Paying lip service to global warming

Almost three in four Americans now believe global warming is happening while also acknowledging the personal importance of the issue, according to a recent report published by researchers in the field of climate change communication.

While I applaud the increasing prominence of global warming in the minds of Americans, this is a Pyrrhic victory. I doubt they will be willing to change their profoundly unsustainable lifestyles to start footing the heavy bill of climate change.

Having less of 5% of world population, Americans consume roughly a quarter of all major industrial inputs, such as oil, coal, aluminum and copper. In a country where obesity is epidemic and more than 70% of the adult population are overweight, consumption of sugar and almost everything else in the fattening domain is the highest in the world. Massive amounts of food waste are also a staple in American households.

It is a nation infatuated with individual transportation. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions are twice the figures for comparable countries. Wealth, on the other hand, does not mean happiness: America keeps falling in the World Happiness Report, ranking a modest 18th position in 2018.

The list could go on and on, but the reader gets the point. People claiming they care about global warming while engaging in the very behaviors that cause it in the first place – behaviors that also do not make them happier or healthier. In other words, the American lifestyle – and the highly engineered ecosystem of consumption that promotes it – is simply incongruent with Americans’ attitudes on climate change.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”, the famous Mike Tyson’s quotation applies here. When push comes to shove, I suspect people will not accept the sacrifices required to address the root problem. Which is not climate change.

The most underrated skill in management, but arguably the most important one, is the clear articulation of the real problem at stake. The problem here is not global warming or climate change. These are symptoms. The actual problem is overconsumption of Earth’s resources.

The hope is in the air and its name is technology. We are fooling ourselves though. Even the so-called renewable energy depends on non-renewable materials, such as lithium, with proven reserves of only a few decades. “Clean” energy will mitigate the major symptom but it is only a detour to avoid addressing the underlying problem.

Technology is not alone in the repertoire of illusory solutions – indeed, we seem to have a penchant for inefficacious remedies. Another delusional path is that of green or “sustainable” businesses. Often, it only fuels the supply of excuses to consume more. There is no shortage of good pretexts for that – from cause-related marketing to the promotion of recycling.

Ironically, there seems to be widespread belief in Western societies that a new era is coming when businesses will suddenly harmonize with the environment in a magical circular economy. They will not.

These “solutions” – or illusions – only reinforce the real problem. Without a clear understanding of what causes what, they are simply another cog in the major engine that is driving the world towards the abyss.

Back to the actual problem. Will people – before is too late – accept the idea of giving up their cars, their lifestyle or even pay heavier taxes? I doubt it. According to the Norwegian researcher Jørgen Randers (one of the names behind the classic book Limits to Growth), Norway had the opportunity to clean most of its economy about ten years ago, but it rejected a plan that would imply a very small increase in taxes to do that.

What happened in Norway is suggestive, considering it is a much more eco-friendly society than America.

The needle is not moving. Meanwhile, other symptoms besides global warming are getting worse. There is accumulation of micro and nanoplastics in our bodies and cells, with unknown long-term effects; there is accumulation of pesticides in food chains; there is destruction of ecosystems.

The remedy for overconsumption is very bitter to swallow. Nonetheless, it will continue to have slim chances of adoption if people keep getting the wrong diagnosis all the time.