Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The climate mitigation gap: Malthusian researchers miss the most effective individual actions

The last days have made it very difficult to stay away from the Internet. First, there was David Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”. And then today, Environmental Research Letters published an article on individual actions to fight climate change. In both cases, we are clearly talking about people who only see one side of these issues.

At the most fundamental level it is about whether we view other humans as a liability or part of the solution. However, once you venture sufficiently deep into the Malthusian mist, it is doubtful if debate is even meaningful. But to make some very obvious points I should say that the single most effective individual action one can do to fight climate change is to contribute, be it politically or scientifically, towards solutions that can actually stop it. Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen have calculated that global nuclear power has historically prevented 60+ gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions and close to two million air pollution-related deaths. These gains are now in jeopardy everywhere from Korea to France. Thus, to stop spreading anti-nuclear propaganda on the Internet may quickly dwarf all other possible individual actions with regards to climate mitigation.

Similarly, to make a more positive argument, accelerating the rate of technological innovation, either directly through research or by promoting broad social investments so that the long-term growth rate of the economy will go up, seems like the most important thing one can do if one is really concerned about climate change. For a technologically mature human civilization, solving climate change may be surprisingly simple. Yet, in a divided world dominated by anti-technological thinking, resource conflicts and “localism”, it may be impossible to weather the storms that are already brewing thanks to historic cumulative emissions. It is for instance worth remembering that, even if all emissions were stop today, significant sea level rise will happen, especially after 2100.

The only thing that will ultimately protect humanity, and the planet, is if we accelerate the transition to a world in which everyone can live a prosperous life with equal opportunities. As I argued in the journal Globalizations last year, keeping the poor in poverty is not a solution.

And then, we have the tactics. How often have I not read this?

The problem with this view, even it happens to make sense among some super-privileged academics, is that it is a political nonstarter, especially at a time when large cohorts are retiring in the OECD countries. Sustained growth is crucial not only to meet the expectations in retirement income that these people have but also to enable the kind of risk-taking necessary to finance public innovation into breakthrough technologies (moreover, economic growth is deeply entrenched at the micro-level, as Branko Milanovic points out in this excellent post). Failure to deliver on growth, be it due to rising inequality or deliberate “degrowth”, would lead to political strife of a magnitude that will make Donald Trump or Le Pen seem highly moderate. Okay, rant over, time to take care of the kids!

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Blogger Dominic Roser said...

Agree so much on most points!

I was actually thinking of posting smth similar but then thought that it might also have to do with the imprecision of the label "individual action". I guess what they have in mind might not be individual action per se (in the sense in which all action is ultimately individual action), but -- hm, how to say -- "direct" individual action, i.e. action which brings about emission reductions WITHOUT bringing about legal change or a change in the technological infrastructure of society.

And, of course, such "direct" individual action is nothing bad -- to the contrary. And insofar as it is something good, it is crucial that people learn to distinguish between effective and ineffective actions.

Still, regardless of how the label "individual action" is precisely understood, I agree so much with the substance of your post. I think it's crucial that we turn away from focusing on the kind of actions that the paper analyzes (small direct uncoordinated behavioural changes). Rather, we need to focus on how we can individually contribute to technological progress leading to breakthroughs (and to political coordination).

11:38 pm  
Blogger Rasmus Karlsson said...

Thanks for your comment! Just to clarify, I should say that I am not in any way against individual actions or "lifestyle environmentalism", for instance I love biking. But, and this is important I think, we should be careful not to fall victim to some kind of banal methodological individualism. A classic example would be someone putting solar panels on their roof without giving much thought to the energy needed to build the house in the first place or producing all consumer goods within it...

6:46 am  

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