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Marketplace Morning Report

Global warming: 15 years to change things…

Dan Weissmann Apr 14, 2014
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The latest U.N. climate change report says that if the world doesn’t do some really tough, expensive things over the next 15 years, the costs of climate change may spiral out of control. Some of those things involve technology that isn’t available yet, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Others involve things countries have done a terrible job of so far— like burning less coal, oil and gas. Scientists have been saying carbon-dioxide emissions have to be reduced for decades, but emissions actually went up in the early twenty-first century. Some people deny global warming is caused by human activitity, but what holds the rest of the world back? A lot. 

Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, studies what he calls the “dragons of inaction” on climate change. So far, he says he’s counted more than 30. 

“Certainly one that would be in the top ten is ‘lack of perceived behavioral control,'” he says. “Which in plain English is: What can I do about it? I’m only one person out of 7 and a half billion people?”

Another one is fatalism. “If people think the game is already over, then why should I do anything?” Gifford says. He thinks “apocalyptic” predictions by scientists can actually make that problem worse. 

“I’ve called this the policy problem from hell,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  “You almost couldn’t design a problem that in some ways is a worse fit for our psychology as well as our institutional decision making.”

Psychologically, he says, it doesn’t help that carbon dioxide itself is invisible. It’s hard to fight what you can’t see.

Climate change also seems too far away to focus on. “Even if they accept that climate change is real,” he says, “many people still think it’s distant in time—that the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more. Or distant in space — that this is about polar bears.”

Institutionally, he thinks politicians have more practical reasons for thinking short-term: The next election cycle. “Many of them aren’t going to be around to see the ultimate effect of the decisions they make today,” he says.  

“What makes this even harder is that countries need to coordinate,” says David Victor, the author of Global Warming Gridlock, who helped put together the U.N. report’s introductory chapter. “No big emitter is going to control its emissions aggressively and bear that cost unless it sees other major emitters in the world doing something similar.”

The U.N. climate report outlines steps to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Victor says he expects the world to “blow past” that target.

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