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How Bad is Climate Change?

April 12, 2019

Right now we could be on the verge of mass extinction of the human race. The cause is not unknown, nor is it something that we have no control over—it’s us. Climate change, caused solely by humans [1], occurs when carbon is released into the atmosphere, largely by the use of fossil fuels, raising global average temperatures, inflaming extreme weather events (like the California wildfires and, maybe surprisingly, the recent polar vortex), which exacerbates poverty and food shortages [2]. There’s a sense of remoteness and abstractness that often clings to discussions about climate change, but that feeling is one that is entirely void of the very real and very current threat the climate change poses. The unavoidable fact is that climate change is a discrete genocide, slaughtering 5 million every year [3], and potentially leading to total disintegration of the human species [4]. To avoid Armageddon, or at least maintain our ability to do so, the UN has given humanity until 2030 to half our carbon emissions and until 2050 to have net-zero emissions [5]. Due to consistent apathy towards the climate, we now are left with about 10 years for what can only be radical action to clean up our mess. For the first time in the history of our planet, a single species could end all life that we know of, and they will have known how to stop it the whole time.

The past century has gone by with no apocalypse-averting action  The lack of concern has not been because people don’t care about the air they breathe or about the lives of millions—it’s because the power systems we have in place force indifference towards this issue. By their very structure, businesses are impelled to ignore what are called “negative externalities,” like climate change, because it could decrease profits. This is due to two aspects of our economy: unaccountable ownership and competition in what is roughly a market. The unaccountable, private ownership inherently means that owners are separated from the effects of their choices, allowing for something as heinous as the massacre of all of humanity, and a market essentially forces a profit motive that further compounds this unaccountability and apathy. There’s a sort of Machiavellian logic that goes along with markets: if you don’t ignore externalities, someone else will and they will make more money than you. This system of private enterprises operating in a market is called “capitalism” and it’s a system of profit at all costs—even extinction.

But capitalism’s internal logic is not the only way it ended us up in such a sticky situation. Massive infrastructure for oil and coal has been able to get a head start, which now, with all of its accumulated power, allows these industries to undermine the smaller, newer, alternative energy companies to maintain control. For example, Westar hikes rates for consumers who decide to install solar panels on their own homes, allowing them to increase profits while sending a distinct message to the consumer: don’t try to save the environment, it hurts our bottom line.

One might say, though, that despite businesses not helping, neither is the average person. While it’s true that many of us don’t do much about climate change, that might just come from an understanding of disenfranchisement in our economic system. It is, after all, only 100 producers that are responsible for almost three quarters of industrial emissions [6] (which doesn’t even touch the damage done by all the other producers), and it is business owners that have power not only over resources but over education about which consumer choices one should make.

Calls for “ethical consumerism,” which can be heard from both the left and the right, not only leave out the poor, who have much less say over their consumer decisions, but they are unreasonable for almost every consumer. Measurably, one’s perception of how environmentally friendly their consumer actions are has virtually no correlation with their actual environmental impact, in part due to the practical impossibility of understanding the environmental impact of every single purchase one makes, and in part due to advertising which is often meant only to show the good [7]. And it’s important to remember that the power to educate—or, more accurately, miseducate—lies much more in the hands of those who benefit from climate change than in the hands of those who don’t.

But companies are not sovereign entities; they are subject to the rule of governments. Governments theoretically should operate in the interests of the people, but, unless our government somehow thinks that climate change is in our interests, they’re not doing what they’re supposed to. Well, in America, a supposed beacon of democracy, private power essentially writes the laws for their own benefit, allowing the very elites that are sending us to the slaughterhouse to avoid any repercussions for it. Our political system is controlled by economic elites, leaving out almost all detectable influence from the people [8], meaning that we do not functionally live in a democracy, as is often claimed, but rather a plutocracy, where money is considered a higher priority than human life.

This complete lack of accountability in institutions that are supposed to be the most transparent is not so much a bug as it is a feature, though. Every government that is not directly democratic, such as a democratic republic, is intentionally not altogether accountable based on an assumption that the masses are stupid and incapable of deciding their own fate and truly ought to be left out. This opinion often implicitly permeates the minds of intellectuals, but some are bold enough to explicitly speak out against democracy, including founding fathers like James Madison[9].

Sometimes this unaccountability displays itself in virtual caricatures with leaders who are almost nauseatingly overt  about their interests, like Trump and Brazil’s new pro-dictatorship president, Bolsonaro. Though these administrations might be theatrically anti-environment, even more inconspicuous governments aren’t and haven’t been doing enough, like the Obama administration for instance, who still did not nearly set us on track to meet these UN goals[10]. The only proposal by a politician that even comes close to the guarantee of a liveable planet for the next generation is is the Green New Deal, which has not passed. The Green New Deal is not flawless, but the main problem here is that it is the only proposal to fix the biggest issue humans have ever faced. Climate change reports repeatedly point to “political challenges” or other synonymous phrases, but that’s not because the people don’t want change, it’s because our governments don’t care.

But the core of the problem, the worst aspect of economic unaccountability, is expansive and unnecessary economic growth. As GDP increases, so do carbon emissions [11]; a direct causal link has been found between the growth of sectors of our economy and the increase in coal and/or natural gas [12]; and the WWF identifies massively expanding human consumption as the key cause of environmental issues [13]. It is clear that expansion is a problem, and not one that will be solved under any form of capitalism.

Within every business, the profit-motive forces owners to have to either expand production directly, or they can try to become more “efficient” (which, here, means more wasteful as opposed to the actual meaning of the word “efficient”), which allows them to produce more, gaining more profit in either case. In almost all of this, the need for energy increases, meaning the industry that we need to slow down the most is hurtling in the opposite direction.

And, as Einstein points out, under capitalism “production is carried on for profit, not for use.” [14] Businesses want to keep customers coming back so they can continuously profit, leading to things like planned obsolescence (where products are made to become obsolete or dysfunctional after a period of time, forcing the consumer to go back and purchase products that are virtually the same), and like the lack of reusable products (e.g. common plastic sandwich bags instead of fabric ones).

And capitalism leads to unnecessary production in many other ways, too: it atomizes individual consumption, meaning more people have to consume that necessarily have to; marketing exists for the sole purpose of increasing consumption, particularly of goods and services that people wouldn’t otherwise want to waste money on; and capitalism would rather waste resources than distribute to those who can’t pay (food waste alone is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, destroying 1.3 metric gigatons of food each year [15]), among other reasons.

One might think that, through the invisible hand of the market, producers would collectively try to avoid climate change because it kills off the source of their profits, but that puts far too much faith in power systems that have shown they will do anything before they will care about externalities. The drive for profit, though, remains in the short term, not the long, leading not only to the demise of humanity, but it is currently and has been leading to decreased profits for business owners for centuries. One example is that the cause of “millennials killing industries” that reaches headlines so often is in fact just that business owners don’t pay millennials enough [16]. Another, and one that has plagued capitalism since its inception, is that business owners’ own incentive for efficiency, decreasing their costs, is eventually met by the whole market increasing efficiency, putting all business owners in a given market at a lower level of profit. This has lead to the rate of profit falling since the dawn of capitalism [17]. Business owners will kill themselves in the long term if it means short term gain, and that has always and will always be the case.

It is clear that climate change is the greatest issue we face and it is clear that our power systems are determined not to solve it, but it is our participation in these systems that allow them to continue, our acceptance of a boot on our own face, our total complacence in the face of destruction. Unaccountability is the driving force of our impending doom, but only because we have not properly challenged it. Only if we actively seek to become more cooperative in our institutions and our communities, can the power that has been taken from the people come back bit by bit.

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