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A Pragmatic Approach to Climate Change: Part 1—Choose a Fact-Based Strategy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
August 26, 2021

This is the first in a series of columns I will write for PA Times Online the role of government in managing climate change. About 50 years ago scientists began putting humanity on notice that increasing levels of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere inevitably would destabilize the planet’s climate with potentially grievous consequences. We stand today on the cusp of realizing those consequences and possibly even much worse (see the United States Drought Monitor Report for a visual map). Much of the rather pointless debate about climate change over those 50 years was devoted to whether or not the climate was changing (it is) and who to blame (as if identifying the culprit somehow would fix the problem). Truth be told, the entire debate was a distraction pushed in large part by entrenched economic interests erroneously convinced that real action on climate change might hurt these interests financially.

All of this must stop immediately. If the governments of the earth make any more mistakes in responding to climate change, then more than a billion people living in environmentally vulnerable areas around the world could lose their lives in short order. That would be a death toll dwarfing the combined fatalities of all wars and genocides since 1900. If you do not believe this, consider that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed about 400,000 persons or about the total number of United States combat-related deaths in all of World War Two. That was just a small sampling of what can happen to environmentally vulnerable populations in the face of disaster. The preventable deaths of more than a billion people certainly should not be the legacy of how we chose to deal with climate change in this century.

The current and destructive distraction in the ongoing debates over climate change regards how to slow or stop the release of carbon into the atmosphere by changing the economic decisions of billions of consumers. The facts are clear: this is not going to work, perhaps with the exception of the wealthy switching to electric vehicles (and mostly for prestige, not any real contribution to a solution). Here are two reasons why the current push for changing consumer preferences will fail:

  1. It simply is too late. In many fundamental ways, the climate simply will not respond quickly enough to these shifts to forestall disaster. Back in the halcyon days of yore (2016), I wrote a column for the PA Times about one facet of this—rising sea levels due to the melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland—that you can read here.
  2. The billions of people living in anticipation of enjoying vital, modern amenities such as air conditioning are not going to accept messaging that says they must sacrifice so that others can continue to have those amenities. In the perverse nature of climate feedback loops, those without air conditioning are going to demand that benefit even when providing it to billions more households could make the earth warmer.

Instead of helping to address climate change, the discussion about changing consumer choices is another example of forestalling any serious actions that might possibly impinge on the economic well-being of those who benefit from the current carbon economy.

I come at this issue as a dedicated pragmatist. We need workable, pragmatic solutions that are commensurate with the problem, based in facts and not immediately stacked up against intense political opposition. Political conservatives have moved from denying climate change to falling back on their mantra that the market will take care of it. Those on the left are fixating on making corporate culprits pay for their sins. Both approaches literally are dead ends for humanity.

As far as I can discern, the only way forward is to start managing the earth’s climate dynamically. There are four components to this approach. First, we need to deflect back into space a significant amount of energy coming from the Sun. There are scientific and engineering obstacles to overcome, not to mention a governance conundrum I will address in my next column. The goal must be to cool the earth now, not wait 50 years for the level of carbon in the atmosphere to stabilize. Second, we need to invest in technologies worldwide that remove carbon from the atmosphere while allowing billions of additional households to have modern amenities. Third, we need to make changes to technologies such as air conditioning, heating and transportation that wean everyone off fossil fuels. And, fourth, per my 2016 column referenced above, we need to manage the rising seas. I know that most of the readers of this column are public administrators, not politicians. I am appealing to you because you will have an important voice in the debates over climate change. Here is the bottom line. There has been much attention recently to terraforming planets like Mars to facilitate eventual human habitation. That clearly is not going to work. What is necessary, unfortunately, is to begin terraforming the earth. We have no choice. Stop debating strategy and begin developing promising tactics. A billion lives hang in the balance.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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