Let’s talk about climate change optimism

Policy discussions about climate change are usually just as toxic as the environment. Two partisan camps have fortified, one ringing the alarm about impending apocalypse and the other absurdly denying that any threat exists. As such, climate change optimism is unwelcome at the discussion table. It just doesn’t fit into anyone’s narrative.

But the current course is not yielding results. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the international community is not on track to meet the emissions targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. The United States will withdraw from that agreement by Jan. 2020. The Trump Administration regularly bails out failing coal industries and Gov. Dunleavy erased the State of Alaska’s climate change strategy in February.

Advocates for climate change policy have tried escalating the stakes. We have just 12 years to stall climate change, they say, or else we face irreversible environmental catastrophe, including natural disasters with increasing frequency and intensity. Outside of the scientific community, there is even talk of human extinction. The future looks grim.

Maybe not, though. There is evidence in our favor, but it requires adopting a different narrative than what is being argued over now. Humans are highly adaptive. Our species has endured climate shifts in the past, including ice ages and warming periods. We possess the technology to manipulate our environment, and the knowledge to make sense of Earth systems. If we are already past the point of no return, then we might as well use our tools and skills to take advantage of a warmer planet.

Economist Paul Romer distinguishes two kinds of optimism, complacent and conditional, that are pertinent to climate change. Complacent optimism is what a child feels waiting for Santa’s presents. Conditional optimism is what a child feels when thinking about building a treehouse. If you put in the work, you get something really cool in the end.

Climate change policy needs conditional optimism. If we do the right things, we end up rich. We can open trade lanes over the Arctic, expand into formerly cost-prohibitive areas, increase urbanization where humans tend to be more productive and discover technologies that make better use of fewer resources. A warmer climate enables all of those benefits.

This is a different tune than what the doomsayers are singing now. Merely surviving a future climate catastrophe isn’t as inspiring as you might think. Apocalypse sounds enigmatic and uncertain, and the supposed prescriptions for evading it are painful. Pay these taxes and close these factories, and we might survive.

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Catastrophic predictions about human inaction are more likely to stymie progress than stimulate it. This is psychological. You can’t reasonably expect that humans will act like Vulcans when assessing climate change. Human brains evolved well before the practice of statistics did, which means that risk assessment is often performed on an immediate and reactionary basis rather than a thoughtful computation of odds. For example, you’re more likely to be fearful of a spider in the shower than driving a vehicle too fast. Our primate brains are always going to assess risk and opportunity on short-term, tangible circumstances like terrorist attacks or the next PFD check. Long-term, amorphous challenges like global warming do not factor in as well. By recognizing this, we can avoid the trap that well-meaning climate scientists end up in when they throw overwhelming statistical evidence into a temperamental public arena that dissects information in unscientific ways.

A more compelling climate change message is one that triggers our hope and ingenuity, especially if there’s a profit to be had. We tend to be more receptive to those kinds of material incentives than we are to any purported common good. For example, let’s look at how the fossil fuel industry innovates. When the price of fuel is low, industry revenues fall and so innovators come up with technologies to produce fuel at lower costs. When the price of fuel is high, industry revenues inflate and production is expanded. In either situation, the common good of reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains unserved. It just isn’t as compelling of a human motivator as material incentives.

So we make reducing greenhouse gas emissions the material incentive itself. The goal people strive for is to increase profits and have nice things. A sustainable Earth is a side-effect. For example, imagine a carbon tax that starts out very low but increases automatically every year. Innovators will invest in ways to produce energy without having to pay those taxes. Green energy becomes the profit incentive rather than the begrudging duty for the common good. Innovators will have time. The energy companies that employ them can afford the incremental tax for a number of years. The incentive for extracting more fossil fuels will decrease, because who wants to invest in a long-term project that will produce something subject to a higher tax than what you’re paying now?

The end goal of that incremental carbon tax is for no one to pay it when it grows high in, say, the 2030s. Good. By then, we want energy companies to still be heating our homes and fueling our cars, but through green technology that they’ve wanted to develop themselves. The government doesn’t have to force anything. Climate responsibility becomes the material incentive, not the burden.