Mark Jaccard outlines challenges of climate change action in new book, Deluding Ourselves to Disaster
Mark Jaccard, Professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, is writing a book called Deluding Ourselves to Disaster: Why we fail to act on the climate threat. The SFU Institute for Values in Policy and Science hosted a lecture by Jaccard, in which he shared the thinking behind the book.
“If you understand the evidence of climate change,” he told the audience, “You have to ask, what are you doing with your life? What I wanted to do with my life is make policy. But I have to meet the reality of the situation, that governments aren’t moving toward solutions yet. And so I’ve had to learn about human psychology and social psychology that allow me to think strategically.”
The economic policies that Jaccard would like to be working on include regulatory solutions that would make investment in climate solutions attractive to industry. An example of creating a regulatory environment that reduces CO2 emissions are the “clean car rules” just set by California’s Air Resources Board.
But given Canada’s political landscape, Jaccard finds it necessary to first grapple society’s failure to embrace climate change as a situation that requires immediate solutions. His current work looks at personal beliefs, societal beliefs, political arguments, and the huge disjunction between government promises and actions. He also makes some suggestions for folks who already hear the urgency of the call.
Values that motivate action
Jaccard listed values that could motivate action. One is self interest: each of us exists inside the test tube of a global experiment that scientists say will have catastrophic impacts on us and our offspring. Another motivating value is a sense of responsibility for the biosphere that would make us act to avoid causing mass extinctions. A third value is responsibility to other humans. The rich countries achieved wealth through the burning of fossil fuels and are initially the least affected by climate change. This could lead to a sense of responsibility for the initial devastating impacts of climate on poorer countries.
Graphs provided by Jaccard
Human tendencies toward denial
But if these values presented the full picture, solutions would be underway. Effective solutions need to incorporate well known human tendencies. These include the tendency to hold beliefs that favour one’s interest, the tendency to overlook inconvenient logical connections, the tendency to think uncritically about misinformation and the fact that our current institutions are proving themselves incapable of long-term collective pursuits. Strategies that don’t account for these characteristics become wishful thinking.
The current climate trajectory
Jaccard then summarized climate impacts and our current trajectory. Climate impacts currently include falling crop yields in developing regions, the disappearance of small mountain glaciers that are many people’s water supply, decreased water in many areas including the Mediterranean and Southern Africa, extensive damage to coral reefs and a rising number of species facing extinction. Longer term impacts include decreased food supply for developed nations, sea level rise and accelerating ecosystem and species extinctions.
According to Jaccard, our current emissions paths will lead to a four to six degree temperature increase. The Earth hasn’t seen that level of temperature change for 40 million years. Sea level would be 60 to 70 meters higher. If we reach even three degrees, the climate will be warmer than it has been since three million years ago in the Pleistocene, long before human evolution began. The ocean was 25 to 30 meters higher then. Because climate systems have a huge amount of inertia, Jaccard commented that returning to our present climate would be “a matter for science fiction.”
The coming climate scenario has spurred international promises. Political leaders of most rich countries promise to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Prime Minister Harper promises reductions of 65 per cent by 2050, 38 years from now. To meet these goals, emissions in developed countries need to be reduced by 50 per cent in 18 years.
That is only possible if all your investment today is CO2 free.
Jaccard’s research shows that the technology exists to meet the goals. Electrity generation can be 90 per cent CO2 free by 2050 by using renewables, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage and nuclear power. Buildings can by 85 per cent CO2 free by using heat pumps, passive solar, biofuels, photovoltaics and solar hot water. Vehicles can be 80 per cent CO2 free by 2050 by using electricity, biofuels and hydrogen.
Action in the opposite direction
But Canada isn’t pursuing this technology at the rate necessary to meet its goals. In addition, it is aggressively promoting the tar sands, even though independent research shows that Canada’s promotion of tar sands expansion and pipelines is not consistent with the 2050 promise.
Moreover, if nations meet their carbon reduction commitments, less expensive conventional oil will meet the entire demand for the reduction path. “Peak oil is not the right problem,” Jaccard said. Investments today in the tar sands and pipelines will have to be abandoned for the Harper government and the world to meet its 2050 commitment to avoid dangerous climate change.
Despite promises, the world is not on a path for the 450 ppm (parts per million) CO2 (Jaccard prefers the more accurate 550 ppm CO2e, which includes other climate forcing gases such as methane and nitrious oxide as CO2 equivalents). Canada and the world are locking on to a path toward 800 ppm CO2e that is consistent with a four to six degree rise in temperature. On this path, people alive today will experience catastrophic damages from extreme weather, disease, ecosystem destruction, sea level rise and ocean acidification.
These are the facts that lead Jaccard to his question to himself and his challenge to the audience, “If you understand this evidence, what are you doing with your life?”
Why is alterning climate emissions such a difficult problem?
