Apathy and fatalism, the new norms in the climate change debate?

By Thomas

After two years in the USA and a recent trip to China, I believe that society has turned its back on tackling climate change.

During our recent class discussions on how companies and society can address this issue, I thought back to the most recent presidential debates. As you may recall, both President Obama and candidate Mitt Romney positioned themselves as champions of the Coal Industry, while failing to even mention the threat of anthropogenic climate change. During this debate, their talking points neatly reflected the two realities I see both in the media and the general public: Either 1/ ignore the issue completely or 2/ acknowledge that the world is warming but give up trying to do anything about it.

This fatalist approach to our planet’s climate and how we will pass it on to future generations is deeply worrying. With no concrete action on a nationwide carbon tax and our gung-ho approach to rapidly developing shale gas, I feel that the U.S. is drifting further from the actions required and laid out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On a recent class trip to China, I was able to speak with Dr. Ling, president of Shenhua, the largest coal producer in the country. Fishing for a bit of controversy, I asked him why his company has not installed any carbon capture and Storage (CCS) technology on their multitude of coal plants and whether they had any concrete plans in place going forward. With a knowing smile, Dr. Ling shot back at me a simple question: “How many commercial CCS plants have you seen back in America?” My answer: none.

Although a simple exchange, it became clear to me that business and government leaders in China see no reason to be the “first mover” in this perceived expensive way to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions. The blame game is now in full force, further exacerbating our “head in the sand” mentality. America has the technology and the wealth to retrofit most of their coal-fired power stations, still providing 33% of the nation’s electricity. Across the ocean, China is now the world’s largest GHG emitter and has an insatiable appetite for more energy going forward. With neither nation willing to take the first step, the UN continues to document our own destruction and is set to publish yet another report of climate change this year.

Among the public, some of us are aware of the risks we face and support drastic action on addressing climate change. Even with this “progressive” stance, many of us are, to put it bluntly, hypocrites. Taking myself as an example, although “doing my bit” for the environment on a daily basis, my six yearly airline flights bring me level with the U.S. yearly per person average of 27 tons C02 equivalent GHG emissions, five times the global average. With no hope for significantly reducing our demand for energy and with the recognition that both China and India deserve the right to better themselves, I believe we can take one of two paths:

1/ Both the developing and developed world accepts the catastrophic risk that global warming poses to future generations. We take multilateral steps to install CCS technology on all coal-fired power stations and invests billions in nuclear and other renewable energy sources in the coming two decades. Global warming is kept within two degrees centigrade.

2/ We continue with the norm, accepting cheap energy as our god given right and refusing to acknowledge that we “treat the skies as an open sewer” (Al Gore). With no willingness to act before the climate “breaks”, billions of people are forced to “adapt” to severe weather events, droughts, and flooding by 2040.

After four years in the energy industry and countless conversations with academics and fellow students, I know where I place my bet.

Results are in: Fatalists 1 – Progressive Environmentalists 0.

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

5 Responses to “Apathy and fatalism, the new norms in the climate change debate?”

  1. Very well written – I could not agree more!

  2. This is an issue I’ve thought about too – why we, some of the most educated and driven segment of the population, don’t feel a greater sense of urgency to do something about climate change, despite the glaring signs of its detrimental effects on ourselves and future generations. I’m also guilty of not doing anything constructive to improve the situation, even though I am really scared of the big catastrophe that will force us, probably in the very near future, to deal with this issue in a very costly and reactive way. How do we help make option 1 a reality, and break out of this inertia of procrastination / inaction?

  3. By: Anonymous

    Batten down the hatches or build a new boat?

    I remember reading back during the COP-15 run up about a counter intuitive consumer reaction to climate fear. The theory went that when presented dystopic projections of climate change, consumers were more likely to buy SUVs than high-MPG vehicles, because fear caused a flight to security.

    With the collapse of collective climate regulation, and the misguided mantra that “cleantech is dead” (cleantech investments only down 11% globally and near $270B) climate fear is back in the mainstream.

    The failure of Waxman-Markey, COP—15 and the economic recession pushed climate into the “we’ll deal with it later” part of our collective brain. As much of the world consciously chose to ignore climate change – Hurricane Sandy, record droughts, wildfires, and accelerating glacial melt provided ominous signs that “the fears” of 2007 may be coming true in 2013. The Fear is alive and well.

    Reasons for optimism:

    1. Coal generation in the US is reeling from cheap gas and new emissions controls. In 2012, for the first time in nearly 40 years, coal and gas generation were equal. While gas prices may rise over the next decade, new EPA regulations will slow coal’s potential return.

    2. Clean energy, efficient and electric vehicles have never been more real. 2012 saw record installations of solar and wind in the US, and strong capacity additions globally. OEMs are introducing dozens of new EV and PHEV models while CAFE standards continue to push US oil consumption down. EV’s won’t displace ICE vehicles this decade, but the total cost of ownership tipping point could happen as soon as 2020 (BloombergNEF) .

    Fighting the urge to give up and adapt is frankly hard. Just this week, Oregon State Professor Shaun Marcott revealed that global temperatures are will be higher in 2100 than at any time in the Holocene. In only three generations, humans will be living in an entirely different climate. History it seems, is already written.

    Our capacity to address climate has never been more feasible or cheaper, than today. Either way, I’d like stick my head out the window of a Tesla Model S and scream “history, stand athwart!”

    Liebrich, Michael, “What’s Our Energy Future”, BloombergNEF, January 19th, 2013
    Ibid.
    Perkins, Sid, “Global Average Temperatures are Close to 11,000 Year Peak” Scientific American, March 8, 2013

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  1. Most Commented through Monday, March 11th | Innovation in Business, Energy, and Environment - March 20, 2013

    […] Apathy and fatalism, the new norms in the climate change debate? […]

  2. Most Commented through Monday, March 11th | Innovation in Business, Energy, and Environment - August 21, 2013

    […] Apathy and fatalism, the new norms in the climate change debate? […]

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