Climate change and the consequences of indifference

Richard Parncutt, 2 March 2015


I have to admit to being almost constantly astonished at the failure of my fellow human beings to do anything substantial, or perhaps anything at all, about climate change. Even the kindest and best educated among my best friends, respected colleagues and beloved family are basically doing nothing, or almost nothing. Please don't be offended by this comment: it is primarily an admission of failure on my part. I have evidently failed to convince people. If you are concerned about this problem, as I am sure many readers of this text are (otherwise you will not have got this far), I hope that you will find my thoughts interesting and send me a few comments that I could use to improve this text.

I recently asked a series of academic colleagues to contribute to and/or sign a declaration about reducing flying to academic conferences. Many people agreed that it contained a lot of good ideas, and their comments, both positive and negative, helped me improve the text. Their general response can be summarized in two words: "interesting, but...". If I didn't hound people with emails, the line went dead. I put a lot of work into that text, but many of my friends and colleagues seemed to hope that it would somehow go away. Of course we are all busy, but we also know the difference between important and urgent. Many of the people I contacted are already active in some way that addresses the climate problem, but the sum total of their activities is far too small to be effective.

I am genuinely puzzled about people's indifference to climate change, because we are talking about people who are otherwise kind, generous, thoughtful, reliable, and sensitive. Like you right now, reading this.

There are already thousands of altruistically motivated people in the world who are spending most of their time trying to solve this problem, and I am pretty sure that all of them wonder, as I do, about how we are going to break through the walls of polite indifference with which we are surrounded. I am only spending a part of my spare time on this problem, but the indifference is already deafening. How can we get through to you good honest folks who are consciously ignoring or denying the problem?

People have been known to become conservative as they grow older, but I for one am certainly not going to give up. The truth is that we are in the process of destroying our children's world. This is not a question of probability, it is an objective fact. The environmental changes caused by humans right now are largely irreversible, and they are accelerating. We are pretending that we don't know what we are doing. We are acting as if some kind of god is going to sweep down in a heavenly chariot and rescue us at the last minute. Given that everyone agrees about the importance of simple things like food, drinking water, medical and economic security, and the beauty of the natural environment, our attitudes and behaviour could easily be described as irresponsible in the extreme. Future generations will learn about us in school, and they will not be impressed.

The main findings of climate science could not be clearer. Just in case you haven't already done so, please read about it at I'm warning you: that will take an hour out of your busy life, and it might even make you think about your personal priorities.

Life in the 2040s

In 30 years' time, when I am old and frail (if I am still around at all), people will finally be taking climate science seriously, because climate change will be all around them, and it will be catastrophic. The predictions that people are currently denying will have become reality.

The effects will be most serious in developing or tropical countries. Hundreds of millions will be migrating or trying to migrate, to escape from rising seas, desertification, and a host of other problems associated with climate change - in many cases combined with population growth. On five continents, droughts and famines will be getting gradually worse. In some cases, water supplies involving glaciers will be drying up. Many species upon which we depend for our survival will be dying out, and fishing yields will be decreasing due to ocean acidification. There will be more frequent and destructive storms and heat waves. There will be wars over diminishing resources such as drinking water. These diverse effects of climate change will be causing death and suffering on a massive scale.

People will finally realise that there are obvious solutions that have been obvious all along. One obvious solution is a global agreement to tax the burning of all fossil fuels at a flat rate that increases incrementally from year to year until such time as leading scientists and economists in this area of research agree the problem is under control (because no one else is in a position to make such a judgment - another central point that is regularly denied). That governments urgently need new sources of revenue is just as obvious as the list of urgent things they would spend it on. Do I need to make such a list? It would include paying off rising national debts, raising international development aid budgets to 0.7% of GDP (which was solemnly promised by all rich countries two decades ago, but mostly not respected), poverty reduction at home as well as abroad, subsidies for sustainable energy research and development, and pensions for aging populations. A global carbon tax would motivate people to find and develop all kinds of creative solutions to the problem of global warming. It would demonstrate the oft-cited power of the capitalist system and free enterprise to repair itself. Of course it would affect the economy - that is the point - but if it were global everyone would be affected equally.

So why are people constantly discussing different kinds of tax but ignoring this kind of tax? Are we pretending to be stupid, or do we really hate our own children? This is not intended as an insult, but rather as an objective question, and I respectfully ask my readers to consider it in this way. What if we really did hate our children? How would we express our hatred? From a detached, logical viewpoint, destroying their world would be one possibility. We would just have a good time now and allow them to clean up the mess after our death, if indeed a cleanup is possible. 

