.

This may seem hopeless but it has happened before. Humans have for example largely eradicated slavery from large parts of the planet, despite there being no economic case for doing so. Slavery continues to be profitable as illustrated by its use during the dictatorships of the 20th century. Germany in 1944 was able to maintain and even increase its war production, despite heavy Allied bombing, in part by employing slave labor. No source of human labor can ever be cheaper than stealing it, so the economic case for slavery was and is unassailable. The only argument against slavery is the moral argument, and humans actually accepted that argument.

We can make the same moral argument against climate change – even though the economic argument for committing climate theft remains unassailable in the near term and on the selfish level, humans are capable of choosing to give up benefits to self in favor of benefits to someone else. Humans had better learn to make this moral choice on the climate or we aren’t going to prevent catastrophic climate change.

“We have entered a period of human history in which the problems we face — and climate change is but one — are so massive and complex that no country, no matter how powerful, can solve them alone. Yet we continue to allow our attachment to sovereignty to get in the way of meaningful collective action. The dictionary defines sovereignty as freedom from external control, which is seen as desirable. People die for it. The question going forward, however, is whether people will die because of it.”
John Macfarlane, editor and co-publisher of The Walrus, in the editorial of its July-August issue

The individual gets all the benefits of making his or her individual contribution to wrecking the climate, whereas any action the individual can take to wreck the climate less will produce nearly invisible benefits enjoyed mostly by other people.

However, humans are occasionally able to overcome this type of dilemma. Democracy, for example, requires sufficiently many individuals to agree to spend some time and effort to cast their individually meaningless votes (no election turns on the vote you can cast). Many people vote anyway, despite not getting any direct benefit from their individual vote. We collectively benefit when everybody else votes.

It seems that with elections, individuals are tricked into voting by some misleading messaging. We are told that our votes are important – that’s certainly true when a politician is preaching to a million of us at once. But my vote is not important to me. I cannot identify one tangible benefit to me from my act of voting, since I have never managed to swing an election.

Nonetheless I vote, and the only justification I can make is moral. My act of voting produces a marginal benefit captured mostly by other people, and I like that, because everything is not entirely about me.”

» The Guardian – 3 May 2013:
Are egos the barrier to corporate sustainability transformation?
There is an increasing danger that the sustainability movement is starting to reflect the very system it is seeking to change. By Jo Confino

“Rich people feel immune to these problems”

These are the signs of our time:
• 80 percent of the ice on the poles has disappeared.
• The oceans are 30 percent more acidic.
• The atmosphere is 5 percent wetter and has passed the 400 ppm milestone of CO2-concentration.
• We have raised the sea-level.

“But we don’t act, and for a particular reason, one that will be clear to those who read the Gospels. Our richest people don’t want to act, because it would reduce their wealth somewhat,” said Bill McKibben — the eminent climate change activist and founder of — in a stirring sermon at New York City’s Riverside Church in late April 2013.

“The fossil fuel industry is the 1 percent of the 1 percent, the richest enterprise in human history. Exxon made more money last year than any company in the history of money. There are far more eminent theologians than me in this room, (I am not a theologian at all), but it is my belief anyway that these companies have more money than God.”

» The National Memo – 3 May 2013:
Why We Aren’t Acting In A Crisis That Threatens Our Survival

» Financial Times – 14 May 2013:
Why the world faces climate chaos
We will watch the rise in greenhouse gases until it is too late to do anything about it. By Martin Wolf