4 inconvenient truths about climate change

It's too late to prevent climate change. We can now only prevent its worst consequences.

A fire.

At this week's climate symposium on CNN, Elizabeth Warren answered a question about whether the government should be regulating lightbulbs in an interesting way. She said, basically, that we're focusing on the wrong thing. There's nothing wrong with more efficient lightbulbs, but it's small beer. That's what the fossil fuel companies want us to be arguing about, because most of the carbon is thrown up by three industries — construction, electric power, and oil — and arguing about lightbulbs takes attention away from those sectors.

The obvious inconvenient truth that Warren is pointing out here is that we aren't going to be able to fight climate change with a series of small-change consumer choices. It's going to require massive changes in large industries, which is a heavier political lift. Below the radar, there's another inconvenient truth being implied: that people are really irritated by losing even small conveniences, and so focusing energy on these small-beer fights has a real cost in terms of being able to fight the bigger fights.

She's right about both. But those aren't the most inconvenient truths about the fight against climate change. Here are four that we need to start acknowledging more widely if we're going to make the kind of progress we so urgently need.

1. Demand for energy is relatively inelastic.

One of the reasons why gasoline taxes work so well for generating highway funds is that when the price of gas goes up, the demand for gas doesn't go down that much or that quickly. The reason: There's no substitute for energy. When beef prices spike, people switch to pork or chicken to minimize the negative impact on their lifestyle. But when gas prices spike, they can't stop commuting to work.

Yes, if gas gets significantly more expensive and stays there, as it did in the 1970s, that will change consumer behavior. People will carpool, buy more fuel-efficient cars, move closer to the city center or to cities with better mass-transit, etc. But the short-term impact of spikes in energy prices is relatively small, and most of those consumer choices are painful, and are therefore resented and resisted.

That's inconvenient, because the market price mechanism is still the most efficient means we have for changing the allocation of resources. That's one reason carbon taxes are relatively popular among mainstream economists; if you set a price on an externality like carbon emissions, you'll reduce them at the least economic cost. But if the true cost of carbon is so high that imposing it would simply wreck the economy, while more politically-plausible prices would not spur innovation on the scale necessary to make a real dent in America's carbon footprint, then a carbon tax is mostly just a good way to raise a pile of money for other climate-related expenses.

A further implication is that a massive research and development effort — on carbon-neutral construction, more advanced batteries, thorium reactors, carbon capture, geo-engineering, etc. — needs to be a huge portion of any climate policy, at a much higher scale than we have contemplated. Spending money on innovation can be attacked as wasteful, but we need to be willing to waste a lot of money to make multiple breakthroughs — and it's surely more popular than personal sacrifice.

2. People are selfish in their loss-aversion.

It's a well-known fact that humans are loss-averse. We'll spend a lot more to preserve what we have than we will to gain something new; we fear losses more than we desire gains.

You'd think this would make fighting climate change easier, because that fight is the ultimate in avoiding loss. But the opposite is true. Everything we need to do now to fight climate change feels like a loss. Give up your lightbulbs, your straws, your cheeseburgers. The losses keep piling up, until they feel like a description of the new permanent state: a state of deprivation. And they don't just pile up; they escalate. Give up straws, okay. But give up your car? Give up air travel?

It's not that people are categorically unwilling to spend money to prevent catastrophe. Building a sea wall to defend Manhattan would probably be an easier sell than building a wall on the southern border. But the kinds of sacrifices needed to seriously decarbonize in a hurry would be monumental, more like accepting the loss rather than preventing it.

Precisely because that's what they feel like, sacrifices make people selfish rather than magnanimous. If the global climate budget is limited and shrinking, then everybody will want to grab as large a share for themselves as they can.

This is an extremely inconvenient truth. The main way climate advocates have attempted to address it is to take the focus off individual losses. Progressive Democrats' Green New Deal, for example, embeds climate change in a larger economic and social agenda — free health care, guaranteed employment — in the hopes that the agenda as a whole will prove popular enough to carry decarbonization along with it. But there is little to no evidence that this strategy would be effective, or that the other elements in that agenda are widely popular given that they also raise problems of loss-aversion for huge chunks of the middle class as well as the wealthy.

Warren, meanwhile, is not foolish in trying to focus attention on a specific enemy, like the fossil fuel industry. But there's no actual way for that industry to pay the costs of the necessary economic change. We can make them suffer for their role in causing climate change, but we can't materially reduce our own losses by doing so.

3. America is only a small part of the climate problem.

Obviously, America is a much bigger contributor to climate change than most countries — and we're going in the wrong direction under this administration. But we're no longer the largest single national contributor — that honor belongs to China. And as China grows, and much of the rest of the developing world grows with it, their share of the world's carbon footprint is going to grow as well.

That's why the most profound implications of selfish loss-aversion are international. Developing countries are vanishingly unlikely to accept that they must permanently live at a lower standard (and have less economic power) than wealthier countries who caused the climate problem in the first place. They will demand the right to develop. But wealthy countries are also vanishingly unlikely to accept extra pain to make up for the need of developing countries to grow. While climate advocates tend to see the global nature of the climate crisis as evidence that we need more international cooperation, what we'll actually see is conflict.

That's pretty inconvenient. But any serious climate policy needs to embrace that truth, and channel that conflict towards reducing the world's carbon footprint rather than increasing it.

For example, using America's economic clout to punish countries that grow their carbon footprint feels pretty unfair given America's culpability in our climate situation. But it will be a lot more popular than magnanimity and will build the social solidarity necessary for shared sacrifice (we'd hardly be able to punish China if we haven't already substantially decarbonized ourselves). It's likely to be more effective internationally as well given the way incentives will line up in developing countries. And a massive R&D effort could position America as the provider of carbon-neutral solutions so that we benefit economically from other countries' need to change.

4. It's already too late to prevent climate change.

Because of all of the above, and because climate change is already happening, we shouldn't be talking about preventing it. We should be talking about preventing the worst consequences. That does mean radically reducing humanity's carbon footprint, of course. But it also means talking seriously about adaptation — and preparing to spend the money it will take to adapt.

Environmentalists don't like to suggest that adaptation is possible, because it might reduce the urgency of prevention. And it's true that resources are limited, so every dollar and minute spent on adaptation is not being spent on some other endeavor. But, inconveniently, we have no choice.

Moreover, it's probably a good thing we don't. Remember the sea wall and loss aversion? It's very likely that people won't accept the costs of climate change until they actually start having to pay to adapt to the consequences. Which means that the sooner we start taxing people to build things like sea walls, the sooner it will become politically feasible to propose spending money to prevent worse problems that will require more extreme adaptations.

The most inconvenient truth of all is that a global civilization of seven and a half billion people (and rising) is inevitably going to be engaged in geo-engineering. There is no mode of living that allows us simply to exist within an environment in a natural fashion, no spiritual road back to a prelapsarian state. From now on, we will perpetually be adapting to a world that we have shaped decisively. We'd better learn how to do it well.

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