Past success with acid rain, ozone depletion and urban air pollution are a cheering thought. But climate change policy has now failed for three decades. Bad luck and near misses provide some explanation. For example, the election of George Bush in the US gave the fossil fuel and anti-government lobbyists time to organize and create campaigns that exploit the flaws in human thinking. But Jaccard thinks there are factors that make altering climate emissions a more difficult problem.
One challenge is that individual initiative has little value toward the creating a global public good. Compliance and enforcement mechanisms are difficult on that scale as well. The delay in effects creates another challenge. We must act now, but human decision-making is myopic at individual, market and political levels.
Another challenge is the question of who pays. Perceptions of equity tend to align with self interest. International negotiators promote the type of equity that gives their nation the most advantage: polluter pays, equal payment based on per capita or GDP emissions, or historical responsibility.
The complexity of the earth’s atmospheric system creates uncertainty regarding the specific of climate impacts we can expect even though a catastrophic outcome is virtually certain.
High starting costs create another challenge. It won’t cost that much to totally transform the energy system, from about 6 per cent to 8 per cent of a household budget compared to the 20 per cent of the household budget that heating used to require. But the initial costs are high. At the larger scale, there are risks to start shifting to CO2 energy sources because fossil fuel energy will always be cheaper without a regulatory structure that injects environmental safety concerns into the investment decisions. The transformation is not expensive, but it is difficult to launch.
The self-serving bias in human thinking has made it easier for the oil and gas industry to discredit climate science and policy. It’s easier to exploit an anti-science bias when people see it as conflicting with their self interest (although even the most skeptical individuals embrace science if they break their leg).
Industry also exploited an anti-establishment bias. It’s easier to convince people to disbelieve science if they see the IPCC as a conspiracy-like establishment that forces climate scientists to conform to a pre-established agenda.
Anti-government bias is exploited by portraying solutions as excessive regulation, higher taxes, and social engineering. Industry also created alternative images of fossil fuels through green-washing labels like “natural gas” and “ethical oil.”
Jaccard encouraged the audience to consider the delusions of those who want to address climate change, such as the expectation that they will be readily understood. He recommends the book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking substance in an age of style by Randy Olson.
Jaccard took on some common arguments against taking action on climate change.
Argument 1: What about the Chinese?
Jaccard has put this question before high school students and the answer is always the same. Rich countries go first with cutting their emissions thus lowering the costs of CO2 free technologies and fuels. Soon they provide subsidies and apply trade measures if necessary to ensure universal compliance with global effort.
For example, if the US implements cap and trade and other countries don’t have similar systems within the decade, they could be required to pay to trade with the US. “We can’t hold climate change hostage to global equity,” Jaccard said.
Argument 2: Canada’s emissions are only 2 per cent of the world total.
Canada takes great pride in its contribution to World War 2. If you compare the number of Canadian troops to those of its all its allies, it was only 2 per cent.
Argument 3:We need the economic growth and jobs.
Elementary school students have figured out the answer to this one: what happens when your job creation strategy destroys the planet? Low carbon growth will be more energy secure, cleaner, safer quieter and more bio diverse. It’s the growth story of the future because high carbon growth will destroy itself. Economic growth was used to justify the harm inherent in child labour and slavery as well.
Argument 4: How do you tell regions that are rich in fossil fuels that they can’t use them?
You don’t. If you tell them they are done for, they will put all the money and resources they have into subverting your goal. You tell them that if they can figure out a way to use it without destroying the planet, go to it.
Argument 5: We don’t need a climate policy.
Corporate social responsibility can’t solve climate because businesses ultimately compete on basis of bottom line and fossil fuels are cheap. Green consumism doesn’t work because all human expenditures involve energy use at some stage. The number of energy using devices has grown from 15 in 1976 to 45 in 2006. Energy efficiency is cheap, but usually more expensive than burning fossil fuels. Peak oil belies the plentitude of fossil fuels in earth’s crust and human ingenuity in extracting it. Carbon offsets give a false sense of progress because people keep emitting carbon anyway.
Argument 6: Climate policies can’t work
We have 20 years of evidence that information and subsidies don’t work. Jaccard advocates regulations as having the greatest potential to create the most efficient pricing mechanisms. Successful environmental regulations phased out acid rain, smog, lead, and among other polluttants.
What to do
Jaccard returned to the central problem: What is your moral duty as a citizen if independent evidence consistently show your government is not telling the truth and the implications are disastrous? What is the right thing to be doing with your life right now?
He reviewed the options presented by social networking campaigns, boycotts, and postponing high emission projects through legal action. He sees “NIMBY” opposition as a double-edged sword, because it has been used to defeat renewable energy as well as high emissions projects. Also, climate destructive projects can just moved, as could be the case if the Keystone pipeline is rerouted to avoid the Ogallala aquifer.
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you....
The final slide suggests that economists like Jaccard are joining scientists like James Hansen in the concluding that civil disobedience can be the most rational response under present circumstances.