Climate Change: Who's To Blame?

Who’s to blame for climate change and global warming? Based on the dozens if not hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed by state’s attorney generals, NGOs, citizens, young people, and other aggrieved or merely greedy parties, you’d think it’s ONLY the oil, gas, and coal companies, the purveyors of fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are not in themselves addictive or harmful substances like opioids, asbestos or tobacco, amenable to consumer product liability suits. The truth is that we are ALL addicted to energy-intensive lifestyles and to the prosperity brought about during the past 100 years by cheap fossil fuels.

This would be true, even if the fossil fuel companies have been lying to us for decades about global climate change that has been caused by use of their products. The annual profits of the biggest oil companies, perhaps $200 billion, is less than 10% of what we will need to spend each year just in the U.S. to make the changes required by the climate crisis. Should we wait through a decade’s worth of lawsuits, judgements, appeals, etc., to collect such a paltry sum, or should we get started with the changes we need to make and get everyone, including the fossil fuel companies, to pay their “fair share”?

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If we want to deal creatively with the climate crisis, perhaps we should be honest with ourselves and admit that, until recently, very few of us have wanted the joyride to end, certainly not if it would inconvenience us in any major way, like forcing us out of our cars and into mass transit to get to/from work.

But clearly we have to make major progress in the next decade to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide or suffer even more dire consequences in the decades to follow. So then the crucial question becomes, what should we do?

It’s useful to decide first of all what is the source of the problem and what are the best measures to reduce those sources. Here’s a few examples:

  1. Technological problem: if dramatically reducing GHG emissions means simply that we need to stop getting electricity and heat from fossil-fuel combustion, then we should put a “Manhattan Project” effort to develop alternatives, including massive deployments of solar and wind power, banning sale of all non-electric vehicles by 2030, doubling down on nuclear power, banning gas ranges and water heaters in homes, etc.

  2. Economic problem: if the problem is that fossil fuels are too cheap and that the price does not fully account for the deleterious effects of their use, then raising the price via taxation is an “textbook” solution. The problem of course is that raising the price to levels that would change behavior (in my book, carbon taxes would need to be more like $200/ton than $20 or $40/ton) is likely to result in a massive political backlash that would cancel any benefits from this policy. Cutting fuel subsidies or raising fuel prices in any country causes massive riots, often bringing down governments, with the latest example being the “Yellow Jackets” in France.

  3. Social problem: If global warming reflects global inequities in income distribution and we need to pursue solutions focused on “environmental justice,” then we have to raise taxes on the rich and give the money to the poor, regulate fossil emissions much more heavily, etc.

  4. Cultural problem: If global warming can only be effectively tackled by confronting the cultural bias toward economic growth and moving toward a “circular economy,” where every waste product is recycled into something beneficial (“waste is food” is the mantra), then we need to start talking with each other about what we’d be willing to give up in the way of conveniences, to make that happen. We might start with trying base policies on reducing our global ecological footprint, so that we are only consuming one year’s worth of solar income each calendar year. Right now, Earth Overshoot Day comes around August 1st each year, meaning we are living only 7/12 months on solar income, the rest of the time on the Earth’s stored capital. In other words, for five months of every year, we’re eating our “seed corn.”

  5. Spiritual problem: if the root cause of global warming is a society that is based solely on material comforts without regard to the impact on the natural world of securing them, then we need to start confronting how we treat nature (and of course how we treat each other.) We need to learn how to practice compassion and exhibit love toward all living things. This approach to the global climate crisis calls for a renewal of the spirit of “kinship” everywhere between people and nature, an understanding totally embedded in traditional societies, but foreign to our global secular worldview.

In a famous essay from about 25 years ago, “Places to Intervene in a System,” the late systems scientist Donella Meadows described nine ways to make changes in a system, beginning with making small changes by changing subsidies, taxes and standards, to bringing about massive changes that can only come through a Paradigm Shift, a change in the prevailing thought and belief structures, the system’s goals, power structures, and basic rules. According to Meadows, it’s the Paradigm Shift that’s the most effective, but also the most elusive way to change a system. It’s elusive because it requires us to change how we think about who we are and what we really want, something that most of us avoid at all costs.

We’re right now engaged, mostly unknowingly and certainly unthinkingly, in trying to sort through these five approaches. The attraction of the Green New Deal to many people is that it deals with at least items (1) through (3) above. But because it’s a political document, it avoids larger cultural and spiritual issues that may ultimately hold the key to finding our way out of this labyrinth.

We need to be honest with ourselves, even if we believe fervently in the root causes and best cures for the climate crisis. We live inside society; we have to be willing to persuade our friends, family and neighbors that there is a different and altogether healthy way to live that can put the brakes on this accelerating crisis. We simply do not have enough time to bludgeon them with laws, taxes and regulations into behaving better. We must persuade and then develop better choices that work for most people.

What do you think?

The iconic  Pogo  cartoon created by Walt Kelly around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970.

The iconic Pogo cartoon created by Walt Kelly around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970.