The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report that urges us to take rapid and radical action against climate change. The report is the most alarming call to action yet, but it still seems that the dominant global response is inaction. How can we explain this (non-) response?

Our observations

  • The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had one serious and clear message: urgent action – cutting carbon emissions as much and as soon as possible – is needed to keep the world from heating up more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, otherwise consequences will be dire. The impacts will be felt across ecosystems and human communities and economies.
  • Although there is nothing opaque about the data in the new IPCC report, it is questionable whether this will lead to political response. Former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy argues that there is no “political will” for action.
  • An Ipsos survey conducted last year among 21,030 adults aged 16-64 in 26 countries showed that 64% of global citizens believe we can address climate change if we take action now. At the same time, the number of those believing that while the climate is changing, humanity can do nothing to stop it, called “climate fatalists”, is higher among young people (22% of those aged 16-34), which could diminish the broad support for urgent action among younger generations, who have to make long-lasting changes in their behavior.
  • It is argued (article in Dutch) that a useful quantification of transition costs and climate risks is missing. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics was recently awarded to William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer. Nordhaus has found a way to determine the economic cost of global warming and created a model to calculate the interplay between the economy and the climate. He believes that it is “unlikely” that nations can achieve the Paris Agreement goals, unless policy soon focuses on the market solution to raise the price of goods and services that are carbon-intensive and lower the ones that are less so.
  • Furthermore, with natural capital accounting, financial institutions include their dependencies on natural capital such as clean air and oceans in calculating their assets. Natural capital accounting has been championed by the UNthe World Bank, and a number of finance sector-led and business groups.
  • Recently, 28 commissioners and 17 countries (including China, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Canada and the UK) around the world banded together to form the Global Commission on Adaptation in The Hague. The coalition is led by Bill Gates, Ban Ki-moon, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. The commission’s task for next year will be to figure out the best ways to both prevent and cope with the effects of a hotter planet.

Connecting the dots

“The illustrations of mounting impacts, the fast-approaching and irreversible tipping points are visceral versions of a future that no policy-maker could wish to usher in or be responsible for”, said Christiana Figueres, the diplomat who led the Paris agreement of 2015, about the recent IPCC report. The past decade has shown us undeniable signs of climate change, from record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves to floods around the world. And as global warming continues, this will become substantially worse. For decades, climate change has had a polarizing effect on society, from eco-terrorism to climate change denial. However, the growing body of evidence and the intensifying effects that people around the world increasingly experience have turned climate change into a politically charged issue. Three different reactions to the reality of climate change and humans as the major cause of climate change can be observed, which is dividing society.
The first is skepticism or even denial. The fact that the climate is changing is not so much doubted, but rather the extent to which humans have contributed to this. Although 98% of scientists say human behavior has a major impact on the environment, vested interests often create opposition to this stance, e.g. industrial, political and ideological interests from conservative think tanks or political parties, or the fossil fuel lobby, which has incentives for climate inaction.
The second is the nuanced reaction, which partially responds to doubts about ascribing humans a central role in climate change. Although human influence on the environment is undoubted, the term Anthropocene implies a central role for humans, with the climate as a passive entity, subject to our will. Contemporary thinkers such as Donna Harraway and Bruno Latour have tried to nuance this concept of the Anthropocene. In Facing Gaia (2017) Bruno Latour characterizes Gaia, a hybrid term describing our environment, not as a living organism, but neither as dead. It is not dominated, because it dominates us. Donna Harraway coins a number of alternative terms for the Anthropocene, saying that we need a name for the complex, dynamic interplay of forces that people are a part of.

The third stance accepts full human responsibility. Humans play a key role in climate change. Proponents of this view respond to the second stance by saying that indeed humans do not yet oversee how and to what extent their behavior has consequences, while acknowledging that recognizing the enormous impact of people is the first step to changing behavior. Ethicist Clive Hamilton urges us to recognize our central role without reservation and strongly opposes a growing group of contemporary thinkers such as Harraway, who find the notion of anthropocentrism troubling. Hamilton poses the question: how can it be possible that, in light of all the evidence, the damage we do to our earth does not seem to trigger a reasonable response? He answers by saying that “forces we hoped would make the world a more civilized place – personal freedom, democracy, material advance, technological power – are in truth paving the way to its destruction.” Hamilton offers us a way to explain why, even when we are presented with all the evidence, we ignore it and refuse to take radical measures. The powers we most believed in, have turned out to be destructive. Fighting climate change means giving up on the absolute right to pursue these powers. The upside is that if we measure climate change in terms of modern human values, we can calculate the benefits of action: Some groups have taken a stab at calculating what climate change will cost the world, or conversely, how much taking action would save us. Earlier this month, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate calculated $26 trillion in savings by 2030 if humanity would become more sustainable. A new study in Nature Climate Change calculated the social cost of carbon down to individual countries and had a stark message for one of the world’s biggest polluters: The U.S. economy stands to pay one of the highest prices in the world for its emissions in terms of changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damages from increased flood risk, and changes in energy system costs.

Implications

  • As policy makers fail to formulate a fitting response, silent unease among citizens could transform into societal backlash. As the IPCC report was published, protesters scaled the German embassy in London to urge Germany to stop mining coal. Recently, tens of thousands of people marched in Paris and other major cities across France to call for greater action on climate change. Perhaps the most effective response comes from initiatives who are legally forcing the Dutch government to adopt more stringent climate policies, such as Urgenda, involved in an already historic case and an inspiration in forcing policy makers to take action.
  • According to a 2018 AODP report, of the 80 largest insurance firms globally, less than 0.5% of assets are invested in low-carbon enterprises that provide solutions to climate change, despite the fact that the insurance sector is highly exposed to its financial risks.