According to the latest UN report on climate change, the world has 12 years to avoid catastrophe. Unfortunately, according to Behavioural Economics, humans aren’t hardwired to think long-term. Basically, our brains aren’t very good at assessing the risks. The irony would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high. So, how bad is it?
The record is not encouraging. It took decades just to get skeptical politicians to admit that climate change is real and man-made, especially those on the right. (Donald Trump still doubts it.) In Canada, all federal and provincial parties now accept this and even agree on the need to reduce GHG emissions. They are far less inclined to commit to serious action.
Take the federal Conservatives. They say they’re working on “a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 emissions,” which certainly sounds promising; but Andrew Sheer also warns that the goals can and will be achieved without putting a price on carbon.
William Nordhaus, on the other hand, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of climate change, shows why a carbon tax is essential. Are we to believe the Conservatives have found an ingenious way around these problems? We’ll see.
In the meantime, let’s just say that you can’t trick nature. And the UN report is clear on what it will take to stave off disaster: Global temperatures can’t rise more than 1.5 degrees; and to achieve that, countries will have to meet or exceed the most ambitious goals in the Paris Agreement.
Whatever some politicians say, these are the standards for success and meeting them will take an extraordinary effort. In democracies like our own, leaders will need to get voter buy-in. Will they get it? Will they even try?
It’s a key question. Politicians, after all, are built the same way as the rest of us: whether on the left or right, most are short-term thinkers who will dedicate themselves to serious long-term action only if it produces a quick win, that is, votes. So, is the public ready to support serious action?
Maybe. People like me may be the canaries in the coal mine. I’ve accepted that climate change is real and man-made for a long time, but I was never inclined to do much about it. It always seemed remote, like someone else’s issue. Last week’s UN report apparently flipped a switch in my head.
I find I’m now focused on the consequences in a new way – mainly because of the 12-year deadline. For the first time, it all seems real. It’s like the space in my brain between short- and long-term thinking just shrank – and I guess it did.
Others, I suspect, feel the same. And that is what they’re telling me. So, has the gap between present and future suddenly become small enough to change people’s views on climate change? Let’s consider three key points.
First, an overwhelming majority of scientists – NASA puts it at 97 per cent – now agree on the basics of climate change. Their research is increasingly reliable, detailed, and specific. And it grows daily.
Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are becoming visible, from the melting polar ice cap to record-breaking hurricanes, which, in turn, makes the longer-term consequences feel more real. These include the extinction of thousands of species, rising sea levels and flooding of coastal regions, crop failure, and drought.
And then there’s the secondary effects, such as mass migration, which will occur on a frightening scale, with all the attendant social problems, from crime and poverty to racial tensions and political unrest.
Finally, the meaning of “longer-term” has been increasingly revised downward: the window is now expected to close in just 12 years.
Second, as the evidence becomes clearer, so does the irony of our inaction. The reflex to opt for short- over long-term decisions may have served us well in the wilds, but in a technologically sophisticated, global society, it has become a severe learning disability that diverts our attention from the catastrophe staring us in the face. How much longer can we ignore the facts?
Third, while many of us are unwilling to take the steps to stave off disaster, we may be willing to take a leap of faith for our children. Parents are hardwired to think long-term about their offspring. Perhaps we can do a better job of leveraging this trait to motivate people on climate change.
I want to believe that these three points (and there are others) can change people’s minds. In this hopeful view, it is the skeptics who are running out of time, as the evidence for climate change mounts around us.
Indeed, the UN report should be bringing this debate to a quick end. Faced with a 12-year deadline and calamitous consequences, people ought to be tossing out the skeptics’ arguments. But many won’t. They will cling to the belief that things really aren’t that bad or that urgent.
Well, that may be what our brains are telling us, but the science says otherwise. To stave off disaster, many of these same people must wrap their minds around the facts and rally to the cause. That will take political leadership – and real political risk. But if governments care about their citizens, the planet, and the thousands of other species who inhabit it, they will pull out all the stops to make this happen.
For starters, they should roll out the biggest artillery Big Science has to offer, then use it to explode the idea, once for all, that we can still afford to be incremental in our approach. The public also needs to hear more about how our psychology shapes long-term thinking and how this is influencing the debate over climate change.
Would this change any minds? I think a breakthrough on climate change is near – I certainly hope it is. But I don’t know what it will take to get us there, beyond committed leadership, honesty, and a willingness to trust the science. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and the public needs to be engaged and informed. So far, I don’t see a better plan.