Climate change, anxieties and actions

Oil refining
Image courtesy of NASA

(reading time: 11 mins)

This summer’s heatwave through Europe and Asia was one of many extraordinary weather events, which along with forest fires, storms and flash floods, are becoming less extraordinary every year. Scientists are not claiming direct cause and effect for individual weather events, rather there is a very simple principle at work – CO2 and Methane put more energy into our weather systems. The more energy goes in, the more energy comes out, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The IPCC October 2018 report and the ‘hothouse earth’ report that rounded off the summer both re-state that climate change may become irreversible, but with the worrying twist that the tipping point may be closer than previously thought. There are more frequent warnings that we really could leave Earth permanently damaged for our species, perhaps within a few generations.

Such headlines grab the attention for a time because our hunter-gatherer brains are hardwired to monitor for immediate threats. However as the solution requires action outside of our control, what remains is often a sense of powerlessness. 

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the nuclear arms race lived with a similar sense of anxiety and powerlessness. Every childhood from the 1950s to the 1980s came with the realisation that the complete destruction of everything you love is an ever present man-made threat. The adult world is dominated by a love of abstract concepts – political ideology then, short term profit now – which become more important than life on this planet.

Yet, despite our species many flaws, we have to focus on the positives and believe our species has a strong enough instinct for self preservation to avoid complete catastrophe.

Countering skepticism and denial

The destruction of the Ozone layer from Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is another historical precedent for the danger we face now. This was identified by scientists in the early 1970s, yet needed over 20 years to get concerted international action.

Chemical producers then made the same arguments you hear from the fossil fuel lobby now, namely; the science is not certain; modern life would be unthinkable without their products; a drop in their profits would cause serious trauma to the wider economy, etc, etc. However the public soon understood the chemical industry was only defending its own profits. Eventually international treaties were signed and less harmful alternatives developed, all without destroying the world economy. So although dealing with CO2 and methane is a far bigger, complex and wider-reaching problem, there is a precedent for co-ordinated action with a good outcome.

Climate denial is an increasingly emotional choice. Logically, only a small number of established companies can benefit from leaving things as they are, and right leaning conservative media has strong links to that established money. Climate skepticism feeds on a growing mistrust of experts. It’s identity politics strengthened by the ideological silos of targeted and social media. Conservative media encourages the idea the scientists are alarmist lefty liberals looking to justify their research grants and interfere with individual liberty.

However for non-skeptics it’s important to avoid adding to tribalism, and instead look for opportunities to increase dialogue with the right and give credit where it’s due. So for example, although Margaret Thatcher wasn’t exactly an eco warrior, as a trained scientist she was prepared to trust the science and act on the evidence on CFCs. She took a lead on international action, and significantly got President Reagan on board for the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Whatever their party, we certainly need more leaders who value evidence over the latest opinion polls.

Caring about climate change must not be something seen as owned by the left, because at this moment identity politics is a far more powerful force than rational argument. Although conservative voters, academics and politicians are more likely to be climate skeptics, there are significant voices on the right, like Tea Party founder Debbie Dooley campaigning for clean renewable energy (see below).

“This Earth is not a Republican Earth. This is not a Democrat Earth. This Earth is for all of us. Failure is not an option.”

Dr Katherine Hayhoe is a committed Christian who combines science and her faith to address widespread climate skepticism among right-leaning Evangelical Christians1. For religious groups in particular the moral imperative of dealing with climate change may be persuasive, because we know future generations (including our own families) and the poorest nations will suffer the most.

But politicians rarely make altruistic arguments for dealing with climate change, believing voters are more fearful of short term costs than attracted by long term benefits. This is why as well as appealing to responsibility and altruism, we need to appeal to self-interest by showing the financial costs of inaction, but also promote the wider benefits of a lower carbon economy.

For the love of GDP

In financial terms, climate change is not about left vs right, or environment vs business. It’s short term profits of a small group of companies vs long term stability of the world economy.

In 2007 Cambridge Economist Nicholas Stern calculated that within decades we could be spending around 20% of the world’s wealth combating climate change. And it’s disturbing how little co-ordinated action there’s been since then. Even Lloyds of London and multinational banks like HSBC having to sound the alarm about lack of action2. Do climate skeptics believe the insurance industry and multinational banks are run by big government lefties?

So to climate skeptics I would make the point that even if the science is not certain, it’s in the majority interest to fix the problem rather than gamble with it getting out of hand. Yes the Stern report was a prediction not a certainty. But there is little to be gained and so much to lose by inaction, it only makes sense to treat climate change as probably real, and then act.

Pricing carbon out of the energy market with taxes is essential. However few people vote for more taxes. In favour of carbon taxes, surely it’s better to price carbon out now than spend 20% of everything in coming decades? 20% of GDP is at least 20% of the average worker’s salary, savings, housing equity, pension pot and everything we spend our working lives acquiring. It’s obvious that only the wealthiest 1% can realistically isolate themselves from the effects of climate change. Anyone on a middle or low income will bear the cost of inaction.

Corporations should be aware there is a growing financial risk for companies that wilfully ignore climate change. Worldwide there are already hundreds of lawsuits in progress against governments, companies and financial institutions3. As the unfolding reality begins to match scientific predictions, court cases will become easier to prove. It’s only a matter of time before legal liability is established and fossil fuel companies can be held accountable for their part in climate change. I recently signed a petition against Standard Chartered financing new coal plants in Vietnam, and added this point to the text (not saying anyone there will actually read it of course!).

So while companies might be willing to take some bad publicity for a short term profit, those financing new fossil fuel developments needs to consider their potential legal liability. Multi-national corporations have teams of well-informed analysts who know climate change is real and destructive. They need to reminded what starts out as a good short term investment may turn into a long-term legal headache. While the fossil fuel industry looks all powerful now, it could quickly become the next Big Tobacco.

Continue to benefits and actions Read page 2