The main issues
The Human Cost of Poverty and Climate Change
A billion children in developing countries will never grow old. This is today's most important issue, and hardly anyone is talking about it.
My climate heroes are not talking directly about the right to life of a billion people. At least not directly, in a way that hits the headlines. Not Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Oreskes, James Hansen, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Bernie Sanders. Greta Thunberg did mention that people in the future will suffer terribly but not that the suffering will mainly be linked to poverty in developing countries. George Monbiot did speak about hundreds of millions of future deaths. Many other such indirect statements could be found.
In July 2019, Amnesty International gave Greta Thunberg its annual Ambassador of Conscience Award. Is this acknowledgement that climate change (alongside poverty) is the most important human rights issue? You wouldn’t believe it from the human rights literature, which focuses on individual cases, discrimination, punishment, violence and so on — all very important, but not as important, because climate change is life-threatening for a much greater number of people.
Conversely, we might ask whether this award is this acknowledgement that human rights is the most important issue in climate research. Again, you wouldn’t believe it from the climate literature, which focuses on physics, biology, economics and so on.
Is it time to clarify that the most important human right is the right to life? Amazingly, this is not clearly expressed in the universal declaration of human rights — perhaps because so many crazy people in this world still believe in the death penalty.
A billion children in developing countries will never grow old. We are responsible for this unprecedented crime in proportion to the amount of carbon we burn, and we know it. That's indirect mass murder. How loud does one have to scream before the message gets through? I tried once but was misunderstood. If my message had been less radical, no-one would have read it.
Indifference is an indicator of a lack of conscience. Indifference has always frightened me. Indifference is a perfect breeding ground for hatred. Indifference allows politics of hate to flourish. And that lays the groundwork for bigotry, racism and hate to seem reasonable to ordinary human beings. The results of politics of hate are always horrifying and inevitably catastrophic.
- Lily Brett, grazkunst 03.2017, p. 9
Greta Thunberg's speech to the United Nations at COP24 in Katowice Poland on 3 December 2018
For 25 years countless of people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences, asking our nation’s leaders to stop the emissions. But, clearly, this has not worked since the emissions just continue to rise. So I will not ask them anything.
Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us. Because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.
Rich countries like Sweden need to start reducing emissions by at least 15% every year to reach the 2 degree warming target. You would think the media and everyone of our leaders would be talking about nothing else — but no one ever even mentions it. Nor does hardly anyone ever talk about that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with up to 200 species going extinct every single day. Furthermore, does no one ever speak about the aspect of equity clearly stated everywhere in the Paris agreement, which is absolutely necessary to make it work on a global scale. That means that rich countries like mine need to get down to zero emissions, within 6–12 years with today's emission speed, so that people in poorer countries can heighten their standard of living by building some of the infrastructures that we have already built. Such as hospitals, electricity and clean drinking water. Because how can we expect countries like India, Colombia or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we, who already have everything, don’t care even a second about our actual commitments to the Paris agreement?
So when school started in August this year I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school striked for the climate. Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can "solve the climate crisis". But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?
Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.
In a couple of decades, when global warming is a serious problem everywhere, and most people (not just the crazy "alarmists") are talking about the point of no return, and we are all mourning what has been irretrievably lost, while trying to deal with the ever-increasing global chaos, I will look at my friends, family, and academic colleagues, and they will look at me, and we will all ask ourselves: How could good people have been so evil? How could generous people have been so selfish? How could intelligent people have been so stupid? How could kind people have been so cruel? How could courageous people have been so timid?
By then, it will be too late and too tragic for "I told you so". The window of opportunity will have closed. The irreversible damage will be done. We won't be able to turn back the clock and try again.
My children will ask me: Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you talk to your family, friends, and colleagues? And I will say: I did. Again and again, in different ways. But even the nicest, kindest, most honourable people were not listening. Or if they were listening, they were not responding.
Considering the consequences, this has been the most shocking experience of my life. And the shock is ongoing. My friends, family, and colleagues will read the previous paragraph and still won't get it. Nor will they get it after reading this paragraph, or the next one.
Right now, we can still do something. Will we? Or will we not?
The melting arctic and antarctic and all that other climate stuff is not only happening on TV and in Facebook. It is part of our world, and we are causing it. Every time we drive a fossil-powered car, fly in an aeroplane, eat a steak, or vote for a political party that is ignoring or exacerbating this problem, we are contributing actively to the destruction of our children's world. Moreover, there is absolutely no doubt that this is true. Anyone who claims otherwise--and there are enough of those--is lying.
Life is a stage, and we are the players. We are stubbornly acting as if either climate change was not happening or we were not causing it, or as if it didn't matter. We seem determined to fool both ourselves and each other. Our excuse, perhaps, is that we want to enjoy life as long as it is still possible. But that doesn't make sense, either.
I am one of the worst sinners, as anyone can see by looking at the long list of international conferences I have attended during my academic career. I didn't get to those conferences by swimming or riding a bike. But a few years ago I jumped over my own shadow and now I'm doing something about it.
It's not as difficult as you think. Let me give you some examples.
I frequently ask myself how best to respond to this situation. Should I accuse people of being immoral--not caring about a billion children in developing countries? Should I politely ignore the problem, like one of a zillion zombies? Am I allowed to say that the well-being of a billion children is more important than research in my academic discipline, or any other? If someone gets offended by my attempts to address this problem, what is more important--their feelings or the right to life of a billion people?
My climate-friendly friends and I are not suffering--not in the slightest. Compared to the risk of resistance during the Second World War, to take one example, today's climate resistance is a trivial matter. But in the end it could be even more important. So why isn't everyone doing it?
For many, it is not so easy to cut fossil fuel consumption. For example, you may have little or no access to public transport. But that is no reason to give up. Electric cars are getting cheaper and better, as are the solar cells you can use to charge them. There are also electric bikes and mopeds. In general and regardless of the problem, everyone has the chance to create their own solution, taking advantage of available opportunities. Be a pioneer!
Many enjoyable activities don't directly involve fossil fuels at all. Music is an example--both playing it and listening to it. Music is more powerful than people realise, and many singers have taken the liberty of including relevant moral messages in their song lyrics. Perhaps we should listen to those songs again.
Joni Mitchell: "You don't know what you've got till it's gone"
George Harrison: "With every mistake we must surely be learning"
Bob Dylan: "How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"
Tracy Chapman: "I know I may be wishing on a world that may never be. But I'll keep on wishing"
Michael Jackson: "If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change"
Midnight Oil: "Cause it happens to be an emergency. Some things aren't meant to be. Some things don't come for free"
Amanda McBroom & Bette Midler: "Far beneath the bitter snows lies the seed that with the sun's love ... becomes the rose"
I especially enjoy the freedom to be able to tell the truth even if it sometimes disturbs other people. But almost everyone I know has this freedom, too. Most of us are not living in dangerous dictatorships. So why are we scared to tell the truth about climate change? Why are we silently agreeing to ignore the elephant in the room?
Today's biggest human rights issues
Despite progress in many areas, there are still shocking human rights violations happening in many countries. In fact, right now the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better. But there is something that everyone can do: support Amnesty International, read their newsletters, sign their petitions, and participate in their urgent actions.
Taken together, climate change and poverty represent today's worst human rights violations, for two reasons. First, they violate the most important right - the right to life. Second, they will affect more people than any other human rights violation in history--even including war and genocide.
Like other human rights violations, poverty and climate change are being caused by people who are fully aware of the consequences--and they are doing it all the same. We, the well-fed people in rich countries, are those people. Some of us are more guilty than others, of course.
Right now, a billion young lives are in danger. Poverty is reducing the life expectancy of children in developing countries, and climate change will reduce it even more. A billion children who are alive today are likely to die early as an indirect consequence of poverty and climate change. These a not crazy claims in someone's crazy blog. This really is happening, and most researchers in the area of global climate and global poverty would agree that it's true. Moreover, we are causing it with our emissions, which can explain why most people seem to be ignoring it.
