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Why we drag our feet when it comes to climate change

While the crisis between Russia and Ukraine captures our attention, an even more pressing issue draws only apathy and timidity

Climate change
An oil refinery in Rodeo, California.Rich Pedroncelli (AP)
Moisés Naím

As images of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine grab headlines, the United States Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has published an important report. Its main conclusion is that, in the next 30 years, sea levels along the US coast will rise as much as they did during the entire 20th century. To put that into context, consider that in the last 100 years sea levels rose faster than in the previous 2,000 years. Another fact: 40% of Americans live in coastal areas, and a significant portion of the country’s economic activity occurs therein. It’s a global problem and, of course, the rise in sea levels is just one of the many manifestations of climate change.

So why is it taking so long for humanity to deal effectively with a crisis that could end civilization as we know it? Why do politicians fail to make the necessary decisions to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the gas that contributes most to global warming?

One possible explanation is the sense of powerlessness. After all, what can a normal citizen do to prevent rising sea levels or the droughts, floods and forest fires that are becoming increasingly frequent, destructive and lethal?

It is a task that requires that multiple governments coordinate their policies on a large scale. And while it may seem that there is little that individuals can do, they can have a big impact, collectively, by electing politicians who will mobilize society and build support for the difficult decisions that must be made to contain the climate emergency. The task at hand is unprecedented, but with enough political will, strong popular support and new technology, it can become a reality.

Unfortunately, popular support for these tough decisions is often undermined by the sense of powerlessness that grips us as we consider the scale of the problem, and meditate on the confusion surrounding possible solutions. Is the threat as serious as they make it out to be? Are the proposed remedies correct? Can the experts be trusted?

The duality between tangible costs now and hypothetical benefits in the future makes it politically difficult to stomach the measures that tackling climate change requires

These are valid questions. But, in some cases, all they do is muddy the waters. Skepticism and confusion about how to deal with the problem have been made worse by the politicization of the issue by those who benefit from the status quo. Two researchers, Doug Koplow and Ronald Steenblik, have just published a study showing that governments that say they are doing their best to reduce their CO2 emissions are, at the same time, spending $1.8 trillion (€1.59 million), or 2% of global gross domestic product (GDP), to subsidize the very industries that contribute most to climate change: coal, oil, gas and agriculture.

Large companies know how to shield themselves against initiatives that threaten their profitability. Decades ago, the tobacco industry funded so-called “experts” and research centers that questioned the link between tobacco use and cancer. For years, they managed to postpone the government’s acceptance of what had long since been a scientifically proven fact. Tens of thousands of smokers lost their lives in the interim.

Oil companies also finance skeptics who question the global climate emergency. In 2019, ExxonMobil paid $690,000 (€608,000) to eight groups of activists and scientists who deny the crisis. In addition, the company continues to fund US lawmakers who oppose the adoption of a carbon excise tax, an initiative that ExxonMobil publicly supports.

Another difficult obstacle to overcome in the attempt to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable for us is the paucity of intergenerational solidarity. “I don’t care, I’m not going to be here when the catastrophic climate crisis comes.” It’s a comment we’ve all heard. In fairness, it can be said that this lack of interest in the health of the planet that our descendants will inherit is also fueled by the lack of a clear political consensus about what to do.

The solutions currently available, such as the elimination of subsidies for highly polluting companies or the payment of a carbon-consumption tax, would raise the cost of electricity, gasoline, heating and, therefore, of many manufactured products. These increased costs are immediate and concrete. On the other hand, the benefits promised by solutions to global warming are long term and difficult to quantify and guarantee. It’s just a bet. This duality between tangible costs now and hypothetical benefits in the future makes it politically difficult to stomach the measures that tackling climate change requires.

New energy technologies currently in the pipeline will surely help us fight the climate emergency. But technology alone will not be enough to fix the problem. We will also need major innovations in the way we govern ourselves.

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