Climate Change, Economics and Species Survival

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was clear. Time is ruing short if we are to avoid absolute disaster, we need to cut emissions now. If our children are going to have a planet, we need to change how we do business now. The planet is heating up. There is really no argument with it. And the data shows it.

However, they may have said this to an empty room. Policy makers seem unable, most likely unwilling, to force on the necessary changes if we are to survive as a species.

You know we are in trouble when a 15-year-old puts the UN to shame. This is GretaThunberg. Who addressed the UN in Poland last week:

For 25 years, countless of people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences asking our nations’ leaders to stop the emissions. But clearly this has not worked, since the emissions just continue to rise. So I will not ask them anything. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us, because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.

This teen speaks with wisdom beyond her years. However, she is missing why our leaders are incapable of acting. Humans are strange creatures. Not only are we tribalistic, but we really are not capable of long-term consequences. Ten years out is far beyond the thinking of policymakers.

There is something else. Humans are creatures of habit. We have a hell of a time changing our ways. And then there is the economy. We have ideas about the economy. One of the most enduring ones, at least since The Wealth of Nations, is that the market will self regulate. There is a subset of this. Markets, healthy economies, will continue to grow.

There are problems with this. First off, there are limits to growth. What we call overshoot. We are at that stage and probably reached it in the 1990s. Yet, decades after those warnings we still act as if nothing has changed and as if we had eternal resources that will never run out.

The warnings are becoming louder. We live on a planet where the crisis is the word of the day. We live on a planet where extinction is accelerating. Yet, our political leaders keep acting as if nothing is wrong.

Yes, they attend conferences and sign treaties. They pretend to care. But they are beholden to big money interests that do not have the interest in life on earth or species survival. In other words, they still act as if the crisis is not real, or won’t affect them. The problem is that all the money in the world will not save people from this crisis. In fact, money, as much as we love it…is actually an artificial construct. So is wealth. What neither of them can buy is species-survival. At least not now. Trillions upon trillions of dollars cannot avert mass extinction, including our own. It may, in fact, be the problem.

If we are to survive, changes will have to happen. There are a certain number of assumptions that will have to go. Why? The present system is not sustainable. And the first place to start is with the economic system. Over the last three hundred years, we have lived under an increasingly complex system that relies on the market to set prices. It is mostly a belief that the invisible hand does this, but this has created a system where ideally society is ruled by the market and not by other organizations in society. Chief among them, the government is seen as a problem that gets in the way of the market.

One of the assumptions we have made is that the market is infinitely wise. It will find the best way to distribute resources and to set prices. How precisely this happens, there are many books, but we really do not know. However, one of the things that are essential for this is the rational actor, that does all to his (and it was his) benefit before anybody else’s. Self-interest is essential to this system, and deals are made to benefit both parties.

This is the basis for modern capitalism. We still work under this essential assumption that has done a lot of damage. Why? It ignores that societies do need governments and that those governments have the obligation to at times regulate goods and services. One example of this is health care. None of us has the luxury of shopping for a doctor in the middle of a medical emergency. What is more, none of us can choose to take or not take certain medications. Insulin comes to mind. People who depend on insulin need it every day. Without it, these people will die. In our infinite wisdom or lack off, we have chosen to leave this in the hand of the market. Hence, the medical cost in the United States is out of control. We have no limits to the cost of medicines, which are not a choice. So people who cannot afford them… die.

This is just a small example of where the market is not wise. With greenhouse gasses, it is the same exact conundrum. We cannot afford to keep putting these gases in the atmosphere. None in the future will clean our mess up. We keep doing this in the false belief that the market will self regulate. As a species, we will die. We will go extinct. And then what will those billions of Monopoly money be good for? There will be no economy, and there will be no history. And there will be no memory.

Make no mistake, Life systems will recover like they have the last five times the planet had a mass extinction. There should be little worry about life on Earth. It will continue to go on as it has in the past. And we know the planet has at least two billion years of opportunity for another self-aware, intelligent species to evolve. But for us, it will be collective suicide. Why? We seem unable, or unwilling, to change our ways even in the face of extinction.

Yes, this is the time for governments around the world to intervene in the economy. This is the time for them to choose new winners in the energy system we need for our advanced societies. Yes, this is the time to mandate that fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground, even if in the fantasy valuations of our economic system it means trillions will remain there. What value is there in materials that will ultimately kill us? I suppose the same as in the tobacco industry, which also pulled all kinds of tricks to remain viable. But chiefly, it is time to abandon some cherished assumptions.

The most critical one, growth cannot continue forever. We crossed overshoot a while ago.

Granted, with the end of history, and economics, and life on earth as we know it, it will not matter. Except for one thing. We know what death is. Unlike other species, we believe we have that particular understanding. Well, it is time we act like it. It is time for the adults to stop acting like petulant five-year-olds.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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