and why it is wise to act like it is real and caused by human behavior
Climate change is a popular topic in a sense that is currently is under a lot of attention. It is also a topic on which one can find a huge range of information from many different perspectives. Despite the attention and the information one can find, for many climate change is an abstract concept. It is something not everybody thinks of on a daily base and those who do seem to be more in dispute than in dialogue.
The key questions on climate change are:
- “Is climate change a reality or a phantasy?”
- “Is climate change caused (or accelerated) by human behavior?”
Most people do not have an opinion at all about climate change OR they have a very strong opinion about it. It seems to be hard to find something in between, a more balanced perspective that goes beyond the two key questions above. For every research paper that shows that climate change is reality and accelerated by human behavior, one can find a publication that proposes that the impact of human behavior on climate change is minimal to zero. For every newspaper article that expresses why it is important to take climate change serious, one can find an article that propagates climate change is a hoax. There are governments combining their actions to have a positive impact on climate change as well as governments that withdraw from these initiatives. And if you want to spoil the good atmosphere at a party, it can be very effective to bring climate change up as topic of conversation.
For many people climate change is abstract and something far away from their own perception of reality. But every time there is a major disaster like a serious drought affecting food crops or a hurricane destroying houses and infrastructure, the topic of climate change comes up, causing serious discussions and intense disputes. The discussions don’t help the average person to understand; it doesn’t make anything concrete at all. It confuses, irritates and enables people to find information that supports their opinion (downloading) or encourages people avoid the whole ‘issue’ of climate change (ignoring).
In this article I will explain why the whole discussion about climate change is irrelevant and obsolete. At the same time I will share why ignorance isn’t a proper thing to do, but very unwise instead.
Let’s assume we do not know anything about climate change and that we do not have an opinion at all about climate change. If we can postpone our judgments and if we can ignore all the information, four options remain:
- Climate change is a reality
- Climate change is a hoax
- Climate change is caused by human behavior
- The impact of human behavior on climate change irrelevant, to zero
The 4 options seem to hold 2 opposites; A: climate change is either ‘real’ or ‘fake’ and B: climate change is caused by human behavior or it is not. But let’s translate these into a more workable construct. ‘Real or hoax’ and caused by human versus not caused by human are two of a kind. What is relevant is: should we do something or not?!? A much better quadrant to approach this question with is one holding two questions:
- Is climate change caused by human behavior or is it not?
- Should we take actions on climate change or not?
The image below shows these questions in a 2 by 2 table we can work with.
Now, let’s look at this table from a rational perspective to find what is wise action. We can choose to do something or we can choose to do nothing. When we are able to keep our open mind installed and to ignore all the information, all four possibilities have an equal chance to be real. That means that – no matter if climate change is real or not – we have a 50% chance to do the right thing and a 50% chance to make a mistake.
It would be a wise decision not to do anything about climate change if it would not be caused by human behavior. But if climate change is not caused by human behavior and we do take a lot of effort to change our behavior, one could say that would be unwise. When climate change is accelerated by human behavior, it would be very wise to take action. Not taking action would increase the negative effects with consequences we do not know; it would be very unwise.
More interesting than the discussion above it would be to look at the consequences of making the right or wrong decision. What are they? We will look at this in a few steps.
When we decide to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly, we will have to transform our societies in many different ways; we have to change the way we live and work together. The whole cycle of how we produce food and goods should be transformed; we should change individual consumption patterns of food and materials; we should rethink a whole economy without fossil fuels and reinvent our use of water, land and resources. We should be very creative and we would have to spend billions in money.
But what if we take something seriously that is not real and never will be? In that case we have spent billions of money; we will have used many resources and hours of creative thinking on something where we could have spent all that time, money and resources on better things. If we succeed to transform our economies and our patterns of behavior we might have created a whole new economy and society, but the costs of it would have been far too extreme. We have spent our money, time and efforts to ‘heal’ something that didn’t need healing.
When we do nothing and the impact of human behavior on climate change is limited to zero, we are good. We can continue with what we are familiar with and continue to improve what we are good at now. All models for economy and society we have now are functional and – though with ups and downs – the global economy will continue to grow in the long term. Next generations will live in more prosperity and harmony, just like this generation lives in more peace and prosperity than the ones before us. We didn’t waste money, time, creativity and resources on things where it could have been used in a better way. We haven’t gone through the tensions come along with a process of transformation and we haven’t changed something that didn’t need change.
But what if we do nothing and climate change is caused by human behavior? Tensions will rise to an extreme on social, economic and ecologic level. There will be an increase of heavy droughts and heavy rains destroying our food crops. The intensity and frequency of natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis will increase causing much more destruction than we have ever seen. There will be wars over territory and over clean water and air. The amount of people on a drift, leaving their homes to find a safe place for survival will explode causing more tensions between groups and nations. Many species and many people – if not all will – die. And, with today’s technology and interconnection, it is not very unlikely that we will destroy all life on Earth; maybe even Earth.
