Aug 19, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Why climate change is so hard to tackle: The global problem

Illustration of a globe of sand falling through a hand

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for aggressive action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, while nations are facing pressure to ramp up commitments ahead of a major United Nations summit next month.

The big picture: Despite that fervor, progress on climate change remains elusive. We have cultivated a deep dependence on fossil fuels that have been driving Earth’s temperature up for more than a century, creating a problem whose mostly negative impacts are unfolding over more centuries.

This column and next week's edition will try to distill what makes this such a uniquely difficult problem.

This week: A global problem + time and cost dissonance

Global (in)action

This just might be the world's greatest collective action problem, which is when rational, self-interested decisions of individuals make the circumstances of the group worse, and vice versa.

  • It's rational for an individual country not to drastically reduce greenhouse gases, given most economies are heavily based on energy resources that emit them. Yet, if all nations act that way — indeed, that's what's happening — most countries would eventually be worse off due to the cumulative impacts of all our emissions.
  • Put another way, what's better for each individual country in isolation is actually worse for the planet as a whole. Conversely, what is worse for each individual country, over time would be better for the planet.

Republicans often argue the U.S. shouldn't reduce its emissions since China and India aren't reducing theirs. That's how the collective action problem works, and it could prevent even modest efforts addressing the problem.

By contrast, most other policies are not nearly as directly dependent upon global cooperation. Take, for example, gay rights. Same-sex marriage is legal in roughly 30 countries, yet same-sex sexual activity is considered a criminal act in 70 nations.

The bottom line: Action (or inaction) on climate change is by definition unable to occur in national silos.

Time disconnect

Enacting policies today to cut greenhouse gas emissions won't have a discernible impact on global warming for decades, if not centuries. That's because we have already locked in significant warming due to our historical emissions. This makes it a tough sell, but especially in our 2- to 6-year election cycles.

  • Joe Biden's climate plan promises net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a common benchmark among other Democratic presidential hopefuls — and climate science broadly. Biden would be pushing 110 years old when he'd have to check (likely from the afterlife) on how his policy did. I'll be 65. How old will you be?

Unlike other policies, climate change is cumulative. The longer we wait to address it, the bigger the problem it becomes and the harder it gets to solve, fueling a feedback loop that makes solutions ever more difficult.

By contrast, passing legislation on most other public policy issues aren't cumulative and would result in almost immediate, direct impact on millions of people.

  • A new health care law can affect people on day 1 of enactment.
  • President Trump's immigration policies have had near instantaneous impacts on people.

The bottom line: Big climate policy would have to offer concrete benefits outside of its impact on emissions — think jobs or energy security — to overcome this time disconnect.

Pay now and pay later

Climate change presents two separate costs.

  • Cost No. 1: Responding to flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather that climate change is often making worse.
  • Cost No. 2: Enacting policies to reduce emissions, which would come in the form of higher fossil-fuel costs today.
  • Cost No. 1 will continue for decades, if not centuries, even in addition to Cost No. 2. This is because of the aforementioned time disconnect: the amount of warming locked in already has also locked in associated costs — which will come in the form of not just money, but also health, lives and nature losses.

The costs hit different parts of America and the world disproportionately, setting the stage for conflict, not cooperation (further complicating the first point).

  • Low-lying nations whose very existences are at risk due to climate change have a very different set of cost concerns than Saudi Arabia.

By contrast, you invest money in your 401(K) with a reasonable level of confidence you’ll get it when you retire. Imagine getting taxed before you put that money into your fund and then not living long enough to reap the payoffs of your fund. That’s happening with climate change, on a global scale.

The bottom line: We are the first generation of humans to start paying the price for a warmer world, and we are also the first to face costs as we try to address it. We’re paying now and later.

What's next: Next week's column will tackle our stubborn — yet effective — energy system.

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