If the importance of carbon tax and other such measures is so obvious, why is it not happening? The simple, direct answer is that we are too lazy and greedy. We are too lazy to ride bikes and catch trains, and we are too greedy to pay a little extra for sustainable energy. The G20 is pretending the problem doesn't exist. Sure, they talk about it, but they are constantly distracted by short-term problems, which take centre stage. And then suddenly the meeting is over and they are flying back home in their private jets. Much the same applies to several other high-profile international organisations that would otherwise be on a position to make big progress on this question.

In the 2040s, the rich countries will finally be financing projects properly that are necessary to slow climate change in the future, and to deal with the effects in the present. That will be very expensive. It will mean an end to the high standard of living we are enjoying now in the 2010s. Every student of economics knows that the foundation of economic prosperity is a combination of natural resources, political stability, and the wealth gap: the difference between rich and poor that motivates people to work (which at the moment is far too wide, and getting wider, but that's another story). Every economics student knows that since the 18th century fossil fuels have played a central role in our growth and prosperity. But there is indeed no such thing as a free lunch, and we or our children will one day have to pay the bill for burning far too much carbon. The "crisis" of 2007-08 will seem minor by comparison to the crisis awaiting us when global warming kicks in.

People will know in the 2040s that the end of our high standard of living could have been prevented in the 2010s if people at that time had listened to the climate scientists, and to those economists who take climate science seriously. Why didn't we do that? People will be asking why. Why indeed, given that standards of living in the middle class in the rich countries (that's me and that's probably you reading this) are higher now than they have ever been in all of history, including the most extravagant of kingdoms and dictatorships; at the moment only a small fraction of that wealth will be necessary to deal effectively with global warming. Why indeed, given the advanced state of economic research on this point right now (in the tradition of the Stern report) - another example of existentially important research that is being financed and then largely ignored.

Climate change, combined with the rising wealth gap, will mean that in the 2040s the middle class will be getting smaller and the lower class will be getting bigger, in both rich and poor countries, in a remarkable reversal of historical progress. Currently, the rich and megarich are getting richer and more numerous, with disastrous consequences for democracy: it's getting increasingly difficult for politicians to represent the interests of the people who voted for them. The good news (if you can call it that) is that climate change will probably put a stop to that, too.

The main point is that climate change will indirectly cause hundreds of millions of deaths.The progress made in the early 21st century toward reducing the death rate associated with poverty in developing countries (e.g. the UN's millennium development goals) will be reversed. The global death rate connected with poverty will start to go up rather than down, destroying progress made by countless developmental projects that are happening right now. That will be the main contribution to the death toll attributable to global warming, and when summed over years and decades it will be enormous.

We will ask ourselves: why? Why didn't we take the climate scientists seriously back in the 2010s when their message could not have been clearer? Our children will ask themselves: Why did our parents do nothing when it was so obvious what had to be done? Why?

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the situation in 30 years will be our powerlessness at that time to solve the problem for later decades and centuries, in spite of the best international efforts. You can't change the laws of physics. Greenhouse gases influence the temperature of the atmosphere on a timescale of hundreds or thousands of years. We will need to get out what we put in on a timescale of only tens of years, but there will be no way of doing that without massive side-effects (geoengineering). Global temperatures will keep on rising even if emissions are stopped altogether.

We will finally realise that our last chance to stop the worst global consequences had been back in the 2010s, and we missed it because we ignored the scientists. We were just too selfish. We knew we were stealing from our children, but we just kept on doing it.

Facts versus beliefs

Some people believe that the technology needed to solve this problem will emerge spontaneously in the nick of time from a combination of scientific and economic pressure. So just wait and see and get on with business as usual. I have nothing against optimism, but this is clearly an irrational belief, comparable with the belief that unregulated capitalism solves problems by itself by means of an "invisible hand" (well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't). It seems that people who hold one of these two beliefs often hold the other, which is an interesting psychological and sociological phenomenon by itself. All they need do is read what the respective experts say about these matters, and take them seriously instead of pretending to be expert themselves. Another common irrational belief is that homeopathy cures disease (qualified researchers in this area have known for ages that this is merely a placebo effect, but pharmacists are still selling zillions of magic empty pills). Yet another is that Mary was a virgin (don't ask me to explain that one). I don't know how many US-Americans still believe, in spite of a reasonable education, that god created the universe in a week, people with black skin are inherently inferior to whites, everyone should carry guns, and/or taxation is inherently bad. In any case it's time for humankind to grow up and stop believing in fairy tales, because the survival of our children, and humanity as a whole, depends on it. It's also time to start caring about other people, and not because there will be rewards in heaven.

