Would you risk your kids' lives on a coin-flip flight?

By not taking emergency action to combat climate change, we're gambling dangerously with the future.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • 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)?

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This nerd fight could wreck or cure our way of life

It's economists vs. climate scientists in this facet of the climate change debate.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • 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."
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Why aren't we trying to be better ancestors?

The consequences of our climate-cooking habits will burden all future humans.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • 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.
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Why do the good guys have to beat the climate cheats?

There's concrete tradeoff logic lurking beneath the numbers and market abstractions.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Thought Fix
  • 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.

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Ending the “endless growth” fairytale needs moral clarity

If economic growth knowingly increases mass-scale suffering, can we stop chasing it?

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Thought Fix
  • 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.
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Should we blame biology for our biosphere-bashing behavior?

Determining whether human nature is short-sighted when it comes to survival-necessary situations

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Thought Fix
  • 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.
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