The Climate Is Too-Big-to-Fail

How is it that we really do care about too-big-to-fail banks and largely embrace the sacrifice-laden efforts of governments to bail them out, but apparently don’t care enough about our too-big-to-fail climate system to accept personal and collective sacrifices needed to “bail it out”, i.e. to keep catastrophic climate change at bay? Well, this is a question psychologists and sociologists are better suited and trained to answer than I am. Instead, I would like to sacrifice a few minutes of my spare time in an attempt to sketch the consequences of the fact that our climatic system is too-big-to-fail in conjunction with the fact that we have not really cared to stop dangerously interfering with it so far.

How long to have we known that climate is changing and that we are responsible for that? First hints at the possibility of the latter were given, indeed, by Svante Arrhenius, one of the fathers of modern chemistry, as early as in the end of 19th century. The observation that the Earth is warming and first suggestions that we are those responsible can be traced back to the 60’s at the very latest. In 1990, the year the first IPCC Assessment Report was issued, all controversies of the scientific kind had arguably been resolved. The message was clear: due to human activity, mainly fossil fuels burning, the Earth is getting warmer at as pace unprecedented in its (geologically) recent history. Accordingly, in 1994 the Kyoto Protocol was signed by the world community – not a perfect accord, admittedly, but much better than nothing and an active acceptance of the political, social and economic consequences of the scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change. Still, the Kyoto Protocol would have been even more valuable, had it been ratified by the U.S. It wasn’t, and it expires this year, we have no follow-up, not to speak of something that would live up to the severity of the problem today – you know the story.

However, I still have some hope that at some point in the near future humanity will wake up and realize that we only have one planet, one climatic system that is (still) suitable for us and that we critically depend on – shortly, that our climate is too-big-to-fail, much more indeed than any bloody bank. When we finally realize that (hopefully it will not be too late), the pace of changes in human systems will have to even much, much faster than that of the changes in natural systems that we have induced.

So, what is needed to save the too-big-to-fail climate system, given that we are very late at that? The following list of prescriptions doesn’t contain anything new and revolutionary, which nevertheless does not prevent it from being, at least partly, controversial:

  • Sufficiency: some think that the climate problem can be solved by applying technology only. I don’t believe that. Rather, it appears to me to be a problem of the sort discussed by Garrett Hardin in his famous Tragedy of the Commons – one that does not have a (purely) technological solution. If we really want to limit the severity of climate change (there is no chance to stop it in a meaningful sense), we have to start by changing much of the way we live – from our food choices through our travel and commuting behaviour to the frequency with which we buy new life-style products. I call this strategy sufficiency. It is no panacea on its own, but with high probability sufficiency is a necessary condition in our attempt to “bail the climate system out”.
  • Energy efficiency: many environmental NGOs (including e.g. Greenpeace) believe that energy efficiency is key to our success or failure in tackling climate change. They are probably right. The fact is that we waste energy at all levels – from the household level (think of all the discussion around EU’s prohibition of incandescent light bulbs) to the production and power generation level. Much could be done in this field by setting the right economic incentives (e.g. by increasing taxes on gasoline and private cars depending on their CO2 emissions), educating the public (in the end, most energy-saving measures are also cost-saving in the middle- to long-term), correcting legal regulations (e.g. construction standards) and investing in R&D of new solutions to our old problems.
  • Renewable energies: this certainly is a conditio sine qua non of our climate-saving effort. There are many possible sources of renewable/clean energy, both decentralized (particularly solar, wind) and centralized, capable of base-load (hydro, tidal, solar thermal, geothermal and biomass). They can provide a large part of our energy in the future – provided we find practical ways to store the energy, which we still have not. But renewable energies are not completely unproblematic, even if we assume that viable storage technologies will be developed soon. Some of them are themselves still being in development (solar thermal, tidal, geothermal). Others have a rather low energy per area ratio (wind and solar), which is problematic given the overall pressures on land due to population growth. Biomass also has to be handled with care to prevent what is currently being the case quite often, particularly with regard to the so-called biofuels (bioethanol and biodiesel): that we are burning food. Renewable energy is the core of any solution to the climate problem. But it is not as simple and straightforward a solution as suggested by Greenpeace & Co.
  • Nuclear energy: I opposed nuclear energy as a solution to anything for a long time (see e.g. here). However, recently I saw myself forced to change my stance. I still don’t embrace nuclear energy as being “clean” – but, just as an increasing number of environmentalists does (e.g. Fred Pearce of Yale360 and George Monbiot of The Guardian), I don’t see any viable scenario to tackle climate change without at least some nuke, as I recently explained here.
  • CCS: another no-go technology for most of the environmental movement. Just as they do, I oppose retrofitting of fossil fuel burning power stations with Carbon Capture and Storage, not to speak building new ones. Also, I still doubt the viability to apply this technology at a meaningful scale due to the lack of potential safe storage facilities. Nevertheless, as suggested by the distinguished climate scientist James Hansen, we may be unable to forego this alternative in the future if climate sensitivity should prove to be higher than conventional estimates. Then, the only possibility to keep climate change limited may actually be negative emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g. by combining biomass burning with CCS). We should not parochially ignore this possibility.
  • Geo-engineering: I am highly sceptical toward geo-engineering. I think many of the proposed solutions to climate change from this field are absurd. But, again: we may be forced to apply some of them, whether we want or not. Again, geo-engineering may be just another “lesser evil”, necessary only because we haven’t been able to act when time was to.

As I stated in the beginning: this list is not uncontroversial. Indeed, I don’t know of anybody who would embrace all solutions I proposed (nor do I). But the longer we wait, the higher the probability that we will need all of them. We have to realize that, given how much of our livelihood critically depends on a stable climatic system, our climate is just too-big-to-fail.

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One thought on “The Climate Is Too-Big-to-Fail

  1. Amazingly, America already has the technology and creative minds necessary to ensure future growth and more jobs, without treating Earth like a battered ATM card. We can tackle this problem, like we’ve tackled every other problem in our nation’s history. But do we have the political will? Our political system is broken, utterly incapable of dealing with long-term threats. Compromise is seen as weakness; our natural resources put at risk by political paralysis. Will getting serious about climate change require a third political party: a pro-jobs, pro-clean-energy Common Sense Moderate Middle – to prove that America can move forward and thrive, without trashing the land and air we value? Perhaps.

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