Knowing About Something Does Not Change It
Why we need to stop being outraged and start thinking
When working for ABB (www.abb.com), I had an older colleague who used to interrupt my elaborate explanations with a simple question: “Do I need to know that?” Years of experience as an engineer and project leader had taught him that the key to getting things done on time and on budget is to separate the relevant information from the noise. Today, this is more important than ever. In the Information Age, the ability to identify what is relevant and turn it into something useful has become a vital survival skill.
It is important to remember that knowing about something does not change it. You do not make the world a better place by constantly reading and thinking about the climate crisis and sharing information on social media. Unless you intend to do something about it, knowing too much about the state of our planet is likely to ruin your mental health. It is tough to live with the knowledge that we are destroying the planet for our children, but there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Many people resort to denial and deliberate ignorance to avoid this cognitive dissonance.
A better approach is to take action. Once you have decided what you want to do, you can select the information relevant to achieving your goals. My motivation for getting involved was that I spend a lot of time with young people – as a teacher and as a father – and I could not keep telling them to be hopeful when everything we have tried so far has failed. Despite all the political efforts since the Earth Summit in 1992 – UNFCCC, IPCC, COP, SDG – the planet is in a much worse state today than 30 years ago. As George Clooney said, this does not mean that you stop. But you have to be honest with yourself and acknowledge your failures.
You cannot solve a problem unless you recognize that you have one. Unfortunately, most people are in complete denial of the magnitude of the challenge we face. There are at least three huge elephants that continue to be ignored in the climate debate:
Elixir of Power: Fossil fuels, particularly oil, still constitute an elixir of power in global politics. Not only is the GDP strongly correlated to carbon emissions, but we also use oil to power tanks, warships, and military aircraft. A country that takes sustainability seriously will become less powerful, at least in the short run. In case of immediate military threats, the national defense will always be considered more important than decarbonization.
Overshoot: Human society is currently in a state of overshoot, where we are already using far more resources than would be allowed in a sustainable world. Economic growth is not the problem but the size of the economy and the population. We simply do not know whether it is possible to feed eight billion people without fossil fuels. Stopping climate change will require a system change.
Peter Principle: A well-known phenomenon is that people are often promoted for obeying orders and doing everything according to the book. These people perform well as long as external circumstances do not change dramatically. When faced with unprecedented challenges and emergencies, they are typically not the right people to lead. Note that this problem is not limited to politics. It occurs in any large organization, such as corporations, the military, and research institutes. Creating a sustainable world will involve a lot of change management and the people currently in charge are probably not ideally suited for initiating the necessary transformation of society.
Global Climate Compensation was designed to address all these issues. The idea is simple:
All fossil fuel producers pay a fee proportional to their production to a global fund.
The money from the fund is distributed among the world’s nations on a per capita basis.
Once implemented, the system would make fossil fuels less valuable as a natural resource because nations that use a lot of them would have to share their profits with the rest of us. Furthermore, a system of regular payments from a global fund to national governments would hopefully encourage international collaboration.
Global Climate Compensation does not assume that decarbonization is possible or that degrowth is necessary. It only increases the cost price of fossil fuels while making sure that the poor do not suffer. If the optimists are correct, this will accelerate the energy transition. If not, it will lead to inflation. Either way, it would ensure more efficient use of energy.
The plan is simple to implement. Governments would have to introduce legislation that makes it illegal for any non-participating fossil fuel company to do business. The system would be easy to monitor, and cheating would not be possible.
A further advantage is that it is testable. Given that we are currently conducting an irreversible, uncontrolled, and dangerous experiment with the biosphere of the only habitable planet available, performing a reversible, controlled, and risk-free experiment with the economy does not seem like a crazy idea.
Global Climate Compensation is my plan for getting out of the mess. Others could probably be devised. However, unless we are prepared to address the three elephants mentioned above, we will never prevent the collapse of human civilization.