Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
By not taking emergency action to combat climate change, we're gambling dangerously with the future.
- The climate crisis concretely means facing many implicit hard-love tests.
- Who, or what, do you love (or hold sacred)? Really love. Love enough to sacrifice to protect? Or do you choose to protect your children, or your cherished way of life, only if it's cheap and easy, and if it doesn't interfere too much with your lifestyle?
- "The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty."
If you knew a flight had a coin-flip chance that it would crash, would you put your kids on it? An analogy to flight risk grants a better grasp of what the climate crisis concretely means. And it highlights an implicit hard-love test that many of us would rather not face.
By not taking emergency action on the climate crisis, you basically "gamble your children's future on the flip of a coin," as Greta Thunberg says.
The "united science" (as Thunberg calls the international consensus described in IPCC reports) has focused on slightly better odds — for a 67% chance of avoiding climate-crash "Hothouse Earth" conditions we must keep total future emissions below ~360 gigatons. That's a tiny remaining carbon budget, which at our current (still-growing and record rate) of ~42 GT per year will be gone in ~8 years (the 50:50 numbers are ~10-12 years).
All the climate numbers you'll see mean the same thing — we must cut emissions fast. And this can only be done by large changes to the way we live. And those changes have to be fast, and starting from the top. As Thunberg says, the richer you are, and "the bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty."
Climate change: We need bipartisan action before it's too late | Daniel ...
Countering these doomy-gloomy facts, many optimists will say they've heard we're making great progress with electric cars, and clean energy (cheaper than coal), and plant-based meat alternatives, etc.
But here's the concrete reality — global gas-guzzling SUV growth will wipe out all electric vehicle gains (e.g., for every electric vehicle in the UK, 37 SUVs are sold). Whatever the clean-energy cheerleaders say, only ~18% of new investment goes to clean energy, and 82% is still going into dirty projects (clean = $332 billion of total $1.8 Trillion). And U.S. meat eating grew to a record 220 lbs each this year. We have a long way to go.
There are a lot of details and numbers we could quibble over, but given what scientists know about the risk of vast irreversible climate disruptions "to err on the side of danger is not a responsible option" (so wrote Professor Tim Lenton in Nature, recently).
Behind all the complexities there's a clear truth: The basic "equation is simple: fewer emissions equal a more hospitable climate."
That brings us to the hard love-test questions: Who, or what, do you love (or hold sacred)? Really love. Love enough to "sacrifice" to protect? To expend resources to protect?
Or do you choose to protect what you say you love only if it's cheap and easy, and if it doesn't interfere with your lifestyle? What is it worth to you to help your children, or your cherished way of life, to survive (and thrive)?
It's economists vs. climate scientists in this facet of the climate change debate.
- What climate scientists have called a Hothouse Earth emergency, has been called "optimal" by a leading economist.
- That optimal scenario is based on "the most unrealistic and dangerous assumption in the history of economics."
- Leading scientists warn strongly against the methods that economists use. "No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach."
A little-known nerd fight might soon seal our fate. It pits prominent scientists who warn we're already in a "climate emergency" against economists who project only limited harms to human welfare. The disagreement is so severe now that many climate scientists "don't trust… the economists." That's how Professor Steve Keen, himself an economist, puts it.
The position of the relevant economists is well summarized in the following two quotes. "The impact of climate change on the economy and human welfare is likely to be limited… in the twenty-first century," said R. Tol in a 2018 survey of integrated climate and economic modeling literature. And in his 2018 Economics Nobel Prize acceptance speech William Nordhaus described a 4 degree C temperature rise as "optimal," leading to a minor 3.6% cut in global economic output — his prize was explicitly for "integrating climate change" into economic models.
Compare that to climate-science models that show a 4 C degree rise risks a catastrophic "Hothouse Earth" scenario (W. Steffen 2018), with large uninhabitable zones, irreversible tipping points, a 10+ meter sea-level rise, and an estimated carrying capacity of ~80% fewer humans (~1 billion people). That hardly seems compatible with maintaining 96.4% of global economic output. Never mind the moral meaning of 6 billion less people alive.
Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy
The climate scientists who "don't trust the economists" include W. Steffen a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. He alongside 15 other scientists advises that "theories, tools, and beliefs… [that] focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate." That's an overly diplomatic way of putting Keen's statement more clearly — these scientists warn "strongly against the methods that economists use." Or as another leading climate scientist, Tim Lenton writes, "No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach."
