Why do we ignore the imminent climate catastrophes?

Bush fires

Climate change deniers, advocates of moderate responses to the climate crisis, people minding their own business, optimists: most people are not facing the urgent threat presented by climate catastrophes, in spite of scientific proof. Maybe because no leader is acting like humanity is facing an emergency?

The Australia fires of the last months could be the ultimate wake up call for immediate action. The unprecedented intensity and length of this fire season are the consequence of climate change. Scientist predicted this kind of events well in advance. Now, the same science is predicting the collapse of humanity. The longer the world economy continues doing business as usual the sooner this happens.

Most people will witness dramatic effects of climate change within their lifetime. These include rising seas, desertification and extraordinary weather events such as droughts, floods, storms and hurricanes. They will destroy the livelihoods of large swaths of the human population. Forced migration will explode.

Extremely dry soil showing cracks, almost no vegetation.
Climate change induced degradation of land is nothing new. Altai, Russia, 2010 (Wikimedia commons, public domain).

In 2019 media coverage on climate change and social mobilization reached new heights, particularly in Europe. Taking all of this into account, everybody fortunate enough to be able to care about the next decades should be reevaluating their political preferences, societal values and consumption patterns.

Ignoring the emergency and not really acting

Personally, I could not say that I already see actual change coming. Climate change denial is alive and well. Most policies discussed in parliaments would represent only drops in the bucket. Barely anybody is panicking, in spite of Greta Thunberg’s widely circulated call to do so. Many people conscious of the urgency of the climate crisis still place excessive optimism in technological progress.

The UN Climate Change Conference in December 2019 failed again. The proposals currently discussed are very similar to those en vogue at the time of the Kyoto Protocol. Barely anyone in the public sphere seems to notice that. The advocates of these proposals never bother explaining why they expect the same approaches to be more effective this time.

Even the celebrated Paris agreement in practice only requires states to set their own goals. And talk about it.

For those who fly, flying less is likely the most powerful lever to reduce negative impact on climate change. Renouncing to flying is also very often very easy. However no big reduction in flying has happened. Aviation continues to grow.

Big passenger airplane with four engines and an upper deck.
Lifting and keeping a Boeing 747-400 in the air, weighing up to 390 metric tons, takes a lot of energy (Public domain).

Even in my progressive bubble, I barely see people changing their consumption patterns or just realizing that doom is approaching. Are we all, while abstractly believing in climate change, ignoring the climate catastrophes upon us?

Are climate catastrophes really upon us?

The first time I learned about climate change I was not yet ten years old. Since then, I had the opportunity to learn a fair share of natural science and mathematics. But would I believe that climate change is real, man-made and an imminent threat to humanity without this education? Without any understanding of physics, I would look around at other people to inform my own beliefs.

Are leaders acting on the imminent threat of climate catastrophes?

I see many celebrities, politicians, philanthropists or people otherwise rich, famous or powerful advocating for action on climate change. Some of them talk a lot about it. They donate money, but stay rich. They go to conferences on climate change, but still travel there by airplane. They discuss and negotiate goals for 2050, but last year and this year nothing changes. Did I see any of them personally renounce to something because of climate change? Did any corporation, government or party made steps towards climate protection beyond what the public, the customers or their constituents were asking for? If yes, I did not notice.

Banner in a protest displaying the text "Business as usual".
Carbon reduction schemes until now have mostly been business as usual. Protest in Melbourne, June, 2009 (John Englart, CC BY-SA 2.0, cropped, via flickr).

What is the only logical interpretation of this state of affairs? Climate change cannot be that big of a threat. It mus be a problem like many others. Politics, markets and scientists will soon figure it out. No radical change needed.

It is usual to assume that the famous, the rich and the powerful attained their status because of some special ability. If climate catastrophes were upon us, they would be actually doing something about it. Something new that has not been tried before. Something that may imply costs or sacrifices. They would be doing it now at the latest, since Australia just delivered the proof of the imminence and the size of the threat.

Leaders must send strong signals immediately

Of course there are many explanations for the lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate catastrophes. It is also a matter of cognitive dissonance. In any case, seeing the famous, the rich and the powerful not doing anything of consequence does help people reassure themselves.

Banning private jets could abruptly break this spell. The media are saturated by declarations of intent, virtue signalling and generally a lot of noise. This is a curtain that only an extremely unusual piece of news can pierce. Banning private jets can be that strong signal that does not go unheard. The message would be loud and clear. Something huge must be happening, even the rich and the powerful have to make sacrifices.

Banning private jets would do much more convincing about the imminence of climate catastrophes that any scientific publication could. A theoretical and scientific proof cannot be accessible and convincing to all. Conversely, passing a ban of private jets would be a practical and social proof. Most people have enough implicit notions of political economy to understand that, usually, societies cannot take away something from the kind of people that fly private jets. That is, unless there is a huge imminent threat.

In a way, wartime economy works by the same principle. In countries facing total war, the exceptional circumstances allow government to easily increase control over their market economies.

Minding climate justice makes climate advocates credible

Of course, banning private jets is not the only big action that could convince skeptics and uninterested. Many weak signals could also, in their sum, gradually achieve the same effect.

For people under public scrutiny there are many ways to show by their actions that they actually believe that climate change is an extraordinary threat. But there has to be something unusual. They have to convey the idea that renouncing to some personal privilege is on the table. And it is very important that this starts to happen.

When people fly by private jet to conferences on climate change they signal that it cannot be that big of a deal. Of course, rationally one sees that a single trip is negligible in the big scheme of things. However, it is legitimate to wonder why would politician X, celebrity Y or billionaire Z keep flying private jets, if they actually believed that climate change is a big threat. Even if that sounds like a talking point of climate change deniers.

The wisdom of the public

An expensive sports car in the foreground with a private jet in the background.
If this is your lifestyle, you cannot convince the public that climate change is an imminent threat (Hush hush, CC BY 2.0, via flickr).

Everybody knows that owning and using a private jet pollutes more than having a car and a long commute. Similarly, it is clear that is easier for a private jet user to switch to a first class seat in commercial flights, than for an underpaid worker with a long commute to cope with a sudden gas tax increase. Common sense of fairness asks that frequent flyers tone down their flying before people struggling to make ends meet are hit by further hardship.

This sense of fairness is compatible with the idea of climate justice. By which I mean recognizing that some people profited from the industrialization that caused climate change more than other. Recognizing that some people are in a better position to start reducing their negative impact on climate very soon.

Any climate change advocate should lead by example and act according to this sense of fairness. That would show that they are moved by an altruistic and genuine concern for the fate of humanity. That they are not on a quest for personal satisfaction or self aggrandizing.

A hopeful note

While I was writing this piece, the climate youth targeted Roger Federer with a social media action. The Swiss tennis player is a brand ambassador for Credit Suisse, a Bank particularly active financing fossil fuel industries. Climate activists asked him to urge Credit Suisse to divest from fossil fuels or cut ties with the bank.

Social media visual with the text "Dear Roger, we need you to become a climate champion. Urge Credit Suisse to divest from fossil fuels."
One of the images shared on Twitter under #RogerWakeUpNow.

While he obviously did not criticize the bank, he declared that he takes the issue very seriously and would talk with his sponsors about it. He is a discrete Swiss personality and an athlete payed for goodwill without critical notes. Thus, this is a considerable departure from business as usual. I want to believe that this is one of those small actions that send a signal: climate change is a big deal.

We urgently need more of this.

Credits for the bush fire photo (featured image, symbolic): 80 trading 24, CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped, via Wikimedia.