If you would be a decision maker and want to act wisely, there is a choice. Basically we are all making decisions and we are all making choices. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of the ‘elite’ and have the position to make choices that affect many, or if you are a ‘common’ member of society, making decisions that only affect your own life and that of your family. The impact is different – yes – but numbers count as well and one small action can have huge impact. We all know stories of a little boy raising awareness on national level for a rare disease by polishing nails or of a little girl ending up on the front cover of Time magazine by telling her personal story of life in a country far away from our homes. It is not about them reaching the headlines in media, they had impact and brought (a movement for) change.
Most of us do have children and most parents want their child to have a bright future; we want our children to have a life as that is good as our own or better than we ever had. If we would replace “climate change” for “my child”, would you accept a 25% chance for your child to die? Would you even allow yourself choosing for something that will cause a certain death of your child of you had any other option? Wouldn’t you do everything that is in your possibilities to prevent that from happening? Most parents would. Even if the alternative doesn’t give any guarantee for a better result, most parents would choose for ANY other option than the one that of certain death. This is a reason why people in deprived areas and war-zones risk their children’s lives to send them on a dangerous trip to the unknown. There is hope that the alternative and unknown is better than the chance-less situation of the known. Even if the child doesn’t survive, the parent at least has tried everything in her/his possibilities to have saved it’s life.
If you are a business person with responsibility for the continuity of the company you work in, would you accept a 50% chance of certain failure with a 25% chance of certain bankruptcy? Good governance includes scenario planning and risk management, and most companies rather prevent risks than take them. When you would be in the boardroom and would have to make a choice from 4 options and one of these options is a certain elimination of the company and its business; what would you do? Most successful business(wo)men would make decisions to prevent that scenario ever becoming reality. The scenario leading to sure bankruptcy would be a definite ‘no go area’. If there are alternatives to choose from, the manager who chooses for liquidation will be blamed and shamed for bad governance. If there are options to choose from they must be taken seriously and explored. Even when they fail, at least everything has been tried to prevent.
Yet with climate change this all seems to be different. The logic in the examples above doesn’t seem to count. That is actually very strange. We do accept a 50% failure in our decisions and we do accept a 25% chance of certain death. But the stakes are much higher at the same time. We are not talking about the possibility of one or few children dying, but of billions and maybe all. We are not talking of one company going bankrupt, but of whole societies collapsing and maybe even destruction of Earth. And yet we accept 50% failure. It is gambling, not governance, nor making a smart individual decision.
The matrix I present shows we have a 50% chance to make a proper decision. The decision is either to act or not to act. The worst thing that can happen when we act is that we have transformed a world (economy, society) that didn’t need transforming. Yes, we have spent a lot of time, thinking, resources and money that we could have spent otherwise, but the future for our children is bright and the opportunities for business have changed, but are still there. The worst thing that can happen if we do not act is destruction and death. Even if you are one of the few who would survive, life will never be the same as it was before and, for sure, it will not be better than it was before.
This is why the only logical thing to do is to invest in society and in economy as if climate change IS real and IS caused by human behavior. Any other choice would be illogical and – I even dare to say – unethical. This is why the whole discussion doesn’t matter. There are no prizes for predicting the weather forecast, the only wise thing we can do is bring an umbrella just in case it might rain.
It might be easier not to anything and to rely on the 50% chance you have – to gamble – that all will be well or the ‘issues’ will be solved by others. It will be much more effective to do that (one little) thing you can do.
But what can one do? That, of course, is depending on where you are and what position in society you are in. But that you can do something is for sure. I will not give a list of tips here, you can find many on the internet. And it doesn’t need to be big, as long as it comes from certain awareness. Some decide to eat less meat, others not to let the tap running while brushing their teeth. Some decide to reduce their consumption and to buy less in the store (how many pair of shoes can you wear at the same time and how many do you need?) others decide to buy organic. A ‘tipping point’ can only be reached by a group of many, all doing a small thing.
No transformation has ever started from the top by those in ruling positions; it has always come from ordinary people like you and me doing simple or extraordinary things. Governments search for new ways of governance because citizens pressure them to; companies invest in ‘greener’ and ‘more sustainable’ products and in ‘fair trade’ because consumers pressure them to. You are that citizen, you are that consumer, and you have that capacity for change.
In this context, leadership isn’t about position or power. Leadership is to take lead by example, to take responsibility by action. Words don’t count and talking about climate change doesn’t do us well. Let’s do something!