That focus on economic efficiency is the kind of sophisticated abstraction that sometimes hides bad logic and bad morals (under attractively antiseptic algebra). For example, here the bad logic presumes that how economic output varies by location and temperature today can be used to estimate model coefficients to project into the future. But Hothouse Earth conditions will be radically different from today's (that's like using current Evian sales trends to model the water market in a Mad Max Fury Road world). Keen calls this "the most unrealistic and dangerous assumption in the history of economics," (Averting Systemic Collapse OECD Sept 2019, slide 23) and says the "lack of realism is just breathtaking." The slick surface of economic models can hide mathematized madness and logic that few scientists would find credible.
To see the moral missteps, it usually helps to recast the abstractions in concrete human terms. What economic climate-impact models call "costs" are in reality actual people suffering, i.e., your kids, and billions of other humans having worse and shorter lives. Lurking in "cost benefit" analyses are deeply indecent proposals. Deals with the devil that mask this moral structure: What gain can I offer you to let me worsen your kids' lives? Shouldn't moral "costs" (like shortening your kids' lives) be non-compensable and non-negotiable?
Keen believes that economists like Nordhaus and Tol have contributed to keeping us "paralysed for almost 50 years." Too many political leaders have put too much stock in these climate-trivializing economic models. Perhaps we should join Keen in calling for the removal of mainstream economists (or at least their "laughable" methods) from the IPCC.
The consequences of our climate-cooking habits will burden all future humans.
- Do we have a duty to be "good ancestors"?
- Creating a legacy of a climate-worsened world is like shooting your kids in the foot.
- Who are you free to harm? If not any one else, then surely not everyone else? Third-hand carbon counts as an ambient harm that will burden all future humans.
If you knew parts of our way of life would harm (your) kids, would you work to change them? As Greta Thunberg has forcefully made clear, we know exactly that, and must now act on that knowledge.
A "do no harm" norm sits at the heart of how we live. Your right to be free stops at where it causes harm to others (here's John Stuart Mill's statement of that principle). So if we know we are not free to harm anyone else, how can it be ok to harm everyone else (even if diffusely and indirectly)?
The climate-cooking consequences of many everyday activities (especially of high-consumption lifestyles) will harm today's kids and all future humans. They will have to live under the atmospheric carbon-burden we're creating. These third-hand carbon harms are assured by the physics of the facts of climate change (and you can't negotiate with physics).
Does that seem right or fair to you?
That very issue is being tested in an ongoing court case "Juliana vs U.S." Twenty-one kids are suing to demand "the government step[s] up to protect today's children, and future generations, from the worst effects of climate change." So they're not deprived of their "rights to life, liberty… [and the] unalienable climate system that nature endows." The government lawyers claim "there is no fundamental constitutional right to a 'stable climate system.'"
Forget the legal details, what does your heart tell you is the right thing to do? Put another way, in light of the new material and moral realities we face, are we living up to the great task and responsibility "of being good ancestors"?
Didn't many of our ancestors work to give us a shot at a decent life? Shouldn't we do the same?
There's concrete tradeoff logic lurking beneath the numbers and market abstractions.
- Filthy-fuel suffering is here today: 95% of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution."
- Paying extra for cleaner energy buys reduced suffering for today's kids and all future humans.
- For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms.
Like the kid in the emperor's new clothes tale, Greta Thunberg sees through the "smart" games that blind us to clear, present, and colossal danger. These number-struck rituals of rationality were built for a world we no longer live in. Here's how to get more "moral clarity" (and avoid sophisticated math-masked moral and mortal mistakes).
Too much climate-crisis thinking presumes we should only do what we know is "right" if that's as cheap as today's bad way. But why is that the correct criteria? Current pollution-cheat prices ignore that the status-quo system can't last long. And that move voids vast avoidable suffering from "smart" considerations.
Here's the concrete tradeoff logic lurking under "the numbers" and market abstractions:
a) Keep using cheap dirty energy and your kids will have worse and shorter lives.
b) Choose higher-and-truer-cost clean energy but your kids live better and longer lives.
What we get for paying extra is reduced suffering — for today's kids, and for all future humans.
"How Dare You" not pay to prevent harming the life chances of the young, Thunberg thundered at the U.N. To keep using filthy fuel is to knowingly increase suffering (surely that "would be evil" declared Thunberg).
Again, using pollution-cheat prices as a barrier ensures ethical errors — moral mistakes that will make billions of lives worse.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: "Over the last several decades, policy consensus has cautioned that the world would only tolerate responses to climate change if they were free—or [cheaper than current costs]" from David Wallace Welles's must-read The Uninhabitable Earth. Let's translate: Many of those trained in our governing games feel we should only stop burning the biosphere if it's cheap enough to not hurt profits. Otherwise, burn on. And burden kids with the "planetary overdraft" they'll have to pay dearly for.
Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy
Countless cases of similar hidden hideous "logic" exist (e.g. this capitalism-will-save-us piece brags that "solar and wind can now go head-to-head with fossil fuels"). Phrases like "commercially viable" often signal the same ethics error — basically no price in any current market covers actual full clean-up costs.
Status-quo market-thinking stokes this poisonous "planetary overdraft," and most "cheapest option" thinking ignores that mitigation costs ruthlessly compound over time. Every delay increases ultimate costs. And don't forget those "costs" translate to real people really suffering.
And filthy-fuel suffering isn't only a future woe. It has deadly effects right now, we just aren't paying attention. Ninety-five percent of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution." To not aggressively switch to cleaner, costlier energy risks a best-case death toll of "25 holocausts." Our business-as-usual games will beat the old one-Holocaust "banal evil."
The main old-moral-world case for using lowest-cost energy is to avoid reducing "growth." But that growth-at-all-costs mindset ignores now-known material and moral limits. There is no known way to avoid selectively reducing material growth (today's material burn rate is at 160% of what the Earth can sustain).
Like our physical infrastructure, much of our cognitive infrastructure must be retooled for those now-known material and moral limits we face. You may want to weigh with more care what you're willing to pay to do the "right thing" (e.g., giving our kids better lives).
For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms. That's the same move used in prior Thought Fix posts to reveal errors in typical "discounting" and "growth" arguments. Similar moves can reformulate many worked-in-the-old-world "smart" games.
If economic growth knowingly increases mass-scale suffering, can we stop chasing it?
- Greta Thunberg got it right, the "endless economic growth fairytale" covers up clearly wicked consequences.
- We're no longer in the same moral world where many of our smart abstract ideas (like "growth") were conceived. We face new material and moral constraints, and their logic requires "degrowth."
- We have all the tech we need to cope with the climate crisis right now. It's not a technology, it's a technique.
Is "endless economic growth" a fairytale, as Greta Thunberg warned the UN? Is "green growth" a good witch, or the old wicked one in pretty party-on disguise? Any "happily ever after" needs new material and "moral clarity" (and "degrowth").
Economist Robert Frank says economic growth in rich nations will help voters make "sacrifices" for sustainability. He cites "loss aversion" studies, but they're like the "marshmallow test" (see here) unreliably over-generalized. Abstractions like "growth" and "consumption" often hide this trade-off structure:
a) 4 flights this year, and your children suffer shorter lives, or
b) 2 flights and they breathe safer air for longer.
In concrete moral terms, higher consumption now often increases future burdens. We're no longer in the old moral world where many of our popular "smart" abstract ideas (like "growth") were conceived. Those that don't fit now-known limits must be revamped. Frank advocates "green growth," and that's obviously better, but to use Thunberg's our-house-is-on-fire metaphor, that's only adding fuel more slowly. And it ignores very material realities.
Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy
In "Why Growth Can't Be Green," Jason Hickel recasts the concrete realities typically ignored in growth debates. We're already extracting more of the Earth's materials and life forms than we safely can (fish, forests, fuels, metals, etc). Planetary parameters enable ecological economists to calculate a sustainable material consumption rate, and the magic number is ~50 billion tons of resources per year. We're at ~80 billion tons now (~160% of Earth-capacity). Usage varies greatly: rich nations devour 28 tons per person per year, ~1,400% higher than the ~2 tons per person per in poor nations. We'd need four Earth's for all humans to consume like Americans. Hickel describes several studies showing that "even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale."
"Growth must end," agrees Valcav Smil (his 500-page book analyzes every kind of growth). "Economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense." He explains, "Relative decoupling… reductions in energy intensity and in the material requirements of individual products or entire economies… will continue. But absolute decoupling of economic growth from energy and materials on the global level… contradicts physical laws." For instance, our 10-fold increase in crop yields needed a 90-fold increase in energy usage (for chemical fertilizers, without which ~2 billion fewer humans could be fed, and tractors etc). And while wind turbines are monuments to eco-action, they also embody masses of fossil-fuel-driven materials (concrete, steel, plastic). Renewable energy helps, but it doesn't necessarily reduce or replace materials consumed. To be sustainable we've got to get to a steady state consumption of below 50 billion tons per year. That's what "degrowth" and "postgrowth" mean.
In sacred-to-many-economists "growth" hides the idea that we can't possibly live without every trinket. Or wear clothing more than 7 times. Whenever growth's necessity is asserted, test the thinking against material practicalities. And discount reflex dismissals by economists (like this where Noah Smith says Smil reveals "spectacular, pugnacious ignorance," and "doesn't understand economic growth").