Humankind needs friends. A friend is someone who listens when you have a problem, and doesn't disappear when the going gets tough. On this page, I have tried to present the main problems facing the human species today. My special request to readers of this page is to try to understand these problems, even if you have different opinions or a different approach. Then become a friend of humanity, and help solve the problems.
That will also make you a friend of the world's children. Do you ever have to clean up after your children? Think of this: After we die, our children will have to clean up after us. Right now, we are in the process of making a much bigger mess than they can imagine. In fact, we cannot imagine it ourselves. Many of us recognize this problem, but feel helpless to do anything about it. We understand those signs in airplane washrooms that say "As a courtesy to the next passenger, please use your paper towel to wipe the basin", but we don't realise that the basin is the planet and the next passengers are our children. Most of us realise that the airplane is part of the problem, but we are pretending not to know. We are looking the other way and pretending to be innocent.
A true friend not only listens to our problems - s/he also celebrates our successes. Just imagine, in our role as friends of the world's children, celebrating the end of poverty or the end of global warming. What a party that would be!
Putting people before principles
For humans, the fundamental unit of value is the human life, and every human life has the same value. This is my basic assumption. Basically, everything that I want to say boils down to this.
But many people in politics seem to place principles above people.
Another thing uniting extreme left and right approaches is over-simplification. Extremists believe naively in ideal solutions to inherently complex problems (nirvana fallacy)--something that humanities scholars traditionally accuse scientists of. A century ago, scientifically (positivitist) oriented sociologists dreamed of understanding society with quantititative models--analogous to the mathematical models physicists use to understand the physical universe. Their dream was not realized. Instead, they had to find ways of dealing with the inherent complexity of society.
Politics is equally complex. History has shown time and again that the utopias promised by the extreme left and the extreme right are practically impossible to achieve. That is true regardless of whether they are desirable, which is a different question. Unfortunately, people keep falling for utopic ideas. Perhaps it's human nature?
I want neither utopia nor revolution. All I am arguing for is some basic honesty and justice. When the far right call for "law and order", I agree with them. The rich and especially the very rich should obey the law in their countries and pay the right amount of tax, as determined by fair, open democratic processes. Those who hide large amounts of money in tax havens should be appropriately punished, remembering that tax havens are one of today's main causes of poverty. The same applies to those who lie publicly about climate change, with devastating consequences for the lives and livelihoods or millions or perhaps billions of people in developing countries. With the enormous amounts of finance that capitalism has generated, poverty should be eliminated, for example by introducting an unconditional basic income. These goals can be achieved without revolution if the biggest "white-collar criminals" are brought to justice. The crimes that the far right complain about, such as welfare abuse or the misdemeanors of asylum seekers, are trivial by comparison.
The philosopher Emmanuel Kant argued that people should always be treated as ends in themselves, and not (or not only) as means to ends. Put more simply, people are always more important than principles. Given the amount of suffering and injustice in the modern world, a political principle that does not clearly serve the goal of reducing the number of suffering people or the degree to which they are suffering, both now in the future, it is not a good principle.
"Quantitative ethics" - what's that?
We often pretend that human lives are priceless, and wish that they were; but in practice they have monetary value, and that can vary enormously. Depending on your location and financial means, and talking very round figures, your life may effectively be worth between a thousand and a million dollars (consider the amounts invested in life-saving treatments in different countries). In extreme cases, a human life might be worth anything between one dollar and a billion dollars. But we can also speak of the value of a human life without referring to money at all. In that case, the value of two human lives is twice that of one, and the value of a million lives is a million times that of one life - regardless of financial means. That is another important assumption behind these pages, and unfortunately it is not self-evident.
Like dollars and cents, values expressed in human lives can be added and multiplied; they obey the laws of mathematics. But there is a paradoxical difference: we want more money, but we don't want more humans on the planet. Population growth is slowing, but the rate is still far too high for a sustainable future (which is one reason why education for girls in developing countries is so important). The difference between lives and dollars, then, is that we can own money but we should not love it, and we can love people but we should not own them. If only this idea were implemented in international politics!
From a psychological viewpoint, we find it easier to empathize with the suffering and fate of individuals and harder to emotionally comprehend the fate of millions. To solve major global problems, we must do both. Globalisation has changed things: increasingly, everything in the world depends on everything else. We can no longer reasonably separate our high standard of living in the "west" from the low standard of living of others, especially if those others are involved in trade relationships with us. We can no longer ignore the plight of other people just because they are geographically distant from us. Nor can we enjoy the fruits of the labor of past generations while ignoring the fate of future generations.
It follows from these ideas that responsible, self-respecting people - we who got a good education and enjoy a high quality of living - have a moral duty to help others on a global basis and to develop a rational approach to this task. Given that human lives represent our most important value, the most important aspect of this duty is to prevent the lives of others from being cut short by violence, preventable disease or curable disease, and associated suffering. Resources applied to achieve that goal should be applied in a rational way, based on estimates of the number of lives that can be saved for a given amount of resources. For this purpose, mathematical risk assessment theory, based on probability and order-of-magnitude estimates, can be useful. Such resources should be applied independent of age, gender, skin color, disability, language, religion and so on. All lives matter; it follows that black lives matter, female lives matter, young lives matter and so on. These things may sound obvious, but unfortunately people often do not practise what they preach. Beyond that, we must help people everywhere achieve happiness and a reasonable standard of living, and ensure sustainability, so that future generations can enjoy the world that we enjoy today.
These points may sound like emotional appeals. Any discussion of life-and-death issues is bound to be emotional, of course. There is nothing wrong with emotion: in the end, it is what motivates change. But it is also possible to be quasi-objective, and that is my primary intention. I challenge anyone to find errors in my logic, and on that basis to present plausible alternatives.
The internal links to this page consider different practical ways to achieve these goals in different areas. Many of my arguments are not new. The amazing thing about them, and the reason I am presenting them, is that they are not being implemented, as if people did not understand obvious things.
The main threats and solutions
I am a human rights activist, defending the rights of the bottom billion: people living in poverty in developing countries. Given the steadily increasing wealth of the top billion, it is scandalous that many thousands still die every day, and millions die every year, from hunger, preventable disease, or curable disease (more). This ongoing tragedy seldom hits the headlines, but if you consider the total number of preventable deaths per year or decade, poverty is killing far more people than either violence (e.g. war and genocide) or natural disasters (e.g. storms and tsunamis) (more). Other things being equal, during this century alone global warming will gradually increase the death toll by exacerbating food and water shortages, causing hundreds of millions of deaths (more); further hundreds of millions of climate refugees will die (more). The 22nd century will be even worse (more), even if greenhouse emissions completely stop in a few decades. These predictions are based on mainstream climate science (more); they are not exaggerated. This unprecedented emergency has largely been created by multinational corporations for whom profit is more important than people (more).
To make these things happen, we need worldwide peaceful protest (more). The findings of leading climate scientists (more) suggest that we must break out of this deadlock and implement radical solutions in the next few years. If not, our grandchildren can expect a global catastrophe later this century, and they will rightly blame us for having caused it. The window of opportunity is gradually closing and there will be no second chance.
My approach is not left- or right-wing, although many will consider it to be leftist. I agree with Mark Lynas when he wrote:
Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.
