Shouldn’t We Have Fixed Climate Change By Now?

We know global warming is a huge problem, and we know how to fix it. So why haven’t we?

It was 1896 when scientist Svante Arrhenius first discovered the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and the warming of the earth. In the 1980s it became abundantly clear that this would have huge negative impacts on the planet, and on humanity.

Since then scientists have been working to understand global warming in much more detail, and innovating to find potential solutions. We know that to stop global warming we need to stop greenhouse gas emissions, and we’ve known that for quite some time. So why have we not managed to stop global warming in its tracks?

In 1988 Michael McElroy, a professor at Harvard University, observed that:

“If we choose to take on this challenge, it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially, giving us time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and the damage to ecosystems can be minimized.

We could alternatively close our eyes, hope for the best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due.” [1]

In my eyes, the reason that we’ve taken McElroy’s second route, of ‘closing our eyes, hoping for the best, and paying the bill when it comes’ is down to two key factors:

  • To truly ‘solve’ global warming, we’d need to move to zero carbon emissions immediately. And that seems way too hard to achieve.
  • We naturally focus on the short-term, and find it much harder to act based on long-term problems.

Solving global warming would mean zero emissions

Since the 1980s, there have been huge improvements in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable sources of energy production are on the rise — we’ve recently seen the first coal-free fortnight in the UK [2]. We’re eating less meat, especially in the Western world, and awareness of the environmental impacts of meat consumption is much higher. In the past couple of years, thanks to David Attenborough, there’s been a huge appetite for initiatives to remove single-use plastic from our lives.

However, in terms of stopping global warming altogether, we would need to do much more than reduce emissions. We would need to have zero emissions — or even negative emissions [3]. Whereas reducing emissions is fine, zero emissions suddenly feels incredibly difficult to achieve, even impossible.

Even if we did feel that zero emissions was within the realms of possibility, the strength, power, and influence of the fossil fuel industry is against us. The oil industry generates too much revenue for governments to turn their back on them and introduce and enforce strict renewable energy regulations.

Plus, the industry has been campaigning to generate doubt about global warming for decades. In the 1980s, when we first understood the severity of global warming, the fossil fuel industry began advertising campaigns to discredit climate science and encourage consumers to continue purchasing energy from fossil fuels [4]. This effectively meant that we got off to a very slow start in terms of convincing the general public that they needed to care about global warming, and change their habits — a slow start that we’re still catching up on now.

The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes uncovers the influence of the fossil fuel industry in promoting climate skepticism, in much detail:

“The problem was that public had no way to know that this ‘evidence’ was part of an industry campaign designed to confuse. It was, in fact, part of a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud.”

- Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt

We struggle to understand the long-term

We humans are designed to think about short-term survival. We’re motivated by short term rewards, and we tend to struggle to think about the long-term, and understand how things will pan out over a much longer time period. This means that when it comes to tackling long-term problems, we’re much less likely to take action — even if we know what action needs taking.

That’s why, even though people know that smoking will increase our chances of lung cancer long term, they still keep buying cigarettes. We favour the short-term reward of a nicotine hit, over the long term pleasure of a longer, healthier life. This is true with global warming too. For instance, we know that our excessive use of cars for transport is contributing towards long-term climate change, but we still choose to use them regularly for the short-term convenience and comfort of the option.

It’s easy to dismiss something that seems far away, in terms of time or in terms of distance, as unimportant. It can feel like global warming is a problem for future generations to solve, or that it will only impact island states and coastal areas, not our local city. In this way, it can seem that global warming isn’t too much of a problem for our generation.

Researcher Anja Kollmuss explored this in her PhD thesis titled: ‘Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?’ [5]She found that people are more likely to make changes in their behaviour to be more environmentally friendly if there has been a recent environmental disaster, or if we personally experience the impacts of climate change in our local area. Simply knowing that global warming is an issue that will affect us one day, doesn’t spur us to act.

Plus, our politicians tend to be focused on solving short-term problems too, which means these problems are more likely to be in the forefront of our minds through policy and journalism. Most leading politicians will have a fairly short tenure in power — a US president has 4 years, and a UK Prime Minister has 5 years (unless re-elected). They want to have the biggest impact they can in that amount of time, and that usually means solving smaller problems, rather than making small steps with bigger, longer-term problems. There’s also the threat that the next leader will have different views, and therefore repeal any regulations put in place. We can see that currently, with Donald Trump repealing Obamacare, for instance.

Climate change is a universal problem. It will affect all future humans that exist. And that’s why we need to move past this natural propensity to focus on the short-term, and act now for the future of humanity.

References

[1] Andrew Revkin, ‘Climate Change First Became News 30 Years Ago. Why Haven’t We Fixed It?’, National Geographic (2018)

[2] ‘UK Goes a Fortnight Without Burning Coal for the First Time’, The Independent (2019)

[3] ‘CO2 emissions must be zero by 2070 to prevent climate disaster, UN says’, The Guardian, (2014)

[4] ‘Shell Grappled with Climate Change 20 Years Ago, Documents Show’, Scientific America, (2018)

[5] Anja Kollmuss, ‘Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?’, Environmental Education Research, (2010)

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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