Why we won’t stop global warming

Unless our short- and long-term interests align, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever do anything about climate change.

Simply purchasing a pack of cigarettes illustrates how unconcerned many are for long-term consequences [EPA]

If you’ve ever seen a person purchase a pack of cigarettes featuring an image of a blackened, cancerous lung, then you probably understand that big issues like global warming may never be solved. The cause of inaction: an inability to stop future dangers for want of short-term pleasures. Pleasure almost always trumps long-term self-interest.

It is difficult to contest the fact of rising temperatures and their volatile effects. The oceans are a bit warmer. Polar ice is melting at a faster rate each year. There’s less snow on certain mountains. The evidence is everywhere.

Among those who recognise the realities of global warming and climate volatility, some dismiss them as part of the Earth’s natural temperature cycle. As we’ve learned from school textbooks, science fiction novels, and even children’s television cartoons such as Dinosaur Train, our world used to be a lot warmer. The extra heat then was and, perhaps, now is simply a part of our planet’s normal climate cycle. Call it the divine plan of Mother Nature.

Others urge us to acknowledge that we are the cause or, at least, the accelerants of the Earth’s heating cycle. We pollute the air, the land, the seas and then we shrug when asked to identify the causes of climate change. Just hop on a plane to any major industrial city and you’ll see that we’re not entirely without fault as you descend through a layer of rust-coloured smog.

There is not consensus, not even among environmentalists, on whether global warming can be stopped. However, there is agreement that the levels of pollutants released can be reduced and a widespread belief that the resulting decrease could create climate stability.

We can lessen our future impact on the environment. Certainly, nations need to agree to reduce the amount of pollutants that they emit. There’s also a role for each of us to play. Recycling, planting trees, reducing our energy consumption, and carpooling are just a few of the available options.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the majority of us will apply ourselves to this cause. Here’s why.

Struggling for motivation

It is extraordinarily difficult to find the motivation to act now to prevent something that possibly, maybe, just might occur 100, 250, or 1,000 years from now. Although the effects of global warming can be felt today – an increasing frequency of hurricanes, heat waves and droughts, the truly spectacular consequences such as the rising of the oceans to the point that they envelop islands or droughts that transform farmlands into permanent deserts are unlikely to occur in this millennium. When the consequences of global warming are so far beyond the horizon, there seems to be little incentive to act.

Even efforts to try to encourage people to preserve the world for their descendants, their children’s children’s children rarely succeed. Our sense of time spans two generations back in the past and two generations forward into the future. That’s it. Most people cannot name a single great-grandparent. Few parents can conceive of the possibility of their child someday becoming a grandparent. It’s our historical and future-looking myopia that makes it pretty much impossible to for us to even imagine the distant future.

Also, let’s admit that some of the short-term effects of global warming can be outright pleasant. In my hometown, Buffalo, New York, a city notorious for blizzards and winter storms, last week the temperatures briefly climbed high enough that residents could leave their coats at home for a few days. The ability to play golf rather than shovel snow in January can make climate volatility seem more like a gift than a curse.

It’s human nature to struggle with temptation and to not always act in our long-term best interest. It is self-evident that many of our personal health problems and social ills – from obesity to random murders – could be eliminated or drastically reduced if people could manage to resist that urge to eat that extra slice of cheesecake or buy that assault weapon which was meant to be deployed in war zones and not in movie theatres or classrooms. Nevertheless, we indulge and bad things happen.

We, especially in the US, like big cars and we like to own more than one of them. We, by the tens of thousands, go to racetracks and watch for hours as cars circle the speedway. We go to arenas, also by the thousands, to see Monster Jam events, cars and trucks outfitted with giant wheels crushing normal size vehicles. This is not a critique. These events are a lot of fun… but they also are an anathema to people who campaign against global warming since they make entertainment out of excessive fuel consumption and unnecessary carbon emissions.

Counting the Cost
The cost of climate change

In this increasingly fast paced world, we struggle to keep up and, for that reason, we may not be inclined to slow down in order to sort and recycle. How many times have we, in a rush, elected to throw everything in the trash even when a recycling bin stood next to the rubbish container? How many times have we requested plastic bags simply because they can make it easier to unload the car quickly after an outing to the grocery store?

It’s not that we’re anti-environment. It’s just that we think of ourselves as being too busy to be actively in favour of it. Carpooling is a great idea – but it often takes longer to travel to where you want to go. Planting a tree sounds very environmentally friendly, but how many people do you know who have actually planted a tree and, besides, who has the time to go tree planting? We could give money to a service that will hire someone to plant a tree for us somewhere in South America… but that sounds like a scam.

When interests align

As unlikely as it seems that people will apply themselves to this cause to create climate stability, history tells us that people will work in their long-term best interest when it aligns with their short-term self-interest. We can see examples of this today.

Governments often motivate its citizens to act responsibly by threatening them with fines. We buckle our seatbelts or wear helmets because those acts are mandated by law. In some cities, local governments charge to collect trash but not recycling – thus incentivising (or penalising) certain behaviours.

A desire to be seen as trendy can motivate action on a large scale. Within certain income brackets, a hybrid car, solar panels and LEED certified homes are must-haves. It’s environmentally friendly peer pressure. All the cool people are doing it.

Local disasters – the devastation left in the wake of increasingly frequent hurricanes, respiratory problems caused by the combination of high heat and smog, the pollution of well water – help people to see that some of those long-term effects are happing nearby and right now and that they need to be challenged and corrected.

It may be difficult to imagine the world in which your children’s children’s children might live but it’s pretty obvious that there’s a problem when you (and your child) can’t go outside because of poor air quality and can’t swim in the local lake or river because of elevated bacteria levels.  

Rather than appealing to a person’s good nature and sense of moral responsibility, the campaign to slow down global warming and bring about climate stability might be better served to appeal to their baser instincts. If a person can be convinced that acting in the long-term interests of others will immediately improve their lot, then they probably will do so.

Harvey Young is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. A cultural historian, he is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body.