Climate change is a hard sell - comment by Mark Kohn

9/12/2010 Guardian Climate change is a hard sell – especially when it’s freezing out by Marek Kohn.Another UN climate change conference ends, another opportunity to save the world
goes by. You could be forgiven for barely noticing; expectations were lowered so
far that Cancún almost slipped under the radar. But even if it had been talked
up like its predecessors, it would struggle for our attention. Climate change is
peculiarly, and perhaps fatally, difficult to care about.
That is because it’s the kind of problem our imaginations are least able to
capture and our moral sentiments are least tuned to address. Its effects will be
felt most by people not yet born, over periods of time far beyond our
imaginative horizons. Solving it involves reconciling the interests of nearly 7
billion living people and countless unborn billions, together with those of
cities, regions, a couple of hundred countries and thousands of companies, some
of which are more powerful than many states. If the world’s leading experts in
politics, psychology and game theory were to design a problem to be as difficult
as possible to solve, it would probably look a lot like climate change.
Our imaginations fall short from the outset because, although we may grasp the
idea of climate, what we feel in our bones is weather. The World Meteorological
Organisation reports that 2010 is set to be one of the three hottest years since
1850, but that counts for little when you step out the door into the frost. And
it’s difficult to imagine change unless you keep seeing it around you. Ten years
ago, the sight of bulbs coming up in autumn signalled disturbance. Now it’s just
part of seasonal routine.
Still harder to imagine is the distant future across which the effects of
climate change appear likely to prevail. Several ominous scientific studies have
suggested that, once the temperature goes up, it will stay up for many
centuries, during which the slowly warming oceans will continue to expand and
sea levels will rise. The timescale for averting these risks appears to be a few
decades – which means making the key strategic decisions very soon. What
humankind does or doesn’t do in the next 10 years could determine the course of
the next 1,000 years.
Political decisions normally have much nearer horizons, within the five-year
cycles of electoral politics or economic plans. The authors of a scientific
paper called Tipping Elements in the Earth’s Climate System put the maximum
“political time horizon” at about 100 years away. We may care about the world we
are making for our grandchildren, but more distant generations are, as the
economist Thomas Schelling has noted, foreigners to us. According to the
scientists, the “ethical time horizon” – marking the period we ought to care
about, but probably won’t – lies 1,000 years in the future.
Our problem isn’t just that it’s difficult to maintain a 1,000-year stare. There
is an obstacle in the way: the question, “What has posterity ever done for me?”
Reciprocity is what makes the world go round; our sense of fairness is
confounded when we are asked to do something for people who, as they do not yet
exist, cannot do anything for us in return. And the climatic consequences of our
actions will fall mostly upon others, in other parts of the world and in that
distant country, the future. Faced with this great wall of unenlightened
self-interest, it may be tempting to suggest, as the Gaia theorist James
Lovelock did here earlier this year, that humans haven’t “yet evolved to the
point where we’re clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate
change”. Some may agree with him that democracy may have to be put “on hold for
a while”. But the very complexity of the issue indicates the opposite.
Dictatorships are conspicuously bad at complex problems. Why should they be any
better at stopping climate change than they are at planning economies?
And tThe more complex and extensive a problem is, the more it matters that as
many people and organisations as possible are engaged upon solutions. They need
to believe in what they are doing, and be able to shape decisions that affect
them, so they can see these to be in their interests. They need to be connected
in networks that share knowledge and power. That means more democracy, not less.
Developing democracy is as vital in our response to climate change as developing
green technologies.
It is also the best way to vault the great wall of self-interest, because,
unlike most responses to climate change, it doesn’t involve paying for benefits
that will largely be enjoyed by others. We will enjoy the benefits of
invigorated democracy and strengthened communities ourselves – whatever happens
to the climate, and whatever the weather.
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