Solving the climate problem will involve big changes, to be sure; and capitalism, as we have been experiencing it during the past few neo-liberal decades, is by itself poorly suited to this task. In fact, capitalism can be regarded as the cause of the problem. But in a different context capitalism can become the motor that drives solutions, just as it has been the motor for most human development in the past few centuries. We need to reduce the wealth gap, which has been steadily growing for decades, and strive to separate wealth and corporations from politics - just as many countries have succeeded in separating religion from politics (laïcité). A partial separation of wealth and politics, and a return to the democratic socialism of the 1970s, can be achieved by introducing new, globally harmonized wealth, environment and transaction taxes, combined with universal, unconditional basic income (and of course these are not the only options). In short, to solve the climate problem, we must tame capitalism - not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
A global political revolution is not necessary, and would probably backfire. Revolutions typically cause enormous amounts of death and suffering. If humanity ever grows up, we will know that it has happened when a problem of this magnitude is solved without violence. As the Beatles sang, "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out". What we need instead is for large numbers of people to repeatedly and clearly state the obvious, refusing to be mislead by denialist pseudo-scientific, pseudo-economic and pseudo-political arguments and those with opposing vested interests.
Given this background, the aim of this page is not to entertain or impress. The aim is to identify the world's biggest problems and consider how they could be solved. I will focus on matters of life and death for millions of people that are being widely neglected, or treated as if they did not exist (or as if those millions of people did not exist). And I will advocate a simple approach to solving such massive problems: tell the truth, simply and directly. That is not as easy as it sounds, because to tell the truth you first have to recognize it. In our everyday life, we are surrounded by distortions of the truth. To recognize them as such, we need to train ourselves in the gentle art of recognizing such distortions. That often involves understanding the selfish motives that lie behind truth distortions, and noticing the selfishness in ourselves that could lead us to believe such distortions. To make progress, we must separate ourselves from cycles of mutual deception, cut through the bullshit, and proclaim apparently obvious things, simply and directly.
On my Wikipedia page in July 2014, I read that this website contains "various posts on radical green politics". That seems true, but it could also be misleading. I am not primarily "green". The main aim of my posts is to promote human rights; the environment (which includes animals, plants and climate) is immeasurably valuable by itself, but I consider human lives to be even more valuable. I am perhaps "radically" interested in freedom, honesty, fairness, justice, solidarity, and cultural diversity; but I am also opposed to all extreme, fundamentalist, or utopian political ideologies. We are living in a sad and selfish world if it is considered "radical" to try to tell the truth about global poverty and global warming, or to try to develop practical strategies to defend the basic rights of a billion people.
As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. (President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the Nation, January 17, 1961)
Contents of this page: A vision for humanity - What you can do - Become a hero! - Everything you always wanted to know about climate change (but were afraid to ask) - How many lives will global warming cost? - The central role of taxation - The practical facts - The challenge of global cooperation - Has this happened before? - Responsibility, courage, freedom - The bottom line - So why am I doing this?
A vision for humanity
Humanity is making progress in some areas but not others. Technology just keeps getting better, but catastrophic wars are still being waged in many countries, and there are still millions of refugees trying to move from poorer to richer countries. That makes you wonder what our priorities are, or if we know how to spell words like "morality", let alone know what they mean.
Above all, a billion people are still living in poverty, mainly in developing countries. The problem of poverty is the most serious of all, because it causes the most deaths: millions every year from hunger, curable disease and preventable disease (mainly children). The rich nations could have solved this problem in the past few decades if plans had been developed and promises kept. What we should have done includes properly financing official development aid, closing all tax havens, stopping multinationals from stealing natural resources from developing countries, taxing wealth, taxing international transactions, taxing environmental damage. We have not made much progress in these areas, apart from a regular stream of insufficient investment and good intentions. These include idealistic, monumental projects such as the Millennium Development Goals, but the truth behind the glossy presentation on the UN websites is that the goals of such projects will only be partially achieved. The main problem has always been lack of funding.
We need to rise above this situation. Our vision should be to put an end, slowly but surely, to the current global death toll from hunger, preventable disease, and curable disease in developing countries. Our vision should also be to radically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming from passing the 2°C mark, beyond which it may become uncontrollable and cause hundreds of millions or even billions of deaths in the future (more). For all those who want a better world in the long term, these two problems should surely be at the top of the list.
Here we are, the top billion in the early 21st century. We probably have the highest standard of living of any living beings ever, past and future. From what we know about global warming and the limits of our natural resources, it's not going to get any better than this. We might also have reached the highest level of wisdom (intelligence and compassion) in history. We know of no other beings in the universe who could compete for these honours, although we have tried very hard to find them. At the same time we might be so stupid and greedy that we fail to invest the small fraction of our wealth that is necessary to enlarge this beautiful situation to include other people and future generations.The appropriate response to this unprecedented situation is not to laugh in embarrassment, or hang our heads in shame. The solution is to act.
What each of us can do
There are many options. Each of us can start by picking one of them. Little things mean a lot.
Everything you always wanted to know about climate change (but were afraid to ask)
The implications of climate change are pretty horrific, so it would be understandable if you were "afraid to ask". Many people don't have the courage to read texts like this, it seems. Congratulations for getting this far!
The most reliable source of information on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is a global affiliation of leading climate scientists whose mandate is purely scientific, namely to understand global climate and inform the world of future developments. They are not biased toward exaggerating the threat of climate change, as climate deniers have claimed; in fact, one could equally argue that their predictions are on the conservative side. There are many reputable, readable, informative accounts of climate change and its impact on future generations in the scientific literature; an example from chemistry is Williams and Crutzen (2013) and from physics is Hansen and others (2013).
The IPCC does not say the following, because it is obvious: We are all burning fossil fuels, directly or indirectly, every day. Our carbon footprint is too big. If every person on the planet burned the same amount of carbon as we in the middle and upper classes are burning now, and if they had been doing so for the past several decades, the devastating scenes in Al Gore’s “An inconvenient truth” would already be upon us.
The IPCC has instead issued the following warning. If we are to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C, the annual growth in global emissions must stop by 2020. After that, global emissions must decrease steadily, approaching zero in 2070. Like most statements in the IPCC report and its convenient summary, this is the product of an extended process of negotiation among the world’s leading climate scientists. It is almost certainly true. From a practical viewpoint, it is the report's most important statement.
Stopping the global growth in emissions by 2020 will be very difficult. It is perhaps the greatest challenge the human species ever faced, and most people are basically ignoring it. The UN climate talks in 2015 are widely regarded as humanity's last chance to get global warrming under control. Facing that challenge head-on is what this page is about.
There are several reasons why most people are ignoring this challenge. One is denial: many people are either explicitly contradicting IPCC predictions (active denial) or quietly proceeding as if they are not true (passive denial). A second is fear: many people understand what is happening, but are afraid to face up to it. That's the "heads in the sand" response. A third is misunderstanding: Many people don't have a feel for the basic physics, which is understandable. Many never studied physics, not even at school; and reports about climate change in the media are often confusing or deliberately distorted. Having studied and taught physics at universities myself, I feel an obligation to find clear ways of explaining these things. In the following paragraphs, I will focus on three central points that are often misunderstood: why global warming is dangerous, different kinds of global warming, and the role of the oceans.
1. The pre-industrial global mean temperature was ideal for humans.
The current global mean temperature (measured at the sea level in the shade and averaged over time and area) is about 15 Celsius. I say "about" because there are different methods of calculating it that come to different conclusions. But regardless of the method, the global mean temperature is almost one degree higher than it was a century ago. It is expected to rise another 1-3 degrees during this century, i.e. 2-4 degrees altogether, depending on how well we respond to the challenge of global warming. The temperature will continue to rise in the 22nd, even if all emissions stopped now. The effect of such a development on human civilization will quite certainly be both catastrophic and unprecedented.
The following graph, based on research articles whose authors are marked, illustrates our current predicament. Since the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago (purple line), the global climate has been relatively stable, enabling the rise of human civilization. Without this period of stability, we would not be here. This period is called the Holocene, meaning "entirely recent". Before that was the last glacial period, which started roughly 100,000 years ago, during which humans were hunter-gatherers but also had something close to modern spoken language and highly sophisticated religious and musical traditions (something like modern indigenous hunter-gatherer societies). Before the advent of humans a few million years ago, there were bigger temperature changes, but the time periods were also much greater. For the past century or so, global mean surface temperature has been changing much faster than at any time since the advent of humans (the red and orange lines on the right). This part of the graph is sometimes called the "hockey stick". The main cause of the sudden rise in global mean temperature is human-generated CO2 emissions. Other greenhouse gases and deforestation are also contributing. This last period (since industrialization in the 19th century) is sometimes called the Anthropocene: the period during which humans influenced global climate.
