Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Global Warming as Mephistophelean Challenge

Ezra Klein points to a study on global warming (pdf) from the Lancet and University College London. As Ezra notes, one of the many complications involved in global warming is that the countries most affected by it will be those that are least responsible for it. Look at these two maps, which Klein posts:

The top map is a cartogram with countries scaled to represent their cumulative CO2 emissions from 1950-2000; the bottom map shows the distribution of mortality as a result of global warming health consequences (in particular, malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, and flood-related deaths). What's immediately obvious is that those who are most responsible for global warming - the US, Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China - will pay only a small fraction of the price; whereas the countries that makes the most negligible contributions to global warming, especially in Africa, will bear by far the largest burden.

Here's a thought experiment: see if you can imagine a problem that more exquisitely exploits the weaknesses of our nature as human beings than global warming. It's as if the problem were cooked up in the devil's own lab. Consider:

  • It is our nature to look after ourselves. But as you can see here, the countries that will be least affected by global warming are those that are most responsible. They (we) have the least incentive to worry about the consequences.
  • It is our nature to discount benefits that will only accrue in the future. That is, if we are offered $10 right now, we value that $10 more than ten bucks promised to us six months from now. (This is why pretty much everyone procrastinates: we value the present satisfaction of goofing off before working more than the future satisfaction of goofing off after working.) But global warming's greatest effects won't even be felt 6 months from now - they'll be felt more like a century from now.
  • It is in our nature to care about problems that affect us directly, rather than those that affect us indirectly or not at all. But we'll all be dead before the greatest effects of global warming hit. And to the extent that the problems will arrive while we're still alive, they'll manifest in mostly indirect ways: as somewhat higher food prices, say, rather than actual illness or death.
  • It is in our nature to want to accumulate wealth. But the way we've gone about accumulating wealth over the past century or two is causing global warming; and it's not at all clear that the continued accumulation of wealth - a.k.a. economic growth - is compatible with seriously confronting global warming.
  • It is in our nature to respond to sudden and drastic change, rather than incremental change; frogs and boiling water and all that. Global warming is the ultimate boiling frog.
  • It's in our nature to be able to comprehend tangible and local problems, rather than abstract and global problems. The level of conceptual analysis that's required simply to comprehend the problem of global warming goes beyond what most people employ in their daily lives. And mustering the intellectual will to actually weigh the consequences of ignoring or responding to the crisis, let alone actually taking action in response, is a whole order of magnitude more complex.
  • It's in our nature to worry first about our physiological concerns, then about our safety, then about our material satisfaction, and only much later about our needs for things like living in a sustainable society, or having moral concerns for people not yet born. For any given person at any particular point in time, their physical and material needs are likely, in general, to lead to actions that contradict the actions that are called for by their abstract ethical concerns about future generations or people in distant lands; and since the physiological and material needs are more fundamental, there is every reason to expect them to win out.
  • It's in our nature to have difficulty working together in large organizations. Yet global warming requires that we work together with an unprecedented degree of global cooperation.

That's just a partial list of the really fundamental aspects of human nature - a nature that has evolved over millions of years to deal with a very different set of problems - which seem almost perfectly unequipped to deal with a problem like global warming. This is why I'm not especially optimistic about our ability to come to grips with this problem before widespread calamity is ensured, and why I expect the people of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries will go down in history as the people who traded a healthy world for a pile of Big Macs and SUVs.

On the other hand, if we are able to meet the challenge, think of what that would mean: that we were able to overcome everything innately self-interested and short-sighted and stupid in our nature to retain a livable home for future generations. That, to me, seems like enough reason to keep trying.


Northstar Nerd said...

It's definitely worth linking to Lancet and University College London to see their huge library of maps that help one better understand key social dynamic trends. I developed a screencast around many of them named the "The World is Not Flat".

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