Humanity in the face of Climate Change: Dead Man Walking?

Every year, The Economist publishes a special “The World IF” supplement which provides a fast forward into a yet to create, but plausible, future. For example, this year’s supplement pondered the consequences of a successful implementation of Emmanuel Macron’s reforms in France, reflected on the spread of a Universal Basic Income, or discussed the mayhem that might have been avoided, had the Ottoman Empire not collapsed. It did not, however, discuss any scenario even remotely related to the Earth’s Climate.

Never mind, The New York Magazine filled the gap. In its article The Uninhabitable Earth, David-Wallace Wells carried out a thought experiment that purposely emphasised worst case climate scenarios. The picture is unsurprisingly gloomy, if not frightening: in short, human life as we know it will have disappeared by 2100. In comparison to Humanity’s history, this means tomorrow.

This article comes after the publication, in recent months, of a series of reports and scientific papers pointing at some alarming developments as well as the increased likelihood of some of the most catastrophic scenarios. Among them, a study published in Environmental Research Letters indicates that peak summer temperatures could reach 50C in some parts of France if GHG emissions continue to go unchecked. Another claims that New York City could face temperatures as high as present day Bahrain. A third by Elfatih Eltahir and colleagues at MIT, published in Science Advances, pointed at the increased likelihood of deadly heatwaves in South Asia, in a business as usual scenario.

To be sure, these studies should not all be taken at face value, for, first, there are great uncertainties surrounding them and, second, a no action scenario is unlikely. Yet, as Wells’ article highlights with great mastery, feeling the heat might well be the least of our worries and it is clear that the world is not doing enough, as yet. Hence those studies remain extremely valuable in that they help picturing a most unpalatable state of the world and can help to rationalise present day action.

Alas, just as the dozens published before them, these went mostly unnoticed by the wider public. But there is, in this respect, something increasingly troubling and incoherent.

First, when the concerns about the effects of GHG accumulation on Global Mean Temperature – and likely adverse economic consequences – first emerged, “doing nothing” was considered as a legitimate option (Barbier & Pierce, 1990). To put it in Ted Nordhaus’ terms, one of the most respected figures in the economics of Climate Change, “[at the time], the best investment to ameliorate the CO2 problem [was] probably to expand our CO2 knowledge”. Roughly a quarter of a century later, substantial investment has gone into the expansion of that knowledge. Our understanding is now much, much clearer, whatever the climate-sceptics and other opportunists might say.

Second, inaction on the part of current generations becomes increasingly time-inconsistent. For a long time, another powerful driver behind climate inaction has been that living generations would refuse to (radically) alter their ways of living (and incur the related cost) to the benefit of future unborn generations. They were somehow lead to believe that they had an unalienable entitlement to their current living standards, even if it should jeopardise that of future generations. Only a form of altruism towards the latter could prompt action on the part of living cohorts. But as it becomes increasingly clear that some (damaging) effects of climate change will be felt within my (our) generation’s lifetime, it is ever more difficult to rationalise inaction on the grounds of self-interest.

Hence two powerful (albeit ethically questionable) rationales for inaction have had their day. For those generations born in an era of full climate change awareness and bound to experience some of its consequences, adopting the same consumption patterns and behaviours as their predecessors is waging a war against themselves. It is waging a war against their own, current and future, enjoyments.

Unfortunately, as Niall Ferguson, the Harvard Historian, once put it: “we are at war and we are winning it”. The list of Climate Change related environmental damages (and diminished human enjoyment, provided you care about the recreational and life-supporting value of Nature) is already long. Gone is the time where one would dive off the coast of Australia to explore the wonders of the Great Coral Reef; gone, as well, are breath-taking hikes in some of the most pristine places of the world, now regularly ravaged by wildfires.[1]

If you think that this sounds a bit too nostalgic to fit into a rational approach to the issue, think again. True, nostalgia is not the best of counsellors: our ability to return to past places and revive old memories, instants, snapshots of life, is anyway limited by the passing of time, which alters the reality we experience. But there are always some parts of that reality that remain and such experiences which we hope to reiterate in a near future. Climate Change has the capacity to alter that reality in radical ways, stretching our psychological adaptation capacities and imposing stringent constraints on our ability to enjoy what we cherish most.[2]

Hence, from the perspective of my generation, the consequences of Climate Change have been brought much closer, both in space and time. The legitimate question is then: why still so passive? I believe that there are two phenomena at play.

First, there are a series of potential explanations pertaining to human nature.

  1. (Really) high discount rate: humans care much about their present consumption habits, ways of life, and (very) little about their future consumption;
  2. Weak credibility of scientific consensus: no such thing as human-induced climate change exist or doomsday scenarios will not materialise;
  3. Stark psychological flaws: humans are fundamentally unable to conceive of the possibility of large future shocks.

Given the overwhelming macroeconomic evidence that human beings optimise their lifetime consumption, I would be surprised if the first motive bore any significance. Rather, I would be inclined to believe that the root of the problem lies with 2 and 3.

Second, there is also a cultural explanation to the present situation. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, which supports most of the Western World’s value-system, assumes that Humanity can (and should) domesticate nature. Besides, it assumes that there is barely any limit to its ability to engineer its way into the future and cope with the (unintended) consequences of its Modernity.

This is an arrogant and potentially deadly misrepresentation of the reality: arrogant because human beings only deal with such consequences that have direct and immediate implications for themselves and potentially deadly because of the unparalleled time lag between causes and consequences in the World’s Global Mean Temperature patterns.

So where to look for solutions? I do not deny that a large part of the answer will be technological; but technological change won’t come soon enough if the need for change is not duly acknowledged. In that respect, the above discussion suggests two potent ways forward. First, we ought to work towards a change in the public representation of Climate Change and make clear(er) that it will have material effects within one’s lifetime. The closer to that view we bring individuals’ perception of the CO2 problem, the more likely they are to understand the necessity of change. Second, such transformation would be greatly enhanced by a change in personal and social ethics that would see Mankind do away with its veil of arrogance.

Given the inertia that characterises human behaviour, this will be a challenge. But I like to believe that it will be precisely that, a challenge, not an insurmountable task. And unlike previous generations, we have no excuse not face it: we are aware of it and we will live through its consequences.

In a way, our current predicament reminds me of two Hollywood blockbusters: “Dead Man Walking” and “The Others”. In the former, Sean Penn faces a death sentence and runs against the clock to prove his innocence; in the latter, Nicole Kidman, living with her two photosensitive children, is convinced that her house is haunted – until one realises that they are dead and haunting the house.

There is a chance that we are like Sean Penn, facing a death sentence but with the possibility to prove our innocence and escape it, eventually. But for this scenario to materialise, we should at least show some commitment to proving our innocence. Until that happens, it is far more likely that we will end up like Nicole: dead before we know it.

[1] Moreover, as a recent report by 13 US Federal Agencies points out, several effects of Climate Change are already unfolding across the US territory.

[2] This is not to mention the impact it might have on our capacity to satisfy our most basic needs.