Climate ‘Medicines’ do not Alleviate the Symptoms of Climate Change

Sustaining popular support for long-run climate policies is confronted with a serious problem.  In nearly all other areas of public policy there are manifest experiential benefits for citizens that result from policy implementation.  But climate change is different.  Citizens who are called upon to support and bear the burden of climate policies in the name of ‘stopping climate change’ will not directly experience any first-hand benefits in terms of less dangerous or more benign weather.

As urgent calls to ‘stop climate change’ proliferate across the western world, the range of policy interventions and other lifestyle changes citizens are being told are ‘necessary’ widens.  For example, the UK chief environment scientist Sir Ian Boyd calls upon people to ‘eat less meat and buy fewer clothes’; the campaigner Greta Thunberg has spawned a new movement seeking to shame people into not flying; people are asked to turn down their thermostats in winter, bear fewer children or to leave their car at home.  Policies that accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy impose new taxes on ordinary people or else are likely to make energy more expensive, as already has been the case in Germany.

For the goal of arresting global climate change—whether at 1.5°C or 2°C of warming–these are some of the climate medicines that ordinary people, at least those in more developed nations, are being urged to take.

But in the medical analogy we expect to feel the benefits of inconvenient or unpleasant treatments, if not tomorrow, then within a matter of either weeks or months.  We bear the short-term costs of painful medicine on the expectation that we will experience some alleviation of our symptoms—for example, weight loss or gain, pain reduction, greater mobility, better mood.  Indeed, if there is no alleviation of our symptoms we are entitled to question the treatment regime.

Climate change is not like this.  Most people experience climate change—it becomes ‘real’ for them–through manifestations of extreme weather and the harms they bring, whether this is experienced directly or mediated vicariously through TV or social media.  People may take the painful and disruptive medicine of climate policies either willingly or reluctantly.  But an alleviation of the symptoms of climate change—either less dangerous or more benign weather–will not come their way.

This is so for two reasons.

First, is the inertia of the physical Earth System.  The timescales of Earth System dynamics are long, whether it be carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, heat accumulation in the oceans raising sea-levels, melting of huge ice-sheets, or thawing of permafrost.  Even if the climate medicine is effective globally—for example by eventually stabilising global temperature—the Earth System will take many decades to adjust to the physical changes long since set in motion.  In the meantime, dangerous weather and the damage it causes will continue for decades to come.

The second reason is the collective-action nature of the climate change problem.  The climate medicine might be effective nationally—for example by hitting the net-zero carbon emissions target set by the UK for 2050.  But translating this success into any realised benefits for people of less dangerous weather not only is decades away but even this far-off alleviation of symptoms depends crucially on what climate medicines other nations are taking.

This results in the following uncomfortable reality: people are being called upon to take unpleasant climate medicine indefinitely with no prospect of every experiencing any alleviation of their symptoms.  The ‘success’ of climate policies can only be captured by slowly unfolding abstract scientific indicators that no citizen can ever experience, such as net carbon emissions, carbon dioxide concentrations, global temperature.  Or alternatively, be compared against some hypothetically more severe symptoms simulated by a computer model—but again inaccessible to the lived experience of citizens.

The climate case compares unfavourably with three other areas of public policy that are frequently used as analogues for widespread climate mobilisation: war, the 1960s Apollo programme and fiscal policy.

Tackling climate change is often compared with the scale of mobilisation embarked upon by combatant Allied nations in 1939 at the commencement of World War 2.  This entailed considerable costs and depravations for citizens in these nations, but sacrifices that could—within a matter of 2 or 3 years—begin to be seen as warranted given the emerging Allied victories over the Axis forces from 1942 onwards.

The political will required to tackle climate change is also sometimes compared with that instilled by JFK’s 1962 call to the American people to support the national effort to put an American on the moon within the decade.  Although the policies required to do this did not have deeply felt public costs, nevertheless there was a very real and tangible outcome of the policy for all to see.  In July 1969 Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps on the moon.

A third comparison is with fiscal policy.  When nations succumb to economic depression or experience hyperinflation, difficult and unpopular measures are introduced on the grounds of restabilising the economy and facilitating growth.  Although GDP often acts as an abstract indicator of policy performance in such cases—a little bit like global temperature—the difference from the climate change case is important.  Within a few months, or at worst a few years, ordinary people will begin to experience the everyday benefits of unwelcome economic policies in terms of job creation, price stability or income growth.

What are the implications of this important observation that the benefits of climate policies are manifestly invisible?

First, it is important to tell people the truth and drop the rhetoric.  It is important for our citizens not to be misled—even if by default–into thinking that they will experience in their lifetime any manifest benefits from taking the climate medicine in terms of less dangerous or more benign weather.  Heatwaves, rising seas, floods, storms, drought and fire will continue (indeed, likely worsen) for decades to come.  The visceral symptoms of global climate change will not be alleviated.  This is a difficult, but crucial, reality to grasp.

At best—and depending upon other behaviours around the world–people will see only abstract scientific indicators of the Earth System moving slowly, over a period of decades, in more favourable directions.  As Ursula Heise pointed out in her book Sense of Place, Sense of Planet, this hampers the affective engagement of ordinary citizens with the task of arresting climate change.

Second, it is going to become increasingly important—indeed for some it always has been important—to explain, justify and even to design climate policies on non-climate criteria, on grounds where it will be possible for people to see and experience manifest benefits within much shorter timeframes.  Most climate policies have consequences beyond ‘stopping climate change’; some of these will yield shorter-term and experiential benefits

It is policies such as these that have the greatest chance of being sustained over the long periods of time that are necessary to alleviate the symptoms of a warming planet.  And we need to be honest about why we should support them—not because they can bring about some imagined abstract benefit for people 50 or more years away, but because they bring about manifest experiential public benefits in the realisable future.

Mike Hulme, University of Cambridge, 29 August 2019