Fox Glacier. Photo: Getty

Step one: accept people don’t, and may never, give a toss about climate change

The political process is not working, the public doesn’t care and may never do so. So where does that leave us, asks Danyl Mclauchlan

There’s this science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi called The Water Knife, and of all the possible climate change futures its is the most bleakly realistic. It’s set in the American southwest in the late 21st century. The region is devastated by drought: entire cities have been depopulated, former residents are flooding into refugee camps in the tens of millions; total social and economic collapse. And the world’s response to all this is … nothing. Nobody has woken up to the reality of climate change. There is no global action; no emissions reduction, no carbon capture or “geoengineering”, no urgent, last-ditch effort to reform the political or economic system. A few million people are doomed but for everyone else life goes on. Just business as usual.

The people whose lives have been devastated have no agency – they’re now unpropertied refugees – so the political system is completely indifferent to them. The wealthy and middle-class in the rest of the US are largely unaffected: their priority is to prevent refugees from entering their states and straining the infrastructure; corporations, politicians, lawyers and private armies fight each other over water rights because water is now the world’s most valuable commodity.

It feels like that’s the world we’re heading towards because it’s the world we live in today, only more so. Like Charlie Mitchell over at Fairfax I was struck by the juxtaposition of the prime minister talking about lower fuel prices on the same day the new IPCC Special Report on global warming emphasised the massive damage caused by fuel emissions and the urgent need to take very drastic action to reduce them.

One of the things the IPCC report makes clear is that we’re already living in the climate changed future. The world has warmed by one degree since the beginning of the industrial revolution and this is causing storm surges, fiercer droughts, stronger hurricanes, heat waves; intensifying extreme weather events all around the world, causing massive economic damage and political instability. So if we want to see how our politicians will cope with the problem of climate change in the future, all we need to do is see how what they’re doing now. And … it’s not quite nothing, at least in New Zealand: there’s the oil and gas exploration ban, the carbon commission, the Carbon Zero bill. But, realistically, it’s not even close to what’s needed.

I don’t think this is the fault of our political class or the media, who are the usual scapegoats in this debate. Even the energy industry and its lobbyists – who are, to be sure, literally destroying the world – are only doing what powerful interests have always done, and will always do: defend their own wealth and privilege, deluding themselves into believing they’re on the right side of history by defending society against a malevolent conspiracy of climatologists. The core problem is much deeper and harder to fix: it’s that not many people care about climate change.

When climate scientists build models and make predictions they often use a tool called “Bayesian inference”. This is a very powerful statistical approach to problem solving, common across the physical and social sciences. A Bayesian approach assumes two things about the world: (1) things are complicated and (2) it’s easy to fool ourselves. So when you’re building a predictive model to forecast climate – or an economy or any other complex system – you need to explicitly state all of your assumptions and test them to see if they’re valid.

A climatologist might predict, for example, that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will increase by a certain amount over the next year and that this will cause a certain amount of warming, or ocean acidification, or glacial retreat, or increase in hurricane intensity, or whatever, based on their prior assumptions about how these physical systems interact.

And then they see what happens. If the predictions are correct then their assumptions might have some validity. They make more precise predictions and fine tune their model. If they’re wrong – and science is mostly about being wrong and trying to figure out why – then they “update their priors”. They change their theories or assumptions and collect more data until they eventually start getting things right.

One of the priors that climate scientists, environmentalists, left-wing politicians and NGOs have assumed over the last few decades is that people will care about climate change. That at some point the prospect of massive global carnage, flooded cities, millions dead, with the droughts and the famines and the mass extinctions, will engage the public if they’re properly informed, and this will create political pressure and incentivise politicians to implement policies to transition to low carbon economies.

That was a very reasonable assumption which, unfortunately, seems to be wrong. Even though the environmental movement won the “debate” about whether climate change was even real, people still don’t click on climate change stories; environmental groups don’t raise much money from climate change campaigns: very few people in liberal democracies switch votes based on climate policy.

This means that even politicians who want to take action on climate change – and I believe that our current prime minister is in this category – have an incredibly narrow window in which to manoeuvre – because the energy industry cares very deeply about climate policy, cares very deeply about killing any chance of reducing emissions or imposing costs that might impact their profits.

Progressive politicians are trapped in this space between a rich, powerful industry and overwhelming public apathy. They could be brave and make sweeping changes to the economy – and then get voted out and see all the changes instantly reversed when a right-wing government comes to power. That’s why we see such cautious incrementalism from leaders who personally care about the issue.

Why don’t more people care about climate change? There is any number of grand sociological theories but I think the heart of it is that humans “discount the future”. Our brains are hardwired to prefer upfront benefits and deferred costs over upfront costs and deferred gains. That’s why we have credit card debt. It’s why we eat unhealthy food. It’s why your retirement savings are locked away in an account you can’t touch until you’re 65. It’s why I make about 90% of the poor choices I make on any given day. You can get angry about this and rail against it, but we are what we are. Human nature is very tough to change.

