Conformity & Climate

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PHOTO RENDERING BY PATRICK WHITE

The essay below addresses some of the themes in essays and books we pointed to in the last year. Robert H. Frank, Economics professor at Cornell University, has not appeared in our pages before, which is just plain wrong, as Thy Neighbor’s Solar Panels makes clear:

When our peers take actions to preserve the planet, we’re more likely to follow suit. How the human instinct to conform could help us address the climate crisis.

It is worse, much worse, than you think,” reads the frightening first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells’s comprehensive account of what researchers have discovered about our planet’s climate trajectory. The severity of the crisis, he goes on to note, has made some climatologists reluctant to describe its full extent, fearing that such candor might make the challenge we face seem hopeless. The concern is understandable: Previous warnings of impending peril have done little to alter either individual behavior or public policy.

More than half of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age was put there by humans after 1988, the year the climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress that a dangerous warming trend was already well under way. Worldwide, emissions continue to increase, as floods, droughts, famines, and wildfires become more frequent and more intense. This century has already been responsible for 19 of the 20 hottest years on record. According to the federal government’s 2019 Arctic Report Card, rapidly melting permafrost now threatens to create feedback loops that would release much of the 1.5 trillion metric tons of carbon it holds—roughly twice the amount already circulating in the atmosphere.
Even now, there is much we could do to parry the climate threat. We could enact stiff carbon taxes and mandate an accelerated phaseout of fossil fuels. We could undertake massive investments in renewable-energy sources, launch large-scale reforestation, and alter the mix of foods we eat. We could rush to develop scalable methods of carbon capture and sequestration. Yet on all of these fronts, we are taking only minimal action. The politics around climate change remain intractable, and human nature itself seems ill-suited to the challenge: Putting off solving the problem—or hoping it will somehow just go away—is easier than confronting it. “Call me a pessimist,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in a grim and widely read New Yorker essay on the climate crisis, “but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon.”…

Read the whole essay here.

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