In Monday’s opinion piece, John Gibbons attributes the lack of public support for action against climate change to four main causes: (1) that humanity’s moral reactions tend towards visceral responses to immediate stimuli, (2) that we do not condemn unintentional actions as strongly as intentional ones, (3) that we dislike the idea of climate change as the ultimate responsibility for the problem rests with our lifestyles, and (4) that there is a perception that climate change will affect other people and not ourselves, either in the future or merely elsewhere.
While all those reasons doubtlessly play a part in the public and political inaction on the issue of climate change, he has in fact missed the greatest reason that so many people refuse to act: it may not make much sense to do so.
The first thing to note is that actions against climate change fall into two categories: preventative, which seek to stop climate change ever occurring, for instance by taxing carbon emissions, and ameliorative, which seeks to limit the harm that climate change, when it occurs, will undoubtedly cause, perhaps by building tidal walls. Some actions and investments may fall into both categories, but in general they tend to be distinct.
The second thing to note about climate change is that it is predicted by many climate models to be, to a large extent, an all-or-nothing phenomenon – there is a tipping point which we shall either reach or we won’t. Reaching this tipping point will be the source of most of the damage caused by climate change.
The third thing to note is that it is a worldwide phenomenon, and while it will not affect all countries equally, no country can prevent itself from being affected; a country that cleans up its act and meets or excels its targets will be no better off if the rest of the world causes climate change to occur. Therefore, there is no benefit to a country for reducing its emissions if other countries continue to pollute at the current rate; in fact, the country that acts responsibly and cuts its emissions may be worse off, if the actions taken to lessen emissions reduce the amount of available resources to respond to the effects of climate change.
The question then becomes not “should we become more green” but “will China and the USA (whose actions in this matter are the true determinates of the fate of the world) become sufficiently green”. And the answer to that, sadly, is probably not.
The explanation for the current mire of inactivity that action on climate change finds itself in is not due to any defect in the populace of Ireland or even its politicians, but instead in the age old problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. If people and nations were assured that by amending their behaviour, climate change could be avoided; they would most likely do so. Unfortunately, when good behaviour will go unrewarded, or even possibly punished (whether it be by giving other nations a competitive economic advantage or from absorbing resources on a futile effort), it is unlikely that people will choose to take decisive action.
The cause of the lamentably listless attitude to climate change finds its roots not in the denial of the reality of climate change itself, but in an acknowledgement of the true nature of international politics and economies.