A wake-up call theory of climate change

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Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Recently within a week of each other China and Europe intensified their commitments on climate change. China surprisingly pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. Europe undertook new legislation to increase its 2030 emission reduction target to 55%, up from 40%.

At the same time the United States remains on track to leave the Paris Agreement. Ironically, the government calls its policy “America First”. But it is governments that act on climate change that better serve their national interests.

To understand why, it is necessary to distinguish between two ways to see climate change.

One view all too common is of climate change as an isolated problem competing for limited societal resources. This perspective is at the core of the U.S.’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. It is also how the issue is treated in basic economics: as an externality in an otherwise optimally functioning system. This framing presupposes that addressing climate change requires sacrifice. It predisposes us to focus on how much it will cost to solve and who will pay.

A better way to see climate change is as a wake-up call. This perspective asks us to reconsider whether the status quo is serving us well in the first place. Are the practices that have led to this moment ones we actually want to continue?

Investigating these question reveals that a low-carbon future is preferable with or without climate change. In many ways, the climate crisis is an opportunity to make changes we know are better for us but have put off for too long.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik served as a similar wake-up call to Americans. The event signified the nation was losing the space race, falling behind in science, and exposing itself to national security threats like none before.

The following year, the U.S. founded NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and proceeded to dramatically increase science funding. These decisions not only won the space race, but also contributed to numerous technological advances, including GPS, personal computers, and the internet.

Today the climate crisis represents another opportunity to accelerate innovation. Rising to the challenge would not only mitigate climate change but also create scientific capital with long-lasting benefits. Research broadly suggests that innovation is the single largest contributor to economic growth, so climate policy may boost, rather than reduce, GDP.

The wisdom of the status quo becomes questionable when we consider it through the lens of technological development. Research in this area shows the prominence of fossil fuels has less to do with their desirability than we might otherwise assume and a lot to do with path dependence and network effects. As a result, these old energy sources remain entrenched even though modern alternatives are in many ways superior, a particularly harmful version of the Qwerty Syndrome.

The climate crisis is an opportunity to break such societal habits. Doing so is likely to confer a multitude of benefits.

Switching from coal and gas to wind and solar eliminates the many harmful side effects of the fossil fuel industry. Chief among these is air pollution which is associated with a host of diseases in children and adults, and millions of premature deaths every year. My research, as well as work by other scientists, shows that the benefits of clean air alone justify a transition toward renewables.

A cleaner grid could also reduce consumer bills as a number of recent studies show. This is because clean energy resources such as renewables and energy storage technologies are getting continually cheaper, far more so than traditional technologies. Getting the last bits of carbon out of the system does present a challenge but one which is surmountable.

Financial opportunity also lies in improving the energy efficiency of our homes and cars. California provides a historical example in this regard. The state responded to the 1970s energy crises by enacting smart policy that continues to pay off today.

Electric vehicles and home appliances draw their energy from the grid, which is inherently local. Freedom from fossil fuels decreases dependence on imports and insulates consumers from the volatility of fuel prices. A recent analysis also found that new all-electric homes are cheaper than building with natural gas.

The advantages of a low-carbon economy go beyond energy. Pedestrian-friendly streets promise healthier, thriving urban environments. A low-carbon diet is also healthier. So is more frequent bicycling and walking.

Protecting natural areas is likely to reduce the risk of pandemics like COVID-19. It also preserves “ecosystem services” on which we rely for water purification, erosion control, and dependable precipitation patterns.

How we frame climate change matters. Seeing it as a problem casts the present moment as a tragedy of the commons, which incentivizes countries to maintain course and free ride on efforts by others.

But seeing it as an opportunity turns the commons problem on its head. It shows countries have much to gain from being early movers.

A race is ongoing to determine the winners of the future clean economy. The current U.S. government is trying very hard to lose it.

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