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 has 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 — with today's focusing on the global problem plus time and cost dissonance.
Global (in)action: This just might be the world’s greatest collective action problem.
- On the one hand, 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.
- On the other hand, 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.
Time disconnect: Enacting policies today to cut GHG 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, especially in our 2– to 6–year election cycles.
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 set associated costs — which will come in the form of not just money, but also health, lives and nature losses.
Read the whole thing, and next week’s column will tackle our stubborn — yet effective — energy system.