Many people think that a few degrees is not much, so changing the earth's average temperature by a few degrees should not be a big deal. The reason why it is such a big deal is the effect on our ecology - that complex system within which plants and animals interact, and within which our species evolved. The ecology is where our food and water comes from. Enormous numbers of species are threatened by climate change. That would be an ethical problem of massive dimensions even if we did not depend on those species for our own survival. But we do depend on countless other species for our survival. If the various negative effects of climate change mean that our food and water supplies decrease at the same time as population increases, a large proportion of humans on the planet are doomed to premature death. This applies in particular to children now living in developing countries. Their economic disadvantage makes them particularly vulnerable.
Can humans adapt to a higher global mean surface temperature? The word "adaptation" sounds innocent, but if we are talking about biological evolution, we are generally talking about large numbers of premature deaths. That's how evolution happens: some live and some die. Those organisms that manage to reproduce and survive better in a given environment are the ones that pass their genes to future generations. In the case of humans, we might be talking about billions of deaths over a period of centuries before humanity as a whole can adapt physiologically to a significant change in global mean temperature. That's how brutal evolution is.
But even that might be insufficient for "human evolution" to happen in this case. Biologically, humankind has barely evolved in the past hundred thousand years or so. The most important changes have been superficial responses to differences in climate: the facial and bodily features and skin colors that enable us to guess whether someone comes from Asia, Africa or Europe. These changes, which ultimately don't make much difference to the ability of modern humans (with their houses, heaters and air conditioners) to live in different climates, were only possible because human communities were separated from each other by large distances, and mobility was limited, for many thousands of years. That is unlikely to happen again.
The emergence of life on earth was a coincidence with a tiny probability. Life only exists because the climate changed in a certain temporal sequence, more or less by accident. If the long and complex series of climate changes on this planet had been just a little different in the past 4.5 billion years, we would not be here to talk about it. In fact, there may have been no life at all. Even after life emerged and flourished, the probability that a species like humans would emerge was tiny. So the probability that we exist is one tiny number multiplied by another. It's impossibly tiny. If the earth's mean temperature had been a few degrees warmer or cooler during its more recent history (the past few million years), we would not be here, or if we were here we would not be here in such enormous numbers, totally dominating all other life forms and changing the climate.
It follows from this argument that the ideal global mean surface temperature from a human viewpoint is the Holocene temperature -- the temperature we had before industrialisation, which enabled humans to flourish. If we would like to continue flourish, we should ensure that the earth's climate does not depart too far from Holocene climate.
2. There are two different kinds of global warming: slow human-made and fast natural.
The words "slow" and "fast" are relative and very approximate; a "slow" warming process might take a century, whereas a "fast" process might take a decade. To add to the confusion, some climate scientists use the word "slow" to apply to certain natural positive feedback processes, which I here call "fast" because they are faster than human-made ("anthropogenic") warming. When I say "slow" I am referring to the fact that human-made warming has been going on for over a century, which for most of us seems like a long time.
If we now distinguish between (mainly) human-made and (mainly) natural warming, we can better understand what is going on. In particular we can immediately see what is wrong with many of the tricky arguments of the deniers.
The first kind of warming, "slow human-made", happens when we increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning fuel (producing CO2), destroying forests (which would otherwise have absorbed CO2), or raising cattle (producing methane or CH4). This process has been going on for well over a century, but we are only now starting to notice the climatic effects. The winter is still cold, rainfall does not seem to have changed, and the sea does not seem to be rising. We read about climate change, but cannot yet perceive it with our own eyes.
"Fast natural" warming is a collection of different processes that will be triggered by slow human-made warming when the temperature crosses certain thresholds, according to the theories and models of climate scientists. In the distant past, fast natural warming was triggered by natural events such as changes in the earth's orbit around the sun, so we can find out about it from studying the earth's geological history. Fast natural warming involves natural feedback processes, such as the earth absorbing more energy from sunlight when the artic ice is no longer there to reflect it; stored methane being released from melting ice or frozen peat bogs; or the drying of rainforests, leading to fires that add even more CO2 to the atmosphere. If these processes enhance warming, they are called "positive feedback". There are also negative feedback processes which reduce global warming, e.g. a warming earth radiates more heat; but the effect of positive feedback processes is generally predicted to be stronger. Positive feedback processes will accelerate global warming, hence the adjective "fast".
The predictions of the IPCC are mainly about slow human-made warming, because it can more easily be measured and modeled. There is more uncertainty surrounding fast natural warming - but as the words "fast" and "natural" imply, it represents even greater risks. When a major natural feedback process gets underway, the effects will probably be catastrophic and irreversible. The good old days of a benign global climate for humans will be lost forever. Such long-term processes happened millions of years ago, causing large temperature changes that lasted for tens of thousands of years (more).
3. The oceans are slowing down human-made global warming.
To understand this point we need first to separate the main cause of global warming from its main effect. The cause of slow human-made warming is the greenhouse gases that we are busy pumping into the atmosphere; the effect is the resultant rise in mean atmospheric temperature.
In slow human-made warming, there is an enormous time lag between cause and effect. The main reason is the heat capacity of the oceans. Oceans cover 72% of the earth's surface, and their average depth is 3.7 km. That is an enormous amount of water. How much energy does it take to heat water? Imagine a large spaghetti pot. It takes a long time to bring it to the boil before putting in the spaghetti. Multiply that by zillions, and you have our oceans. It will take decades for the temperature of the oceans to rise by 1°C, even if the atmosphere above the oceans has already risen by several degrees.
The oceans are giving us a false sense of security and innocence. They are preventing the temperature of the atmosphere from changing, in spite of enormous increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. They are also absorbing some of the greenhouse gases. Today, the oceans seem like our friend; but they will be the enemy of future generations, for several reasons:
In summary, there is a good reason why the human response to slow human-made climate change has been so inadequate - so far at least. The scientists are telling us about climate change, but we cannot see it happening. That is because the time between cause and effect is so long. That in turn is because of the oceans. The average temperature of the oceans can only change very slowly.
Even if all emissions stopped now, global mean temperature would increase for at least a century. Possibly much longer, depending on how long plants take to convert the carbon dioxide back to carbohydrates by photosynthesis. Every extra ton of carbon that is burned is exacerbating the problem and increasing the probability and/or magnitude of future catastrophe. We must therefore aim for zero global emissions as soon as possible. Just reducing emissions by 10%, 20% or 50% is not enough.
On this basis, I have a special proposal for the binomial nomenclature of our genus and species. We really should change the name of our species to homo stupidus. That is a bit of a joke, and besides it not a new idea. The following is neither an old idea nor a joke: Given that we are consciously destroying the world for our children and grandchildren, a better name might perhaps be homo stupidus crudelis. What could be more stupid and cruel than consciously causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of future people?
How many lives will global warming cost?
You can find a lot of information about the effect of global warming on sea level, storms, glaciers, water supplies, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, and so on. But you will find precious little about the main cost of global warming, which is measured in human lives. If you believe in human rights, human lives are the most valuable thing we have, and every life has equal value. It follows that the main consequence of global warming is the number of deaths that it will cause.
If you put "climate death" into google, the information that you find can be misleading. Some people are assuming that deaths due to climate change will be caused primarily by longer, hotter heat waves. It is true that the death rate from heat waves in the hottest countries may skyrocket in the future, because beyond a certain combination of temperature and humidity (wet bulb temperature) the human body is no longer capable of maintaining its normal temperature. Only those with air conditioning or water for swimming will survive. But this horrifying scenario will not be the main cause of death.