Another irrational belief is that we will stop using fossil fuels because they will run out, or because their extraction will become too expensive. The latter process is supposed to be happening right now with the onset of fracking, but in fact the cost of oil is at an all-time low. Huh?

Climate scientists have expressed the solution to this problem in simple language that anyone can understand, but hardly anyone is listening. It goes like this: If humanity burns a total of one trillion (1012) tons of pure carbon (and we have already burned about half of that since the 18th century), the global mean temperature will rise by about 2 degrees celcius. At the rate we are going, this limit will be reached in a few decades (the global rate of CO2 production is still rising), by which it will be too late: CO2 production will not stop quickly, and even if it did, global atmospheric temperature will continue to rise for several decades due to the enormous heat capacity of the oceans. There is widespread agreement that two degrees of warming is "dangerous" (a wonderful example of pragmatic understatement - a skill that the IPCC has been practising under constant pressure from handsomely financed climate denial thinktanks). The total amount of fossil fuels available for extraction from the earth's crust using currently available technology is about 4 trillion tons. Burning all of that will probably cause 10 degrees of warming (that's 1.5 to 2 degrees per trillion tons in an approximately linear relationship, plus nonlinear positive feedback processes whose magnitude is difficult to predict in advance). That, of course, would probably mean the end of the human species. That's all folks!

Allow me to repeat a possibly trivial point. Climate change can only reasonably be slowed down by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There is no other known method that is even slightly realistic, reliable or safe. People keep talking about how complicated climate change is, but at the top level the problem is childishly simple, as is the solution. Not only that - scientists in this area have known this simple basic truth since Charles Keeling published his seminal measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentration in Hawaii in 1960. The stories that you read about uncertainty in climate science are about details that may be important by themselves but do not challenge this simple fact. Since the 1960s, no serious climate scientist has doubted that warming is happening and that it is mainly caused by human-made CO2 emissions, because the physics of that statement are so simple and obvious. No serious climate scientist has doubted that emissions will have to be brought under control to avert global disaster in the late 21st century. Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of non-serious scientists trying to benefit in some way from the global climate denial movement (more). That is why so many people are confused.

It's hard to say how this situation will affect science itself in the future, but it seems likely that in the 2040s governments will be spending a much greater proportion of their budgets than at present on climate science, and other sciences that address questions of human survival. Perhaps these areas of science will belong to the few areas of human activity that are doing well in 30 years. An oasis in a grim world? For young people looking right now for a career with a future, this is surely it.

In the 2040s, people will finally have understood that the findings of climate scientists have enormous consequences, because those consequences will be happening all around them. By "enormous" I mean that the consequences can be measured in hundreds of millions of human lives. You can read more about it here. These are the most enormous consequences of anything in all of human history short of all-out nuclear war. Of all the existential global challenges that humans face, this is the biggest. For this reason, climate science will have overtaken medical research as the leading academic discipline devoted to saving human lives.

Courage versus conformity

People reading this text in the coming few years will presumably ignore it, just as they are ignoring thousands of other such texts on climate change. Countless good, wise people like yourself are rationalising their failure to act in various ways, which is a polite way of saying they are fishing for excuses:

The bottom line

So, dearest reader, thank you allowing me to have my say and for reading this far. It is now time for us go back to our everyday lives without changing anything. We will continue to drive cars around every day (hey! everyone is doing it), plan holidays in far-flung destinations (such as a week meditating and eating vegetarian food in India, to spread good karma), fly to meetings and conferences that could equally take place using Skype or similar software (of course we have to do it for our careers, and we have no time for trains and such like), buy stuff we don't need (don't let me start on that one), and support politicians who don't even talk about global warming, let alone plan to do something about it (electricity? industry? transport? global negotiations?), as if the problem did not exist. We will continue to pretend that we are innocent, and that all of this climate stuff has nothing to do with us. In a couple of decades, when the catastrophes gradually get bigger and bigger, we will act surprised and claim not to have known or to have been powerless to do anything about it.

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