On Fighting Climate Change

Until a complete ban on the manufacturing of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 1979, factories dumped well over 500,000 kilograms of the stuff into the Hudson River. Exposure to PCBs is associated with a long list of health effects, including skin rashes, liver damage, and cancer. PCBs were far from the only hazardous material dumped unchecked into the Hudson. For example, a factory of an automotive giant dumped wastewater and paints into the river in such quantities, that Dominick Pirone, an ecologist, and fisherman remarked that “you can tell what color cars they are painting on a given day by what color the river is”.
Increased public awareness of the pollution of US waterways led to the introduction of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which regulated the pollution of waters. An arduous process of cleanup began soon after, which is still ongoing.

While in most developed countries there is legislation in place to regulate pollutants with short term effects, little has been done to tackle stealthier but equally perilous byproducts of human activity. In particular, the emission of greenhouse gases, which are collectively responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere, is virtually unchecked to this day. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the most significant of this crowd, is emitted with every step we take. Indeed, besides most living organisms, CO2 is emitted by almost all economic activity. Buying an iPhone 6? Just the manufacturing of the 129-gram gadget incurs an astounding 80 kilograms of CO2 emissions. A return trip from London to New York? Your aircraft will emit approximately 1000 kg of CO2 for each passenger on board.

Why do these numbers matter? It is perhaps best to listen to what people who dedicated their lives to the systematic study of the environment have to stay. The scientific consensus is clear: climate change is real, is man-made, with catastrophic consequences. Indeed, there is a growing number of researchers considering global warming an imminent existential risk, meaning that it could cause the total eradication of humankind. A recent report by Australian scientists concluded that “climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat”.

Greenhouse gases are captured by a variety of natural ways, most notably the vegetation of the Earth absorbs an enormous amount of CO2. There is a snag, however: every hour 800 football pitches worth of forests disappears globally, according to a report by the European Commission. Despite all efforts, these trends are forecasted to continue. It is, therefore, time to radically rethink our approach to climate change.

An individual’s carbon footprint is effected mostly through their interactions with corporations, for example, when ordering a new smartphone or booking flight tickets. Governments, more or less representing the interests of the individual, can regulate corporations. To find a robust response to climate change, we need to understand the motives of each of these actors.

Individuals have several actions they can take to reduce their environmental impact, such as buying second-hand, riding a bicycle or flying less. Yet, in today’s libertarian societies, people are rarely incentivized by their governments to take such action. In the absence of such external factors, our behavior will be mostly driven by our primal instincts. Unfortunately, our brains evolved to be hedonistic: we are compelled to amass things and fly to faraway places. Therefore, it is unlikely that humans will voluntarily change their behavior en masse.

One might expect that corporations are more capable of taking effective action since they seem unsusceptible of such hedonistic tendencies. Yet, the tenure of most executives is evaluated in terms of shareholder value, meaning that companies are ultimately after profits. Unfortunately, as things stand today, profits and sustainability are rarely aligned. Indeed, if Apple had to offset the emissions each new iPhone generates, its profits would suffer. This is why corporations are unlikely to change course unless financially incentivized to do so.

To date, neither individuals nor corporations changed much, despite the public awareness of climate change. Therefore change needs to happen on a governmental level. First, governments must create marketplaces for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. This could be done either by reforestation or by any other emerging carbon capture technologies. To fund such schemes, governments should tax investments in the fossil fuel industries.
Secondly, legislation should require corporations to neutralize their emissions through these mechanisms. This could happen gradually, meaning companies would only have to offset 10% of their emissions initially, with an additional 10% annual increase. For example, your airline would have to offset the one metric ton of CO2 emitted during your New York trip. This is easier than it seems. Planting a tree can be as cheap as $0.1, and each tree can capture 40 kg of CO2 per year. Planting the 25 trees needed to offset the footprint of your trip costs less than a latte. The profits of most businesses would undoubtedly suffer in the short term. Yet, this shock would be temporary, and it would channel much-needed capital into the research and implementation of green technologies. In turn, the price of carbon capture would decrease, easing the burden on corporations. Additionally, companies would be incentivized to decrease their emissions in the first place, accelerating the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
A reduction of illnesses associated with the byproducts of fossil fuels would follow. As a third step, governments should redirect funds from healthcare into making public infrastructure carbon-neutral. The benefits, compounding each other, would be felt in all aspects of our lives.

In 2016, a humpback whale made a splash in the news in New York, since it was the first to have swum up the Hudson to Manhattan in recent years. Conservationists credited the cleanup efforts of the river for the appearance of the whale. Just as with the conservation of the Hudson, we can turn climate change around. We cannot begin soon enough: if the findings of the Australian researchers are anywhere close to accurate, it might already be too late.

I wrote the above essay for The Economist’s Open Future essay contest. More about the contest, and the winner essay can be found here.

Thanks to Clare Lyle, Norbert Feher, Konrad Kollnig and Ago Lajko for reading a draft of this essay.