Keith Kloor approached me this weekend with a question.
According to Robert Stavins, Keith noted,
“It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction,” Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today in an interview in Bloomberg’s Boston office.
And with reference to that, he asked:
So my two questions are: Do you agree with this, and if so, then for people who are concerned about climate change and want to stay engaged and help in some way to reduce greenhouse gases, what should they be doing?
Try to keep your answer at modest length, and I definitely would appreciate you not blogging on this Bloomberg article until after my post appears on Monday.
You can see Keith’s resulting article on his new blog at Climate Central; it’s a short piece, so most of what I said in reply wasn’t quoted. I had thought about it long enough that I figure I might as well share my entire response which follows, which I have expanded a bit for clarity.
The first time I heard something resembling Stavins’ claim was in the early days of internet conversation, from the keyboard of the renowned computer scientist John McCarthy. We were participants in the usenet discussion group sci.environment before it was taken over by ill-tempered and immature partisan sniping. You might argue that we had polite and intelligent partisan sniping instead.
My first thought in regard to this sort of observation is that it is obviously correct, given that the expression is “unlikely” rather than “impossible” or “violation of an iron law”. I strongly object to the latter formulation, as it somehow makes politics a matter of inevitability, rather than of human agency.Still, one must admit that on present evidence it would be surprising if America rose to the occasion any time soon.
We probably won’t act any time soon, but we are foolish and shortsighted for failing to do so.
I’d also like to point out that the framing of Stavins’ assertion, about what America will do, is itself inappropriate. The problem is global and any meaningful solution requires global cooperation. This in practice means cooperation from the main power and population centers, America crucially but not solely among them. Asking what America will do about it is like asking what Nebraska will do about fiscal policy. The problem requires nothing less than a global consensus.
As for what individuals can do, the sad answer is, very little. Becoming engaged with the science and the politics of global sustainability is the most important action in my opinion. After all, arguably the first serious substantive policy step is to abandon the use of coal, but hardly any individual purchases coal anymore.
The playing field is political. Individual sacrifices are of relatively minor importance.