It is as clear as it gets. Scientists are warning us that we have just over a decade to correct the course of global warming. We fail, we die.
In 12 years we might just be able to make it. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure that we won’t. And the reason is simple: we are a short-term society.
Now, at this point one may be tempted to start arguing over whether this is all anthropogenic or simply cyclical in nature. The truth is probably nuanced. But that would be a waste of precious time. If somebody had to warn you that you have 12 seconds to duck an oncoming bullet, would you spend time discussing whether you are the intended target or whether it’s just a ricochet?
Our bullet is coming. All we have to do is look around. Beasts from the East freezing Western Europe, mega-storms pounding southeast Asia and the US, unusually high temperatures grilling Central Europe, El Nino’s wild variations wreaking havoc on both sides of the Atlantic. Not to mention landslides, mudslides, flash-floods, melting snowcaps, rising sea levels, failing crops, droughts and deluge. It makes the biblical Apocalypse sound like a leisurely Sunday afternoon.
The Future is now
We have become myopic creatures. As one advertising campaign put it: “The future is now”. And this has become an endemic disease that may very well be putting the existence of our species at risk. We are not able to see beyond our lifetimes.
Our society has become more and more immediate in its expectations. In the past -whether rightly or wrongly- people believed in delayed rewards. They expected to be paid in the afterlife for the good deeds they performed in this one. When they laid the first stone they did not expect to see the finished cathedral in their lifetime. It was their grandchildren who placed the capping stone. Even until a few decades ago, people expected to work long and hard for a promotion they hoped to get when they were past their prime. They put money aside for a lifetime so that they could afford the holiday of their dreams.
None of us have such patience. The future is now.
Science is the solution… and the problem
I am not advocating that this was a better attitude towards life –that’s a philosophical argument which does not interest me here. I am just saying that our society has lost its attitude of postponing reward. We want it all. And we want it now. And this undermines our ability to deal with long-term problems effectively.
Scientists are partly to blame. Over the last century, the speed with which laboratories and workshops have been churning out ‘quick solutions’ has lulled us into a sense of over-confidence. For every existing problem there must be a solution and scientists will find it. But what if there isn’t? What if scientists are unable to beat the clock this time?
Or rather, what if we are not giving them the resources and the framework necessary for such global and far-reaching results?
Most of us, myself included, want to save the earth (and our skins along with it). But we want to do it without giving up on our private cars, without jetting less on particle-spewing airplanes and without having to pay more for the alternatives.
Any government who seriously proposes to close all city-centres to car traffic, to repeal all plastics and to take away many of the wasteful comforts we are used to is bound to be lynched. Very few dare, if any.
Try to think about the last time a government was elected on account of its environmental proposals. Which country’s pre-election political debate has focused on the future of the planet? Mostly it is about productivity, jobs and the economy. All well and good. But a flourishing economy without a world to support it is an oxymoron.
Politicians have their hands tied. Especially those who have earned their governing roles by pandering to populism. You have to give to the people what you promised them, come heaven, hell or the Apocalypse. Sure, dithering will doom the planet. But they know that. They also know that they will not not be there to deal with it when it happens. So, the easiest thing to do is to kick the ball down the pitch and let someone else pick it up. We have been doing this for a long time. But that pitch is not endless. Someone, someday, will find himself or herself in front of the goal post. And they will be forced to score an own goal.
The global nature of the problem does not help. Europe can cut all the emissions it wants. If Asia and the US do not pull their weight we are still going down. Yet, emerging economies like India, Brazil and China criticize the West that in its own time it has wantonly polluted its way towards progress. Their request? Leniency and technology transfers. The latter, of course, creates a problem. Effectively it means giving away a potential competitive advantage.
As a result, we prefer a slow death to a speedy recovery. At the upcoming COP24 in Katowice there will be much haranguing but the outcome will fall widely short of what is needed before the 12-year hourglass runs out.
Boardrooms suffer from congenital nearsightedness. CEOs are typically at the helm for brief stints. Indeed, CEO tenure in large-cap companies has recently fallen to around 5 years. That’s their horizon. The average CEO is focused on turning as much profit as possible over half a decade. His or her obligations are towards keeping shareholders happy. They are not paid to think long-term. The future is now… or the next 5 years at best. Their projections span quarters not quarter-centuries.
No company will volunteer to save the planet. Which is to be expected. Companies are hard-wired to think about their own flourishment and are only interested in public good in so far as it creates a bigger market or improves their image. Corporate Social Responsibility has been transitioning from voluntary participation to a legal obligation, but it is still a weak instrument.
Yet, if we want to save the planet, we need the private sector. It is where the bulk of the money is. Walmart, for example has out-earned Belgium in 2017. It stands to reason, therefore, that for the world to steer its way out of environmental trouble, boardrooms needs to be on board. Even better, they should be in the driver’s seat.
But here’s the caveat. CEOs will only lift a finger if the market demands it.
How stupid are we?
So we are back to consumers (i.e. us). Politicians will act decisively only if they feel that the electorate has their back and if they’re threatened to be ousted for not delivering a clean planet. Big Business will only change its attitudes if there is consumer demand.
As far as business is concerned, things have been improving, but slowly. As consumer awareness increases, business is reacting, which is why we have Bio food, electric cars, take-out food being delivered on bicycles and a plethora of products labelled ‘green’. But this remains a drop in the ocean and is mostly for a niche, rich market. Organic food is expensive and electric cars lack the proper infrastructure. Being eco-friendly is not really a choice. It’s an extravagance. Only the rich can afford it.
In 2016, the late Stephen Hawking stated that ‘pollution and human stupidity remain the biggest threats to mankind’. I think that in the end, it all boils down to stupidity. Continuing to pollute knowing that it is costing us our future is tantamount to stupidity.
We have 12 seconds to dodge the bullet. But we’re still talking.