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Feb. 25, 2020, 3:25 p.m. EST

Why is humanity so reluctant to save itself from climate change?

The biggest challenge in keeping Earth from overheating isn’t technical, it’s political

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By Willem E. Buiter


PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images
Members of South Africa’s main opposition party protest a looming 9% hike in electricity prices. More than half a billion people in Sub-Sahara Africa have no access to electricity at all.

NEW YORK ( Project Syndicate ) — Despite the buzz around climate action at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the world’s current environmental prospects look grim. There are three obstacles: climate-change denial; the economics of reducing greenhouse-gas (GHGs) emissions; and the politics of mitigation policies, which tend to be highly regressive.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global carbon-dioxide emissions must be cut by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and then eliminated entirely by 2050, to have even a reasonable chance of preventing global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

There is a massive free-rider problem. Under current circumstances, it will always be individually rational to let others cut back on their emissions rather than doing so yourself. The only way to correct this problem is through collective rationality or enlightened self-interest.

“We need quick wins,” warns the United Nations Environment Program in its latest “or the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement will slip out of reach.”

That is an understatement. Even if the current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the 2015 Paris accord were met, emissions in 2030 would 38% above where they need to be. Global average temperatures will be on track to rise by a disastrous 2.9° to 3.4°C by 2100, with continuing increases thereafter.

The NDC targets would need to be roughly tripled just to limit warming to 2°C, and would have to increase fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

That is not going to happen. The only time in recent history when CO2 emissions have looked as though they might plateau was in 2014-2016, owing to weak global growth. According to the Global Carbon Project , emissions have since increased again, by 2.7% in 2018 and 0.6% in 2019.

Making matters worse, the December 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) was a dismal failure, resulting in no new climate pledges or clear messages of intent for this year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Why is humanity so reluctant to save itself?

Denial is the least of our worries

First, many people simply do not accept the predictions issued by climate scientists. But denialism is the least serious of the three main obstacles. There will always be a minority for whom facts and logic are unwelcome distractions. Yet even President Donald Trump must realize by now that climate change will undermine the future viability and profitability of Mar-a-Lago.

As the real-world costs of climate-driven disasters mount over time, denialism will become less of an issue. Indeed, a November 2019 Yale University survey finds that 62% of registered voters in the United States would support a president “declaring global warming a national emergency if Congress does not act.”

The second major challenge is that greenhouse-gas emissions are the quintessential global economic externality. Climate change doesn’t respect borders; greenhouse gases emitted anywhere will affect everyone eventually.

Countries like India and those in Sub-Saharan Africa are not going to sacrifice their economic development for the sake of emissions reductions.

That means there is a massive free-rider problem. Under current circumstances, it will always be individually rational to let others cut back on their emissions rather than doing so yourself. The only way to correct this problem is through collective rationality or enlightened self-interest.

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