Since today is Earth Day you’ll be hearing even more discussions than usual about the problem of anthropocentric climate change. What you aren’t likely to hear is sufficient consideration of the question, “What kind of problem is it?”
Many people claim that it is an environmental problem. Some claim that it is a technological, scientific, or even moral problem. Others vigorously contend that is it not a “problem” at all. I believe that, first and foremost, anthropocentric climate change is a political problem. And political problems require that we choose a solution from a range of political options.
Although it may not exhaust the range of possibilities, I believe the basic listing of positions and options on climate change can be derived from a combination of these three categories:
1. The earth’s climate is being significantly affected by human activities.
2. The earth’s climate is not being significantly affected by human activities.
1. The long-term effects will be catastrophic.
2. The long-term effects will not be significant.
1. There is nothing we (can/need to) do about it.
2. We can avert disaster if we act now.
3. We may be able to avert disaster if we act at a future time.
These options can be arranged in twelve possible permutations (1,1,1 | 1,1,2 | 1,1,3 | 1,2,1 | 1,2,2 | 1,2,3 | 2, 1, 1 | 2, 1, 2 | 2, 1, 3 | 2, 2, 1 | 2, 2, 2 | 2, 2, 3). Seven are based on absurd combinations (1, 2, 2| 1, 2, 3 | 2, 1, 1| 2, 1, 2| 2, 1, 3| 2, 2, 2| 2, 2, 3) and can be ignored. The remaining five options can be labeled as:
1,1,1 – The Hopeless Pessimist
1,1,2 – The Act-Now Optimist
1,1,3 – The Act-Later Optimist
1,2,1 – The Do-Nothing Optimist
2,2,1 – The Skeptical Optimist
Of the remaining five only one combination using A-2 remains – 2,2,1, The Skeptical Optimist. There are at least two problems that the optimistic skeptic faces. The first is that if she is wrong, we will either be worse off than if we chose any other option or no better off than if we had been a Hopeless Pessimist or an Act-Later Optimist. The second problem is that this option is currently not politically viable.
For better or worse, a critical mass of scientists, politicians, and policy makers have already rejected this option. Although it may be a valid personal position to hold – perhaps even the correct position – as a policy opinion, it is currently a loser. Over time, as new evidence is presented, this may change. But if we have to make a rational policy choice, the optimum strategy is to is to concede (for the sake of argument) that humans are mostly responsible for climate change and then choose from the remaining options.
Much the same could be said about the positions of the Hopeless Pessimist (too pessimistic) and the Do-Nothing Optimist (too panglossian). That leaves us with only two politically viable options: either we enact policies to combat anthropogenic climate change today or we wait for some future date when we will have either a technological solution or the political will to enact effective policies.
The problem with acting now is that even if we could agree on what action would be most effective, we couldn’t force the international community to commit to such action. No matter what policies we adopt in the U.S., if China and India refuse to make the same changes the effect will be minimal. Since they refuse to make sacrifices today for a potential benefit that may not accrue for another century, nothing we do unilaterally will fix the problem.
By default, we are left with the Act-Later option. The hope is that we will either have found a technological solution to anthropocentric climate change or we will have acquired the political will to act decisively. The danger, of course, is that we will have waited until it’s too late. But delaying taking direct action on global warming does not mean that we cannot take action at all.
In fact, I would argue that the most pragmatic approach is to adopt a “yak shaving” strategy. Yak shaving is a term that originated in an episode of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy and was later adopted by the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. As Jeremy H. Brown explains:
[Y]ak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.
In other words, by taking actions that may solve a smaller problem you may inadvertently solve or alleviate the larger problem that had originally needed a solution.
Consider, for example, the claim that global warming will lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes. If true we are likely to face future disasters on the scale of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. But while we may not be able to solve the global warming problem, we could work on a problem that made Katrina especially deadly: poverty.
Because authorities were unable to evacuate the city in a timely manner, Katrina had a disproportionate impact on the poverty-stricken residents of New Orleans. Many people died needlessly because they lacked even the basic financial means to escape the area. Alleviating poverty would not have prevented the hurricane from hitting Louisiana, but it could have lessened the impact and the loss of life. Similarly, reducing poverty will not prevent global warming from increasing the number or severity of future hurricanes. It would, however, make it considerably easier to live with such natural disasters.
Convincing people to take such an indirect approach to the problem will not be easy. You can’t get the idea across in an Hollywood-produced propaganda documentary and it’s not likely to appeal to people who prefer to take action by holding “consciousness raising” benefit concerts. What it will do, though, is allow us to focus our attention and resources on solvable problems. Because attention and resources are always limited, we should, out of common sense and moral necessity, focus on those problems that have a chance of being solved. That means that a currently insolvable “problem” like climate change should be at the bottom of the list.
Rather than attempt to argue this point, I’ll leave you with this video by environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg which explains why prioritizing problems like climate change isn’t as important prioritizing solutions:
[Note: While the video is lengthy (17 minutes) and several years old, it is quite engaging and well worth the time it takes to watch it in its entirety.]