The climate crisis was made vivid by the October 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the words of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: “According to the IPCC, we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50%...”
Although the worst consequences of out-of-control catastrophic climate change lie in the long-term future, the steps needed to avoid disaster must be taken immediately. Otherwise feedback loops such as the albedo effect or the methane hydrate feedback loop will take hold in earnest, making human mitigation efforts useless.
There is a contrast between two time scales; a contrast between the need for immediate action and the long time-delay until the worst effects of inaction are felt. This contrast is our central problem in dealing with the climate emergency. If all coastal cities were already under water, if monsoons were already failing, if fresh water were already unavailable, if heatwaves were already killing millions of people and destroying agriculture, it would be easier to mobilize the political will needed for abrupt change.
Economists and the long-term future
Economists are not used to thinking of the long-term future. We can see this in their attitude to economic growth, a concept which mainstream economists support with almost-religious fervor. But the unlimited growth of anything physical on a physically finite planet is a logical impossibility. To avoid this logic, mainstream economists, with self-imposed shortsightedness, willfully limit their view of the future to a few decades. However, the climate crisis is a long-term multi-generational issue. Young climate activists across the globe, rightfully protest the fact that the climate inaction of adults is depriving them of their future. We give our children loving care, but it makes no sense to do so unless we give them a future in which they can survive.
With a little thought, we can see that all future generations need to be considered. No one should want the human race to become extinct in a few thousand years. Nor should we wish the natural world to be destroyed. We have a responsibility to all future generations and to all the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.
Transition to a sustainable future
The Green New Deal concept that is currently being advocated, both in the United States and in other countries, offers a way of addressing both the climate crisis and the economic shocks that may result from abandoning our fossil-fuel-dependent economy. John Maynard Keynes advised Franklin D. Roosevelt on methods for ending the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The Green New Deal seeks to do something very similar in our present situation, to address unemployment through government-supported jobs creating much-needed renewable energy infrastructure. Although renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels, so that a transition might be driven by market forces alone, the changes must happen rapidly, and governments must play an important role in the transition to a sustainable future. Government subsidies must be shifted from fossil fuels to renewables.
A crisis of civilization
History has given to our generation the task of saving the future. As Greta Thunberg said in her 2019 speech at the Davos Economic Forum: “We are at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization - and the entire biosphere - must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.”
Their lives can help us today
I recently published a book describing the lives of some of the people who have contributed importantly to economic thought. Their lives can help us today, as the world faces a crisis that has both economic dimensions. The book can be freely downloaded from the following link.