Thunberg says extending the status quo given what we know "would be evil." She has the "moral clarity" to see that every delay compounds the monetary and moral costs (whichever of those most moves you). To go on growth-chasing in business-as-usual mode is becoming our era's "banal evil." It knowingly increases mass scale suffering. Scientist David P. Barash calls this a Ponzi scheme—we gain by burdening all who come after (a legacy not of heirlooms, but heir-gloom).
I'll end with two good-news takeaways.
a) Solving this doesn't require "any new inventions" (Smil). We have all the tech we need right now. It's not a technology, it's a technique: the once-prized skill of self-restraint.
b) Much climate-cooking consumption isn't needed for a "good" life (e.g. 40% of all food is wasted, and "fast fashion" is far from essential).
A great task of our times is to reimagine what a good-enough life means (in moral and material terms).
Determining whether human nature is short-sighted when it comes to survival-necessary situations
- Do you know what evidence supposedly supports the claim that "human nature" is short sighted?
- Can our abstract math help us weigh the "utility," or value, of cupcakes against burning the biosphere?
- By mixing moral or survival-needed items with trinkets, this math seduces many into calling "rational" what we know will logically lead to collective doom.
Do you believe human nature is inherently short-sighted? Do we naturally prioritize the present above the future? That's often asserted, and taught, but readily refuted. Let's review the relevant logic to see if you can spot the flaws. They reveal that what now passes for "rational" often resembles rationalization, and can dangerously discount basic logic and moral clarity.
Consider Nathaniel Rich's New York Times article on the climate crisis. "Human nature has brought us to this." Our main way-of-life-organizing ideas presume we're "incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations." Rich explains "Economics… prices the future at a discount; the farther out… the cheaper the consequences." But should we rationally model everything as like a depreciating corporate asset? Is everything that matters like machinery whose utility and value diminishes over time?
Rich has the correct culprit: economics (abetted by bad pop science). But he fails to present readily-available counter-evidence from history, anthropology and daily life. Don't many parents (likely including Rich's) routinely trade current conveniences to give their kids good educations? Haven't wars meant sacrifice for future generations? And many people and cultures are known to put a premium on protecting resources they know will be needed in the future (you don't eat your seed corn if you want your kids, or way of life, to survive). Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-work in economics documents how sustainable groups do this — sadly, this isn't influential enough even in economics.
Can we delay gratification?
Still, many economists, and other expert "rationalists," believe that "marshmallow test" experiments have shown that future discounting is baked into our biology. This test offers kids one treat now, or two later to assess ability to delay gratification. Steven Pinker says "a rational agent ought to discount the future," indeed that's "wired into our nervous systems." Versions of the test have been done on pigeons (pecking for pellets) and enough other species, for Pinker to say "all organisms" discount. Further details don't matter; the signature flaws are already visible. We needn't worry about different discounting types, iffy methods, or that contra Pinker's "wired-in-ness," this varies by culture (for example Cameroonian kids beat Germans by a huge margin), and context, and group norms (see Bina Venkataraman's The Optimist's Telescope).
A deeper flaw surfaces if we ask, are measurable marshmallow or pigeon-pellet preferences good proxies for every decision? For moral choices? Or life-or-death decisions like:
a) 2 cupcakes now but increased suffering and shorter lives for your kids, or
b) 1 cupcake now with less suffering and more life for your kids.
Cast in concrete and moral terms, who'd choose option a)? Yet camouflaged as consumer-choice, or under abstractions like market utility, we often do exactly that.
Is it rational or moral to knowingly increase suffering? Including that of your own descendants? To even reduce their chances of survival? Can a way-of-life logic that ignores "preferences" for survival and their rationally required resource constraints last long? Our current global-markets marshmallow test of this isn't going well.
Do we value the future?
Even those not educated into erroneous rationalizations — like the bird-brained tendency to discount breathable air for their kids — collaborate in this systemic shortsightedness. Markets and companies discount damaging our survival-needs as just the cost of doing business. But that's baked into recent market norms, not our biology.
Rich notes "any economist" can tell you how little humans value the future. I'd suggest they're projecting, and rationalizing, their own, atypical, preferences. Seduced by shiny sums they rush to "the" numbers that seemingly allow anything to be compared and "rationally" chosen by converting it to utility.
But to rightly recast their pursuit of evermore economic growth in moral terms is like asking how many marshmallows justify worse lives for your kids? Always cast costs and benefits concretely, and factor in who is impacted. Otherwise, you run the risk of math-masked moral errors.
Abstractly mixing moral and survival-necessary items with frills is far from smart. We can't let inapt abstraction, inept generalizations, and logic-losing numbers continue to corral us into collectively self-destructive "growth."