The problem of discounting the future is especially acute with climate policy because the transaction is intergenerational. If we transition to a low carbon economy the people of today pay all of the costs upfront, but future generations – people we don’t even know, who aren’t even born! – enjoy the gains of not growing up in a world with acidic oceans and major cities flooded or depopulated by drought.

Maybe it’s time to update the priors on confronting climate change through public education and political activism. Maybe this just isn’t going to work: democracy is about “the will of the people” and you just can’t deliver a huge economic transition without that will. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote for politicians with environmental credentials: it just means that they aren’t where the meaningful change is going to come from and that it’s dangerous to pretend it will. Maybe environmental politics merely provides the illusion of change – there are working groups and reports and commissions and carbon trading systems; people assume that something meaningful must be happening! Only it isn’t, and won’t.

So what does climate change activism look like if it isn’t political? I don’t have all the answers: I’m just the guy who sits back and criticises everyone, not the guy who comes up with constructive solutions. Although if I do solve one of the most challenging problems in the world I will definitely let everyone know. But I wonder if some of it looks like Patrick Brown’s approach.

Brown was a biochemist at Stanford. Back in 2009 he decided to dedicate his sabbatical to “eliminating industrial animal agriculture”, which he determined to be the world’s single largest environmental problem. There’s always talk in environmental circles about how everyone in the world needs to become a vegan but Brown realised how unlikely that was, so he decided to develop commercially viable synthetic meats and dairy that were lower cost but consumer-attractive substitutes for animal-based products. His company now has a factory that produces a million pounds of plant-based burger meat per month and funding from the Gates Foundation, Google and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund to develop more products and scale up the existing ones.

Environmental debates play out almost exclusively on the left, and you hear a lot of sentiments like “technology will not save us” or “markets are the problem not the solution” because a lot of people on the left hate markets and technology. But if Brown’s project succeeds and enough people consume his products instead of meat and dairy, then technology and markets will lead to a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. And it happens without any kind of debate or vote or political consensus or contest of ideas; the logic of the market simply wipes the beef and dairy sectors out, like record stores in the 2000s.

Climate solutions don’t have to be technological or market based. We can’t all be Stanford biochemists. They can be charitable and collaborative; I think there’s a strong moral case for radical direct action against large-scale emitters, the exact nature of which I leave to the imaginative reader. I think legal activism is hugely underrated: Kristine Bartlet’s pay equity case was one of the most significant progressive victories in years and it happened under – and in spite of – a National government. But it’s hard to read through the IPCC report and have any patience for the endless conversations about becoming a less materialistic society, or dismantling capitalism. There’s ten years to take meaningful action; we can’t even tax carbon; the authoritarian right is on the ascent across the world. Holding out for a dramatic global shift to a non-materialistic communitarian utopia feels not very pragmatic.

I do think there’s a place for environmental politics. The right has transformed itself into an explicitly anti-environmental movement: they’ve convinced themselves climate change is a vast neo-Marxist hoax; that it is prudent and conservative and good for business to incinerate the world. It means they’ll keep mining and burning coal even when there’s no economic justification; if synthetic milks threaten the dairy industry’s viability, National will simply have the taxpayer buy milk off farmers and then dump it into the sea. The state creates the market and politicians regulate it, and there will be meaningful battles to be fought on that front.

Jordan Peterson has this line about how “politics is the opium of the masses” and I think he has something there. It’s very easy to get caught up in the spectacle of political conflict – especially domestic US politics, something we have literally no agency over! – and those conflicts can distract us from the fact that we’re not accomplishing anything, not getting anywhere, that there are other ways to make a difference.

I find the idea liberating. New Zealand has a high per capita emissions profile and we have a moral obligation to reduce it, and it now seems clear that we won’t, at least not through the political process. But even if we did, somehow, impossibly, our total emissions are just a drop in the atmosphere. The real progress needs to happen in the high population industrial countries in which the political landscape is even more bleak. But if we can find ways to route around politics – whether through markets or other mechanisms – then our accomplishments can be globally meaningful.

Scientists get used to changing their minds about things because that’s the way they make progress. It’s harder to change your mind in politics because loyalty to ideas and policies and slogans is how you signal loyalty to your side; people who do change their minds are traitors; apostates. What I’m suggesting is that people who are convinced by climate science need to change their minds about politics and they need to change their minds about the likelihood of changing other people’s minds.

I’m not a climate pessimist. We can do something. We’re not doomed. But the first step is to acknowledge that the political process is not working, that the public doesn’t care, and may never do so; that Jacinda cannot save us, and to ask ourselves what we can do instead.

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