Three Reasons Why Global Warming Won’t Be Stopped
Global warming is getting worse and worse. The world’s temperature has been climbing since 1910. The rate of temperature increase has intensified since 2012; we are now roughly two degrees warmer than we were during the pre-industrial era. Two degrees does not seem like much – but it is enough to cause extremely severe environmental damage. Weather patterns have changed significantly, leading to greater overall precipitation and flooding in some locations along with extensive drought in other locations. Sea levels have risen 8 inches since the 1880’s; they are expected to rise eight feet by the end of the century. Higher sea levels turn coastal storms into flooding disasters. The actual number of hurricanes and cyclones has not increased over early twentieth century levels; however, their intensity and duration have significantly worsened since 1980.
Nothing seems to be happening to do something about the problem. Global fossil fuel consumption has risen continuously since 1850. There has been no significant reduction in the burning of fossil fuels in recent years. There have certainly been no major effective attempts at the global level to reduce overall levels of economic activity – the single biggest driver of fossil fuel consumption. We have conferences on global warming, and meetings on global warming and people giving speeches on Twitter about global warming. There are minor adjustments to energy use, such as the transition to electric cars. The policy initiatives that do exist are piecemeal. They are confined to individual localities and individual changes within each locality. Powerful global measures to reduce energy use, such as a global carbon tax, or a ban on further development of carbon-based fuel resources, are not under serious discussion. They are unlikely to be implemented any time soon.
Why have there been so few responses to global warming?
You, the reader, probably have your own very reasonable answer to that question.
Here are mine.
1. A large percentage of the world’s citizens are unwilling to sacrifice their own consumption for any larger social good. This is true globally, and it is certainly true for the United States – the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases. Consider that a large percentage of America’s citizens were not willing to wear a mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19, never mind getting a vaccination or isolating themselves from other people. In the 1970’s, Americans were not willing to drive at 55 miles per hour, even when such reduced speeds would have dramatically reduced US consumption of petroleum. Driving at 55 miles per hour would not entirely eliminate global warming. However, conservation of hydrocarbons would make a very substantial positive difference.
There is a sad sort of rationality to the position of the “to-hell-with-the-world” all-out consumers. Lowering one’s own standard of living makes things worse for oneself. There is no guarantee that one’s sacrifice is going to save the environment. If other people continue to consume, sacrifice by even large numbers of isolated individuals accomplishes nothing.
Furthermore, individual consumers with enough money can insulate themselves from many of the worst effects of global warming. People who don’t want to live in coastal cities can buy nice homes in inland areas. If they insist on living by the coast, they can buy storm protection for their property or raise their homes above likely flood levels.
Furthermore, there are both individuals and companies who actively profit from global warming. The real estate and construction industries love disasters. If a large number of buildings are destroyed, the former owners are going to want to rebuild. If oceanfront property in Miami becomes non-viable, there will be a huge demand for luxury housing in Orlando. There are also the companies who stand to gain if certain resources or production regions are destroyed or in danger. If California agriculture becomes less viable because of drought, entrepreneurs in wetter regions can set up competing farms. Alternatively, farm suppliers who make seeds or equipment that economize on the use of water have a new and exciting market in California.
For a lot of people, the world’s problems are not problem. Even if large percentages of ecologically oriented people change their behavior to conserve natural resources, there will be enough people with personal or business motivation to not conserve, that is unlikely that there will be significant reductions in world consumption.
2. There is no global government to insure protection of a global environment. The world is divided into over 200 countries. Andrew Jorgensen has argued in his theory of “unequal ecological exchange”, that national governments often keep their own country clean by shipping their ecological problems overseas. Switzerland puts its dirtiest industries, such as chemical production right on its borders. The waste from Basel’s chemical plants flows almost immediately into Germany, allowing the water on the Swiss side to remain clean. A global government could take care of the global environment. Unfortunately, no global government exists.
There are international treaties. Those are effective when enforced. Treaties protecting ocean fisheries work in Northern Hemisphere waters where local navies effectively patrol their countries’ coasts. In the tropics where local naval presences are negligible, factory ships are free to fish wherever. No one is going to build a global navy any time soon.
3. There is no free-market mechanism for stopping global warming. The free market actually has the capacity to make some ecological repairs. An example of where free capitalist markets can save the environment without government intervention is resource depletion. As scarce resources get used up, they get scarce. Scarce means expensive. Expensive means people use less of it. They conserve. They find substitutes.
What makes free market solutions work are price signals. As goods become more expensive or cheaper, people adjust their consumption and investment patterns to reflect these changing prices. So, you don’t need people to be self-sacrificing, public-spirited, ecologically-oriented or even nice to other people. Their own self interest gets them to conserve what needs to be conserved.
No such price signaling exists for global warming. Yes, floods and hurricanes may destroy whole parts of the world. The behavior that causes this, excessive use of energy, occurs far away from the regions that suffer the damage. People who drive gas-guzzling SUV’s to hyper-air-conditioned houses do not necessarily experience the environmental damage that their behavior causes. Their houses are fine. Two thousand miles away, someone else loses their house in a hurricane. The victim gets a price signal – the price of building a new house. The energy burners get no signal. They keep on driving and chilling.
* * *
You can tell a lot about the world’s ability to cope with global warming by the world’s response to COVID-19. Countries with public-minded citizens, and strong governments, were able to reduce the impact of COVID in their particular nations. In many East Asian nations, people wore masks, isolated, and got their vaccinations. The impact of COVID in those nations was modest.
But the rest of the world did not cooperate. In many countries including the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, people who did not want to wear masks. Many did not care how many other people died so long as they could go to work, have a social life and maintain their personal liberty.
If we can’t even get people to wear masks to stop a pandemic, how are we going to get people to reduce their driving or turn off their air conditioning?
Answer: We won’t.
For More Information
On global temperature data, see NASA’s Global Climate Change website. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/.
On cyclonic activity see the NASA website and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory’s “Global Warming and Hurricanes”. https://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes/
On nations wrecking the environment of their neighbors and trade partners, see Alf Hornberg and Andrew Jorgensen’s edited collection, International Trade and Environmental Justice. (2010, Nova)