As many commentators have pointed out, this summer’s weather: its far-reaching droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., its devastating floods in Asia, and, of course, the rapid melting of the North Polar icecap, are finally getting some “climate skeptics” to change their tune. A recent statistical analysis of severe weather events is also making the connection between weather and climate. Just on a probability basis, without even thinking about climate modeling, the weather events of the past ten to twenty years are so improbable based on the events of the previous forty years that something must have changed, and the only obvious candidate is climate.
This leads inexorably to the next question – what are we going to do about it? Here, however, something hasn’t changed: human nature. Sadly, humanity has always had a strong streak of self-interest. Whether it’s the Roman Empire, European colonial powers, or Wall Street bankers, people, as countries, as interest groups, or as individuals always seem to look at situations focused on what will benefit them. Climate change has, thus far, been little different.
At the global level, developing countries, particularly China and India, have been unwilling to reduce their CO2 production if it would mean reducing their race to catch up to already-industrialized countries in production of goods. The developed countries, including Europe and particularly Japan and the U.S., have for their part been unwilling to make changes that might require economic sacrifice, pointing to the already-damaging effects of the global economic slow-down of the past twelve years.
Within the United States, the situation has been little different. Each region of the country is willing to accept change – so long as it’s aimed at another region. Coal producing states insist that coal mining must continue. Oil and gas producers point to their superiority over coal and say coal mining should stop first. Heavy electricity using states demand that power plants continue to be built to prevent brown-outs and another economic slowdown.
Even when global warming has, on the surface, been taken to heart, a closer examination shows that self-interest still rules. Here in California, our governor points to high-speed rail as a great benefit in reducing climate change. Yet even proponents are forced to admit that the real benefits are some twenty to thirty years down the road. In the shorter term, the project will actually significantly increase CO2 production. More locally, San Francisco has approved the Parkmerced project, which will tear down 1,500 units of moderate-density, post-World War Two, rent controlled housing and replace them with about six thousand units of higher-density market-rate housing. Again, the project is touted as reducing CO2 production in the long run – meaning some twenty to thirty years in the future. As with high-speed rail, however, before then the project will actually cause an increase in CO2 production. Meanwhile, climate scientists have warned that we must reduce CO2 production dramatically within the next ten years or face catastrophic changes that will, by that point, become unavoidable.
Why is there this disconnect? Among other things, powerful political interests, including labor unions, building contractors, and development interests, have much to gain from new construction projects but would get little benefit from projects like retrofitting existing housing and infrastructure to improve their energy efficiency and reduce CO2 production. These interests influence our elected political leaders with ever more generous campaign contributions and insistent lobbying. (Thank you, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United ruling!) As a result, choices are made based on self interest instead of the broader public interest.
Where does this lead in the long term? The answer isn’t pretty. As one joke currently making the rounds put it, we’re left asking two questions: “Where are we going?” and “Why am I in this handbasket?”