Every year, some ten million people die in developing countries for reasons associated with poverty. The most important such reasons fall into three categories: hunger, curable disease and preventable disease. The main effect of global warming will be to cause this figure to rise, if other factors remain the same. At the moment, this figure is gradually falling for various reasons such as development projects including the Millenium Developmental Goals; we can also hope that global markets will become better regulated and global competition will become freer and more fair. At the same time, this figure is gradually increasing due to global warming. The total, measurable death rate is a sum of partial death rates, each of which is associated with a different cause of death. Over the course of this century, global warming will gradually become the main cause of premature death developing countries. For example, according to UNICEF the number of people suffering from lack of clean drinking water, today 800 million, could increase to 2 billion by 2100. Today, 1400 children die every day from diarrhoea; the main causes are dirty drinking water, lack of toilets and poor hygiene.
The following figure is a scenario for the development of the poverty-related death rate during the 21st century. Consider the two straight lines that look like an open jaw. The lower line assumes that, in the absence of global warming, the current death rate will gradually fall. This is a rather optimistic assessment based on current trends. The upper line is based on the IPCC prediction that global mean temperatures will probably rise by about 3°C during the 21st century if the human species responds moderately, but insufficiently, to the warnings of scientists. The way things are going, this is what really will happen. At some point, the negative effects of climate change will overtake the positive effects of developmental assistance and fairer participation of developing countries in free markets. The net death rate from poverty-related causes will increase as food supplies and health are increasingly affected by changing weather patterns (droughts, floods), loss of biodiversity, reduction and contamination of fresh water supplies, more violent or frequent storms, and rising populations - and unpredictable interactions between these developments. The violet area between the two lines is the total number of deaths that will be attributable to climate change during the 21st century. It corresponds to hundreds of millions of deaths. We are causing these future deaths now with our carbon and methane emissions, deforestation and so on.
Before continuing, I want to emphasize that this diagram is just a sketch. All values in it are very rough estimates. Even the year "2000" is intended to mean "roughly the start of the 21st century" and could be plus or minus 20. Basically, the graph says only three things. First, the rate of preventable deaths in developing countries is currently roughly 10 million per year. Second, in the absence of climate change this number will gradually fall, mainly due to constructive collaboration between rich and poor countries, funded by official developmental assistance. Third, climate change will probably cause this number to rise instead. The lines are not necessarily straight; in fact, the upper line should be curved, because the effect of climate change is expected to increase exponentially and not linearly. Even with all this uncertainty, the very real prospects of this sketch becoming reality are surely nothing less than terrifying. We are talking about causing hundreds of millions of deaths with our greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the climate deniers were right and this will only happen with a small probability, say 10%, we are still effectively talking about tens of millions of preventable deaths. Conversely, if the IPCC is underestimating the scale of the problem (for example by neglecting interactions between different factors, or by not being not interdisciplinary enough) then we might be talking about a billion preventable deaths.
The graph does not include other major causes of death. These include death as a result of increased frequency and intensity of storms, conflicts over diminishing resources, mass migration of climate refugees, and quite possibly the mass slaughter of millions of climate refugees as they try to invade the richer countries. The richer countries might find themselves in a situation where mass slaughter on the borders seems inevitable, because they do not have enough food and water for their existing populations - let alone millions of additional climate refugees. Disrespect for human rights is already the norm rather than the exception on the borders of rich countries.
Even that is not all. The 22nd century might be even worse, given that according to the IPCC "most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped". To understand why this is so, please reread the previous section.
estimate of the number of deaths caused by global warming will be very
approximate. But the sources of evidence that I have considered, when
you consider them together, suggest that this number will be roughly
one billion. It will certainly be more than one hundred million, and it
will certainly be less than ten billion - the projected world
population in 2100. In other words, global warming will gradually kill
about 10% of the global population - that is, the population that we
expect to reach in 2100 without global warming. Given the possibility
of "runaway climate change" after crossing "tipping points", this could
be a conservative estimate. It is certainly not exaggerated.
The central role of taxation
Solving these problems will cost a lot of money, and a lot of this money will come from taxes. The money will not be somehow magically created by the marketplace; that is the kind of thinking that led to the 2007-08 global financial crisis. We will have to calculate the costs and pay the bill. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
People like to complain about taxes. Everyone is paying too much, it seems. And to be sure every government in the world is wasting some of its taxation income. Minimizing wastage is a constant challenge in any large organization, public or private.
But without tax we would have no national states, no schools, no welfare net. We would have no infrastructure: no roads, no airports, no water supply, no sewerage, no electricity grid, no public transport. These are the foundations upon which private companies build their fortunes. Famous entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs would never have made it if not for those countless people who preceded them and built the infrastructure they that needed to realise their ideas. Previous generations had given them electricity, banks, cars, education for the people who worked for them, their own education, ready access to good food and clean water, and so on. Without tax, they would not have these things that we all take for granted. Without those things we would essentially have no free market, no capitalism and no prosperity. That's how important taxation is.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have a permanent job until I retire. I belong to what might be quaintly described as the upper middle class. I don’t have much capital to speak of, but I could easily pay more income tax to help governments to solve this problem. If you agree with me that this is possible, we could lobby governments to increase taxes on those that can bear it for this purpose. Most of us are already giving some money to charity, and perhaps we are also getting tax deductions for our gifts. If that is the case, this idea is nothing new, and surely not terribly shocking. The money has to come from somewhere.
We all have a part to play. Taxes are levied according the basic principle that those who can, pay; the more you have, the more you are able to pay, which means the more you should pay. The gap between rich and poor has been going up steadily in the past few decades due to globalization: better-off people have been able to make their fortunes (some small, some large) on increasingly open and technologized global markets, while low and middle earners have mainly remained dependent on employers (if they're lucky), welfare and charity for income. National states have similarly remained dependent on national sources (taxes) for their income, which is one of the reasons for their rising debts.
There are now well over a thousand billionaires in the world, and their number is increasing rapidly. On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with being rich - if you're sitting in a comfortable chair, reading this on your lap-top computer, and sipping the perfect cappuccino, then you know the benefit of being at least relatively rich. But it's not quite that simple. First, the richer you are, the bigger your carbon footprint; as I will explain below, that translates into the deaths of future people. Second, there is a limited amount of money and resources in the world, which means the more the rich have, the less the poor have. In recent decades, the rich and middle classes have been getting richer, but poverty has essentially stagnated, and about ten million poor people per year are dying of poverty-rated causes. That is pretty hard to justify. Third, the richer you are, the more likely you are to have developed strategies to reduce your tax bill: you will be able to afford an accountant who knows your regional and federal tax laws inside out, including their loopholes. If you are very rich, you can probably afford an even better accountant with a lot of experience playing elaborate tricks that save enormous amounts of tax. We all like to reduce our tax, but it is generally accepted that the richer we are, the better we are at tax avoidance.
To solve the problem of tax evasion and avoidance, we need to simplify taxation laws to make them more transparent and reduce the incidence of loopholes (more). We also need to globally harmonize taxes so that it is no longer possible to evade them by capital flight (moving from one country to another; more). The taxes in question might include wealth, transaction and environmental taxes. Another promising idea is a global agreement to tax the value of all companies (based on their capitalised values) listed on all stock exchanges, all at the same flat rate. A kind of wealth tax for companies. Since the value of all companies on all stock exchanges is publicly declared, it would be easy to implement such a tax. The tax would be transparent and fair, and evasion would be impossible. Competition would be unaffected, since all companies would be treated equally. Why are simple ideas like that not being implemented?
