Why we’re so useless at cutting carbon

Dave Olsen
Dec 31, 2018 · 4 min read

If our success in mitigating climate change relies upon understanding it, our success must also rely upon our understanding of why we have been so bad at combatting it so far. We are partially in denial, as this piece in the New York Magazine highlights, but there are other key reasons, like a lack of technology (or cheap technology), obsession with economics, and political will to act. Here’s a look into some of them.


When I say we are in denial, I mean not that we don’t believe, but that we aren’t willing to accept the reality or our duties. That’s because, to take the analysis of the linked article further, the model of climate change that we understand is so far removed from day-to-day reality. Take this as a basic model:

  • humans emit lots of carbon dioxide
  • this carbon goes into the atmosphere and contributes to the enhanced greenhouse effect
  • this means more heat is trapped within the atmosphere, warming the planet up

The problem with this model is that it is so abstract, and hardly connects to our daily lives at all. The idea of the greenhouse effect is something that we can comprehend, but never have an innate understanding of. It’s not a tangible thing, like the cars or the power plants at the start of the process, nor an interaction or emotion.

When something doesn’t fall into one of these two categories, it is very hard for us as individuals to interact with, and so we feel disconnected from it. The same could be said for black holes, or atoms, interstellar travel. It is simply too far removed from regular life for us to truly feel connected.

With black holes, atoms, or interstellar travel, however, that doesn’t matter. They don’t appear to threaten our survival, so we don’t have to develop that innate understanding. But with climate change, nothing could be further from the truth.

There isn’t a solution here, per se, although we can think differently: about the things we do and use in our daily lives, rather than the effect they contribute to. This has already started, with many people singling out agriculture and going veggie, or thinking about cars and instead using public transport, or looking at energy and installing solar panels. Politicians too, are beginning to realise, with energy targets and the phasing out of fossil fuels being public policies all over the world.

But for as long as we see climate change being presented to us by scientists and over-simplified models, we cannot really move past the problem of its intangibility. Climate change is big and scary when presented as a scientific model, but when we’re told to reduce waste, use cars less, and eat less meat, it’s a lot easier. Think less, do more.

The lack of technology is an interesting one. As I highlighted earlier, for a while, the statement “the technology to mitigate climate change doesn’t exist” was probably true. Now, however, that is invalid: it is only the “cheap technology” that doesn’t exist.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) looks incredibly promising, but only a few trials are being held, on a small scale, due to the current expense. But that links into the next point: obsession with economics and growth.

Climate change won’t stop for global capitalism, and the only way to really mitigate it is to ignore global capitalism and hope it’ll be fine. CCS may be expensive, but we really should be testing it on a much larger scale by now. Equally, oil may be incredibly valuable, but renewables should be the energy of the day.

I have written before about how renewables will, albeit with an initial bump, only benefit the economy and our collective wealth. (It will probably be the case that the countries most protective of their oil and gas will lose out the most from the inevitable switch — not because of their prosperity resulting from oil, but because of their unwillingness to switch early.)

We shouldn’t worry about our economy whilst pursuing environmental sustainability — not just because the latter is of greater magnitude, but also because we will likely benefit in the long-term regardless.

The political will, or lack thereof, takes two forms: the complete obstruction in countries such as Brazil, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and the slow approach of many other western countries, such as the UK.

The former is always going to be a problem in the fight against climate change, but the latter is unacceptable and unnecessary. The UK has started to act more so is the past couple of years due to the reformist Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, but it falls behind when compared to Germany or France.

That is the story in far too many countries — although it appears it is becoming less and less common, at least in the developed world.

As ever, individuals have a duty, politicians have a duty, and diplomats have a duty. All three are falling short of fulfilling said duty at present, and the reasons why are clear. But we know these reasons, really, so what’s stopping us from making the changes necessary? What’s stopping you?

Dave Olsen

Written by

Politics nerd, policy wonk | Founder, medium.com/politics-fast-and-slow | Editor, politika.org.uk | twitter.com/dave_olsen16 | Policy Paper: https://rb.gy/7coyj

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Dave Olsen

Written by

Politics nerd, policy wonk | Founder, medium.com/politics-fast-and-slow | Editor, politika.org.uk | twitter.com/dave_olsen16 | Policy Paper: https://rb.gy/7coyj

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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