What is needed for serious action to be taken on climate change? Looking back at other environmental issues (that admittedly were not as “wicked” as climate change), a few conditions can be identified that have to be met:
- Strong evidence of negative consequences
- Realistic solutions (technically, economically and socially)
- Political pull: Key figure(s) taking the lead
- Sense of urgency
There is widespread agreement amongst experts on the first condition, at least on long timescales. However, climate change doesn’t rank very high on conditions 2 to 4: Yes, we have the technology to produce zero carbon electricity, but it’s deemed too expensive by the powers that be. Plus what about space heating or transport? There are low carbon alternatives for those too, but they aren’t anywhere near full scale deployment.
There clearly is no political pull to speak of; many had hoped that Obama would step up to the plate, but he hasn’t (admittedly his hands are tied behind his back by congress).
A sense of urgency is totally lacking. The problem is that it’s not our problem, but rather that of future generations. However, due to the long timescales in the climate system, the solution is in our hands; not theirs. Quoting mt:
Between recognizing the necessity for a policy, the replacement of the required infrastructure, and the net impact on the cumulative nature of the carbon dioxide forcing in particular means that the gap in time from the moment we decide to take the matter seriously to actually stopping its further deterioration is perhaps forty years. The problems we see now are, roughly speaking the ones we bought in 1970, not the ones we have acquired since. Nothing we do now will have much effect until 2050 or so. If catastrophes really start in 2050, we will be looking at things getting still worse until 2090 or so.
I.e. our actions -or inactions- only take effect decades into the future. That has at least two very different consequences:
- Since we don’t bear the full consequences of our actions, our motivation to solve the problem becomes smaller: This decreases people’s sense of urgency.
- The big delay between action and consequence means that we have to act on the problem sooner rather than later if it is to be mitigated: This increases the actual urgency.
Note the discrepancy between the actual urgency to deal with the slowly ensuing problem and the perceived urgency. That is why I agree with e.g. Homer-Dixon and Stavins that some sort of dramatic event is needed to increase people’s sense of urgency. This could be seen as a form of loss aversion: The strongest driver for behavioral change is a sudden or looming negative impact (as in the example of a long time smoker who stopped cold turkey after the doctor gave him an ultimatum along the lines of “your legs will have to be amputated unless you quit smoking right now!” – Ben Tiggelaar).
Of course, such a dramatic event by itself is not enough to spur action (there’s other conditions that are still to be met), as e.g. Gilligan points out over at Kloor’s ClimateCentral blog. But the required sense of urgency is hard to achieve without precipitating events.
Should we therefore hope for climate related misery to fall upon us? Of course not. We should hope for and if possible contribute towards people gaining enough understanding and awareness of the issues without such misery to occur.