So here is the so-called $60,000 question: If you live in a nice house, have a nice job and eat nice food (a member of the middle class?), would you be prepared to lobby your government to push for tax increases to cover projects to reduce global poverty and global warming? If you are rich, or even just relatively rich (a member of the upper class?), would you be prepared to pay additional taxes on wealth, transactions and the environment for the good of humanity, provided those taxes were administered fairly on a global scale and all taxpayers were treated equally? If your answer is yes, we can join forces to make these ideas a reality. It's just a matter of doing it, really.
The practical facts
Many people are skeptical about such proposals. They point to unresolved problems and stir up emotional debates. Sometimes the debates go on for a long time, and the matter is still not resolved. These debates divert out attention from the main issues.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The situation is complex, but there are also two simple facts that we should not forget. These are the facts about what we could do to resolve the situation, if we want to. They are practically oriented facts.
1. The rich countries could completely eliminate global poverty, if they wanted to.
That is a surprising statement and the most people immediately reject it. We have always known poverty, we have always wanted to eliminate it, and we never came anywhere near succeeding. But the problem is essentially rather simple. In his book "The End of Poverty", economist Jeffrey Sachs explained how we could gradually eliminate global poverty by boosting budgets for official development assistance to the globally agreed level of 0.7% of GDP and staying there 20 years. Of course no-one can reliably predict in advance whether or when such a plan would succeed. Economic predictions are always uncertain. But it certainly is a fact that the more money you give to a country, the richer it becomes; and the more money you give to international developmental projects to develop complex infrastructures in poor countries - the tried-and-tested kind upon which the prosperity of rich countries is based, such as fresh water supplies, electricity, schools, medical services, agricultural technology and know-how - the more likely it is that poverty in these countries will be eliminated. The probability of success is even greater if every step of the way is the result of a close collaboration between leading representatives of the country in question, leading international researchers in the area of each project, and representatives of the rich donor countries. This collaborative process will obviously work if it is adequately funded, and it is on this level that one may reasonable talk about a "fact".
Why, then, do so many people doubt this, and instead emphasize the difficulties? Then shake their head in disappointment and sigh, saying "It will never work"? The experience of climate denial has taught us to look for financial motives behind public opinion, especially when the general public is evidently confused about an important issue. In this case, the ultimate reason for doubt is probably a lack of willingness to provide the necessary finance. People are simply not prepared to be that generous. So far, it has not been possible to convince the global community to provide the necessary finance. At the moment, many countries are paying around one half of the agreed amount, and some are paying much less; only a handful (e.g. Sweden) are achieving the globally agreed goal of 0.7% GNP.
But you don’t have to know any of this detail to believe the simple claim that poverty can be eliminated by adequately financing existing aid projects. Existing projects are obviously already very sophisticated. The main actors in the global aid community have learned from decades of experience how best to spend development dollars, of which there are never enough. Of course mistakes are being made all the time, but the same applies to any large business. The difference between global aid projects and regular businesses is that people who work in this area are mainly motivated by altruism. If that is true, it is surely obvious that increasing the aid budget will eventually allow all developing countries to cross the line between dependence and independence, as Sachs argued in his book - the line where total income finally starts to exceed total expenditure. In an ostensibly free global market and without sufficient aid, developing countries can only achieve this goal if they have exceptionally good luck – for example, if they discover a new natural resource (hopefully not oil, coal or gas) that they can sell (assuming that the profits go to their own people and not to some multinational corporation). Without such luck, developing countries are looking at a future of chronic poverty. This is true even if the rich countries drop all of their protectionist barriers.
In general economic terms, we can say that institutionalized redistribution is a necessary ingredient of sustainable capitalism. Every modern national economy has institutionalized redistribution: if you are unemployed, disabled or a single parent, the government gives you an amount of money that is comparable with the poverty line. Without institutionalized redistribution, the whole system would collapse. This is true of national economies, and it is also true of the global economy.
2. The rich countries could bring global warming under control, if they wanted to.
People are more likely to accept this statement than the previous one. Perhaps they should not be. Given the vast amount of greenhouse gas that we have already produced, and the current atmospheric concentrations which are much higher than at any previous time during the evolution of our species - let alone the complexity of the global political and economic situation surrounding climate change - this second point might be even harder to achieve than the first. Still, given the enormous wealth of the wealthiest humans on the planet (by now there must be close to 2000 billionaires), it is certainly a fact that we could solve the climate problem if the rich realised how urgent the situation is and decided together to throw an unprecedented amount of money at it.
We don't have to wait for the rich to do that. Global warming could be brought under control by a combination of several well-known strategies. These include transferring investment in fossil fuels to sustainable energy, taxing the burning of all fossil fuels, spending the proceeds on subsidies for sustainable energy and reforestation, long-term promotion of public transport and at the expense of private transport in cities, collaborating with developing countries to develop their sources of sustainable energy, and so on. Kevin Anderson, professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, has argued that economic "de-growth" is necessary to fight global warming (more). These things are largely possible even without enormous new financial input. Evidently, we have to stop talking about these things and do them. Most of all, national states must simply create and respect international agreements on emissions that are consistent with the findings of the IPCC.
In summary, the above two points are clearly true, but many people are going to great lengths to thwart them with complex, sophisticated sounding arguments. The main reason for the denial is financial: solving these problems will cost a lot of money. A large part of that money is under the our control - yes us, the rich .....and the relatively rich (the middle class?). Both groups are basically refusing to pay the bill to stop global poverty and global warming. We are regarding our money as more important than the well-being and quality of life of our grandchildren and future generations in developing countries. We are acting as if money was more important than human lives.
The challenge of global cooperation
Progress toward an end of poverty and toward managing global warming will only happen if the nations of the world cooperate. What if some refuse? All that good work on the part of the cooperative, generous countries could be wasted. So what’s the point of even trying? The EU is supposed to be leading the world in climate management but even they are saying they "can't afford it" (more). It's a familiar theme: money is supposed to be more important than untold millions of human lives and the future of our children.
A classic case of non-cooperation was the the failure of the USA (and Australia) to sign the Kyoto accord in 2001. That was a giant setback. Kyoto had a lot of other problems, too. But for all its deficiencies, it was not a waste of time. Quite the contrary, it was perhaps the greatest expression so far of global determination to get global warming under control. It was also a gigantic wake-up call for the people of the USA (and many other countries) to start taking the issue of climate seriously. After a decade of national debate inspired by the Kyoto fiasco, the USA is now aligning itself with other countries on climate (unfortunately the same cannot be said for Australia in early 2014, but the people are increasingly fed up with their climate-denying government). There have even been bilateral talks between USA and China.
The moral to the story is: we have to expect setbacks. They are part of the deal. They can happen repeatedly, and they can be quite serious. But giving up is not a reasonable or rational response. Experience shows that every positive action in the global community has a resonance that leads, somewhere, sometime, to more positive action. You can’t run a business like this, of course. But that is not what we are trying to do. Instead, we are trying to ensure the long-term survival of the capitalist system within which businesses can be run, so that our grandchildren will have the same opportunity that we had to run businesses.
An important question is whether developing countries should be allowed to increase their emissions at a faster rate than developed countries, because they need to do that to get out of poverty. When the question is phrased like this, the answer is obviously yes - but this answer is also misleading. The sad truth is that industrialised countries have been killing future generations for decades with their emissions. In this situation, every extra ton of greenhouse gas is a ton too many. The emissions basically have to stop, regardless of where they are coming from. Industrialised countries are hardly being kind or generous if they allow developing countries to make a "fair contribution" to this indirect killing spree. The only morally acceptable solution is to try to prevent the development or expansion of any new fossil fuel sources or industries anywhere, and at the same time to invest in research and development on diverse alternatives everywhere. When developing countries accuse the rich countries of being unfair, they are generally right, but the solution is not to encourage them to be as bad as the rich countries so we can all go down together (or more precisely: so our children and grandchildren can all go down together). The solution is to increase official development assistance to the internationally agreed rate of 0.7% GDP and stop being so miserly with our enormous wealth. The solution is to get rid of the many obstacles to truly fair trade and a just global system of taxation.
