Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos

Climate chaos (CC) is the largest threat to our collective prosperity. (Water scarcity, biodiversity loss, increasing vulnerability to viruses and bacteria are a few more.)

But “we” (citizens of rich countries) are having a hardER time understanding and addressing CC due to a few strategic mistakes, i.e.,

  1. Most discussions of impacts focus on 2100, which is too far away from our time now to take seriously. It also “hides” the fact that we are now seeing weather patterns (due to changes in climate) that are harming our way of life.
  2. Most discussions focus on +2C increases in average temperatures, when the focus should be on increasing risks at the extremes (the changes in the distribution), i.e., fat tails or black swans causing massive damages in surprising places. Examples: Houston getting three “500-year” storms in a decade a few years ago; the Pacific Northwest recently breaking high temperature records by a huge margin; Texas facing “record” cold then “record” warmth within a month; Hurricane Sandy; etc.
  3. Economists recommending a global cap and trade system rather than a series of national carbon tax and rebate systems at Kyoto (1998). The former requires global coordination, a political willingness to send money to “foreigners”, and trustworthy supra-national institutions. Local tax/rebates do not suffer these issues, but we’ve allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
  4. Economists (led by that incompetent fraud, Nordhaus) have used flawed models to justify inaction (their logic is that action now limits growth that will give us resources in the future to deal with damages in the future) rather than implementing action now that can be tightened/loosened as we learn how taxes affect emissions affecting CC.
  5. Most people do not understand how the change from stationarity to non-stationarity will disrupt their habits, food production, infrastructure performance, etc. These are the same people who hesitate to take the COVID vaccine until they are offered lottery tickets. Their choice inconsistency shows they misunderstand probabilities.
  6. Few people understand the consequences of missing +2C targets due to lag effects. Hitting that target (a long run increase) means reducing emissions (and deforestation) at a radical rate now and still waiting for decades for forcing momentum to dissipate and warming to slow and reverse. Put differently, it would take 50-100 years for currently “baked in” forcing to manifest in CC-impacts assuming we went to zero emissions today, and another 10,000 years (±) for current CO2 concentrations of 409ppm (a level not seen for 800,000 years) to fall back to “pre-industrial” levels of 280ppm last seen 170 years ago. We’ve passed the point of no return.
  7. Forgetting that non-CO2 factors matter. If all GHGs are included, then we’re looking at 456ppm CO2-equilivalent, so we’re in far worse shape than the most-discussed number would suggest.
  8. I’m not even talking about the problems of greed (converting rainforest into palm oil, soy beans or more oil fields), lobbying (politicians need to be re-elected often and fossil fuel companies have lots of money to pay for protection or inaction), the massive market failure/collective action problem, our psychological desire to maintain “progress” at all costs, and so on.

My one-handed conclusion is that we — humans, as a species — have put ourselves in a difficult situation that we’ve made even harder to tackle by a series of strategic communication blunders.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos”

  1. When the clear implications of Nordhaus’s models are that a tax on net CO2 is needed now (no mainstream economist “justifies inaction.”), how is his focusing on average (bad) outcomes instead of the distribution of (worse) outcomes a key obstacle to building political support for taxation of net emissions?

    1. I’m not sure that his (low) tax recommendations are any different from inaction. That said, I think his support for a carbon “trade zone” is useful, given the political issues involved with taxes.

      In terms of averages vs worst, it (his focus on average) is problematic b/c it hides (or fails to highlight) the dangers from the extremes (now looking more, rather than less, likely), which [again] tends to discourage action. It’s as if life insurance companies sent letters to young parents highlighting average life expectancy rather than (what they are selling) the risk of early death.

      When it comes to the end of the world as we know it, maybe the extremes are more important?

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