Has this happened before?
Global warming is unprecedented, but human beings have faced other massive problems in the past. Sometimes they solved the problem, and sometimes they made it worse. Can you think of a past situation in which countless people said the following to themselves? If everyone else is doing it, then I will do it too. It cannot be wrong, and I cannot be guilty. This statement sounds reasonable, but it may be logically false. It is indeed possible for everyone to be doing the wrong thing, all at the same time.
In Stanley Milgram's famous psychological experiment in the 1960s, experimental participants thought they were giving electric shocks to other participants, who were obviously suffering and may even be dying or dead. The experimenter gave increasingly authoritarian instructions that they must continue giving the shocks at increasing voltages, and most did. This horrifying finding is hardly applicable to global warming, because no-one is ordering us to burn fossil fuels. We are doing it voluntarily. Moreover, most of us are unaware that the burning of fossil fuels is killing millions of future people.
According to the 2012 DARA report, carbon burning is already killing millions of people every year, mainly due to indoor smoke and air pollution. In addition to this, in coming decades climate change will increase the preventable death rate in developing countries by indirectly affecting supplies of food and drinking water - again by millions per year. Almost no-one is talking about these problems. Those who realise what is going on are suppressing the thought. It's like a dreadful secret - a "whispering in our hearts", comparable for example with modern Australians' suppressed feelings of guilt about Aboriginal genocide. Incidentally, Australians complain today that Turkey is suppressing the truth about the Armenian genocide, and after the second world war many Germans and others claimed not to have known that people were being killed in concentration camps.
Milgram's experiment was an attempt to understand the Holocaust. Why would normal people obey orders to kill other people, in extreme conflict with their conscience? Milgram's experiment deliberately isolated one aspect of the problem, namely obedience to authority. It ignored the role of racism, and it ignored the ample time the Nazis had to reflect about what they were doing. Millions of well-meaning Germans, and millions of citizens of other European countries that became part of Germany or were taken over by Germany during the second world war, contributed voluntarily to a giant, complex social machine that eventually led to the murder of six million people. They were motivated by a combination of racism, conformism and fear. Many were supporting the Nazi project simply because most other people were doing the same thing. They thought: If everyone else is doing it, then I will do it too. It cannot be wrong, and I cannot be guilty. They had two further excuses that we do not have today: they were obeying laws that were created by the Nazis to achieve their evil goals, and their freedom of speech was severely restricted.
What will happen after global warming? How will the survivors feel about it in a few centuries from now?
Comparisons with the Holocaust are taboo, and for good reason. The Holocaust was without doubt the most serious crime ever committed. Nothing else in history can be compared with it. Even the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th-19th centuries is not comparable, even though it was also motivated by racism and led to enormous suffering and the death of millions of people. The reason is that the slave traders did not, on the whole, intend to kill the slaves. The Holocaust is unique because it truly involved mass murder on an unprecedented scale. I am making this point because many evidently still do not understand it. I was one of them, for which I apologize.
After 1945, the international community cried “Never again!” in unison, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born – probably the most important document ever written. The very expression “Never again!” implies that something similar to the Holocaust is possible in the future. In order to prevent another Holocaust, we must compare possible future events with the Holocaust. The intention is primarily to prevent genocide, and in that regard we have not been successful, as the many cases of genocide considered by the International Criminal Court testify - the worst being Rwanda.
Global warming is fundamentally incomparable with the Holocaust, because it does not involve murder. However, global warming could cause the deaths of 10, 100 or even 1000 times more people. Given the possibility of runaway climate change driven by positive feedback processes, the probability that global warming kills most of the human species is definitely greater than zero; if there is such a thing as a "rational wild" guess, I would place that probability at 10%, by which I mean certainly more than 1% and certainly less than 100%. That is a reasonable estimate considering three things: the relevant science, the way global politics are going, and the uncertainty in both areas (especially the latter).
What else can we learn from the Holocaust when trying to prevent catastrophic global warming? In both cases, millions of people know (knew) or guess (guessed) what is (was) going on, but kept contributing to the problem all the same. Today, that is you and me. Ordinary people are failing (failed) to change their behavior and are pretending (pretended) to be innocent. In both cases, prevention (understanding) the catastrophe is (was) prevented by denial and trivialisation. For an example of a comparison that that goes too far, but may nevertheless be necessary to make people realise how serious the current situation really is, see this Guardian article by Nick Cohen.
For Holocaust survivors, any comparison of anything with the Holocaust, however indirect and respectful, can be enormously painful. Since I have never experienced anything remotely like that, one could argue that I have no right to say anything about it. I acknowledge and respect that position. In spite of these fundamental problems, I believe that the current situation is serious enough to mention global warming and the Holocaust in the same paragraph, even while denying the validity of the comparison.
If you don't believe me (which would be understandable), imagine the following scenario. The year is 2100. The global mean temperature has risen by 3°C and it is still rising, although almost all human greenhouse gas emissions have now stopped. The temperature is now rising for purely natural reasons (climatic feedback processes) and according to predictions the temperature increase may not stabilize until it has reached 6° or even 10°. But even now, tens of millions of climate refugees are on the move in developing countries because of dwindling fresh water supplies and increasingly frequent crop failures. They are sick and hungry, and thousands are dying by the roadsides. Their dead bodies are a serious health risk. Millions are arriving at the borders of the rich countries, and they are trying to invade. As they see it, they have no other choice but to attack: it is a matter of life and death. The rich countries are also having serious problems because of climate change. They can hardly feed their own people, let alone millions of destitute climate refugees. They haven’t got enough fresh water, either. So they are secretly developing new techniques to painlessly kill millions of people and hygienically dispose of their bodies. They, too, claim that they have no choice. It is also a matter of life and death for them. They explain that the situation was created not by them, but by the citizens of the richer countries (like yours, like mine) in the early 21st century. Those people knew all about what they were doing to the environment and the human consequences, but they kept doing it all the same.
Even this indescribably horrifying scenario is not comparable with the Holocaust, because the murderers in this scenario do not want to murder anyone. Instead, they feel forced by the situation to become murderers. They feel they have no choice. The responsibility for mass murder is shared between those future politicians and us, the people in the early 21st century who may now be making these murders inevitable. That is the enormity of our responsibility and our guilt, if we don't solve this problem soon. And according to the IPCC, we only have a few years left to do it. The IPCC know what they are talking about, and they are not joking.
It is tempting to think that as temperatures rise big, cold countries like Canada and Russia will be able to support more people, and millions will migrate there to avoid the threat of famines and water shortages in their own countries. That may be true in the long term, but the transition will be far from easy. No country will welcome millions of destitute climate refugees. Besides, the effect of global warming may be more negative than positive, even in colder countries. "According to the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), the Russian economy’s losses from climate change could rise to between US$200-700 billion per year in only a few years. Drought in 2010 and 2012 have slashed Russian grain harvests by up to a third, generating financial losses exceeding US$10 billion and inflating grain prices. Georgy Safonov from the HSE has calculated that climate change will shrink crop yields by 9% by 2030 and by 17% by 2050" (source).
If the above scenario or something equally devastating doesn’t happen in 2100, it might happen in 2150 or 2200. Today’s emissions will affect global climate for centuries to come, according to the IPCC. Two hundred years from now may seem a long time, but it is not. The year 1800 is not that long ago. We are talking about only one tenth of the time between now and the start of the Christian era.
I am not saying that this is going to happen. I am merely saying that it is possible, and it is perhaps even likely, based on the best information that we have right now, which is the latest IPCC report. And in that case we will be held posthumously responsible. Beyond that, I am saying that the risk we are currently taking is entirely unacceptable. We are talking about hundreds of millions of deaths. If the word “unacceptable” is not an understatement, I don’t know what is.
Responsibility, courage, freedom
The above text may come as a surprise to some people. The detailed argument may be new, but the main point is not. Most of us already realise that global warming will kill large numbers of people. We are merely avoiding talking about it.
Remember the Iraq war that started with the US invasion in 2003? The protesters’ slogan was “No blood for oil”. But the war went ahead anyway. As might easily have been predicted at the start, between 100 000 and 1 000 000 million people died unnecessarily. No-one knows how many, exactly. In 2003, it was evidently socially acceptable in some circles to regard one's money as more important than other people’s lives. Today, ten years later, things haven't changed. We are being challenged to reduce our excessive wealth and profits in exchange for getting global warming under control and saving millions of lives. We are refusing to do so, and finding all kinds of excuses. Either that, or we are collectively avoiding the issue in a global pact of silence.
When will we have the courage to face up to the fact that our emissions are killing people? When will we be mature enough to take responsibility for this problem? When will we decide to solve it by drastically changing our behavior and consider legal consequences for the worst offenders? When will we start defending the rights of our own grandchildren?
We don't have to stop this madness, if we don't want to. We have our freedom. No-one will judge or punish us during our lifetimes. We won't be here to witness what our grandchildren say about us after we've gone. If we want, we can be completely selfish, cynical, and bloody-minded. We can just keep going the way we are right now, if we want. We can keep it up for another decade or two and try to ignore the mounting signs of impending disaster.
Freedom is important. Where did our freedom come from? Many of us are grateful to our grandparents and their peers for fighting for our freedom. Many of those people gave their lives. We can learn about what happened at our war memorials; as a Melburnian, I am particularly impressed by the Melbourne's beautiful and powerful Shrine of Remembrance. As we remember, we can also ask ourselves: Did those brave young soldiers give us freedom so we could use it to destroy the world for our grandchildren? The sacrifice that we are being asked to bring today is tiny compared to their sacrifice.
There is no point glorifying the courage of soldiers of the past if we do not follow their example. If they are observing us from heaven right now, they are surely unimpressed. Lest we forget.
But the situation is not as desperate as it seems. If we pursue the military analogy, we find some promising tendencies.
This is not a left-wing website. Nor is it religious. Not that there is anything wrong with being left-wing or religious – most of my best friends are one or both of those things. But I prefer not be categorized in that way.
The only axe that I have to grind is human rights, which has always been supported by both the right and the left. I don’t know anyone on the centre right who would deny that. That is what this page about – protecting the inalienable rights of a billion people. Realizing that they exist and taking them seriously, for a change. It’s about respecting the needs and integrity of people whom we don’t know, because they belong to our global family, our unique species. It’s about altruism, which is not some airy-fairy idea but a fundamental part of our human nature, at least according to modern evolutionary psychology. Global warming will affect everyone, regardless of what political party they support. I happen to believe in the power of democratically regulated capitalism to solve this problem. That is not exactly a left-wing position, is it?
Global warming is a horror story that is not happening on TV. It's real. So it's important to keep a cool head. The science says that we still have a good chance to solve the problem. But we have to act. We have to resist the tendency to give up. We have to recognize the danger of a kind of psychic paralysis, and rise above it. We can do it, but it will take a new kind of resolve, social support, and international collaboration that we never needed or realised before.
To make the urgency of this global challenge clear, allow me to present the following personal challenge to readers of this page. It’s a cliché, but it appears to be necessary. You are either with us or you are against us. This phrase has been used many times by many people, but since global warming possibly poses an unprecedented threat to the survival of humanity, it was perhaps never more apt than it is now. The decision to act or not to act is our most important decision. The rest is detail.
So why am I doing this?
Above left are links to relevant texts that I have written. You may well ask what motivated me to write them.
First, as a member of the "top billion", I am one of the lucky ones. I have enjoyed an interesting and rewarding life. Most people in the world have not enjoyed comparable living standards or career opportunities. My luck is largely a result of the good deeds of other people, both in my immediate environment and in the past. It's time for me to give back to the past by giving to the future. In philosophy, that's called intergenerational justice.
Second, I am personally co-responsible for global warming because the emissions I have caused during my lifetime are far higher than the world average. Don't ask me how often I have flown between Australia, Europe and North America. That makes me co-accountable.
Third, as an interdisciplinary researcher, I am in a good position to evaluate and apply relevant interdisciplinary research. I also have extensive practical experience of bringing together representatives of contrasting disciplines to address specific questions (OUP, CIM, JIMS, ESF, cAIR). Global warming involves not only climate science but also philosophy, sociology, psychology, biology, medicine, agricultural science, history, politics, law, economics, ethnology, media studies, cultural studies, and religious studies. In an age of specialisation, no-one is an internationally recognized expert in more than two of these disciplines (the norm is one). An interdisciplinary academic background helps when confronting the denial of global warming in politics and business, the sneaky tricks that deniers are using, the funding of denial thinktanks by the fossil fuel industry, and the sophisticated nonsense that subsequently appears in the media. Don't believe anything that is not published in a good peer-review scientific journal! Academics are in a good position to contribute constructively to political discussions and solutions, for example by presentating clear arguments and applying the art of critical thinking. I am not advocating Plato's aristocracy, in which the state is ruled by "philosopher kings" with "souls of gold". In my view, there is no alternative to modern democracy. But because the training of academics is both publicly funded and publicly relevant, we are morally obliged to devote some of our time and energy to the common good. That is why I feel a moral obligation to act on behalf of present and future citizens of developing countries. more
Speaking of luck, I also have the luxury of dual citizenship: Australian (where I grew up) and Austrian (where I live and work). Where do I really belong? Good question. Austria is a safe, clean, beautiful, multicultural, and sometimes even tolerant country, even if some 20% of people still vote regularly for an explicitly xenophobic political party. But from 2000 to 2005, we were governed by a corrupt and incompetent coalition between centre right and far right. I wanted to be in Australia, where I had been raised on the myth of a classless society in which everyone was mates - at least on the beach. Now the tables have turned: Austrian politics have improved and Australian politics are on the skids. In 2013, Australia got rid of Julia Gillard, the first prime minister to seriously confront global warming. Meanwhile, Australians lead the world in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, and climate denial is thriving. At dinner parties, Australians nod wisely, saying "the jury is still out on global warming". Bullshit, of course. It's time Australians got their act together. Austrians may not be much better, but at least we have decent trains.
I am grateful to my family, friends and colleagues for helping me write this text and supporting my political projects.
|Wikipedia alert: My Wikipedia pages may contain misleading information. more
Contact request: Is anyone out there working on human quantitative ethics and climate change?
The aim of this page is to defend the basic rights of a billion people who are currently living in poverty in developing countries. That's a thousand million people! Their lives are threatened by a combination of poverty denial and climate denial. Poverty denial is denial that poverty is caused by the us, the rich. Climate denial is denial that climate change is caused by us, the rich.
All over the world, influential people are refusing to speak openly and honesty about poverty and climate. If things don't improve, hundreds of millions of people will die in coming decades as a result of the negligence of the rich countries. Every human life has the same value, and every unnecessary death is a tragedy.
I am one of the lucky ones. By accident of birth, I am part of today's western middle class. By comparison to all other people who have every lived anywhere on this planet, we of the western middle class are living in luxury, like French royalty before the revolution.
Like French royalty before the revolution, we are being warned, but we are not responding. Most of us who read the previous paragraphs (and countless similar texts) are doing nothing (or almost nothing, which is little better) to change the situation within our sphere of influence, which is generally much bigger than we think. We then pretend to be innocent, which is obviously untrue. Logically and objectively, this "normal" behavior can be described as stupid, evil, or both.
Please excuse me for trying to tell the truth about this. Honesty can be a bit of a shock, I know. The rational response is not denial or guilt. The rational response is to do something.