Post No.: 0346
Personal responsibility is something that a lot of us don’t seem to want to take when it comes to collective action problems such as looking after the environment – or at least intentions and words don’t always match actual behaviours. A ‘collective action problem’ is a situation where all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so due to conflicts of interest that discourage joint action between them. Like not bothering to vote, one’s individual actions/inactions will make virtually no difference to the end result, hence it’s arguably irrational to bother restricting one’s own lifestyle for the sake of the planet from an individualistic perspective. And this is why such problems need collective cooperation rather than individualistic rationality.
The ‘Climategate’ scientific community ‘conspiracy’ of 2009 duped much of the public and strongly arguably had a major effect on setting back our political policies on tackling global warming. To hack into an academic institution then sift through thousands of documents just to concentrate on literally a couple of phrases in one email, was to ignore the forest of evidence supporting the existence of climate change just to focus on an ambiguous tree or two (or more like an ambiguous leaf or two on just one tree) that fitted with one’s desired conclusions of a scientific conspiracy. It’s like ignoring the hundreds of points one’s team has conceded just to direct attention onto the only point one has scored and then claiming that one’s team is the best(!)
The phrases “trick” and “hide the decline” in the email were ambiguous (of what and why?) It’s not actually unusual in the sciences to use methods to try to improve the reliability of or ‘clean up’ a dataset – in this case to remove data that inferred annual temperatures from tree rings that didn’t match more accurate data that measured annual temperatures straight from actual thermometers – although this must be explained in the published scientific papers, which it was in this case too hence it was peer-reviewed. But no one cares about such practices in the sciences in most other contexts, unless there’s also lots of corporate money at stake!
The mainstream media bit hard on the story, but they’re mainly owned by billionaires who have their corporate connections and interests. And much of the public blindly followed the media too, because most of us wanted to believe that climate change was a lie so that we could continue freely living our comfortable, consumptive and profligate lifestyles.
So the real story here was not about governments and scientists looking for reasons to interfere with our lives but about big corporations trying to continue doing what they were doing without restriction, for the sake of maximising their own profits, even if it’ll cost the Earth. Fossil fuel companies are some of the most profitable and richest companies in the world – yet it’s never enough! The actual hacker was never identified but the episode highlighted the lengths some will go to in order to deceive and protect their own worldviews and/or financial interests.
Now over a decade on, with the debunking debunked, and with some new and different scientists investigating the global climate, and with ever more data being collected by numerous independent organisations around the world – the findings remain the same that humans are accelerating global warming. Moreover, the situation has evidently gotten worse in the interim.
…Yet after accepting that global warming cannot be denied anymore, some people (again mainly those who have interests in continuing as they were or worse) then shifted the arguments onto claiming that it’s not a bad thing but it’s going to be a good thing(!) (Just like the financial sector still tried to flood the media with propaganda to deflect the blame away from themselves for the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis, to blame government regulations rather than deregulations. And such propaganda will sway some people, at least for a moment.) Some people living in currently temperate climates may think it’s tremendous that their areas are getting hotter and relatively more tropical, but that’s selfish when droughts and food and water insecurity are more frequent elsewhere. This is clearly a collective action problem where individualistic selfishness creates a worse problem overall. It’s also a short-term perspective because the problems will affect everyone eventually in this globally-connected economy.
The negative effects of global warming have already been felt for a while, especially in the poorer parts of the world. The richer parts of the world, generally, haven’t suffered as much yet despite the increased severity of forest fires and tropical storms (see Post No.: 0288), for instance. But the worst effects have yet to come – even if we stopped all human greenhouse gas emissions right now, there are latent effects and water levels are going to rise across the world by at least another metre by the end of the century. That doesn’t sound like much but it’ll negatively impact many coastal areas and their communities, and a metre is the most conservative estimate. Having said that, it will be much worse if we continue emitting as we have been.
As of 2019, 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This overall warming trend can be traced back to the start of the Industrial Revolution – a time when human activity began to make substantial changes to land use, industrial processes and agricultural practices. Industrialisation has brought much prosperity to nations though, and we cannot solely blame certain politicians if people who vote for them care more about their jobs now (their personal livelihoods and national economy) than the environment of today and tomorrow; nor can people solely blame manufacturers when people keep buying their products (customers tend to want the cheaper option rather than the environmentally-best option). Until enough people vote for their collective environmental interests above their individual incomes, and vote with their wallets by keeping them shut in some cases, nothing is going to sufficiently change.
In fact, I think the constant passing of the buck and blame is a key element of this collective action problem – the responsibility is in every single ‘me’ as well as every single ‘you’, but lots of people just want to point fingers at others, be that people, firms or countries.
So the public confusion or capitulation now isn’t whether global warming is happening or whether it’s attributable to human activities – the public confusion or capitulation is now about how bad can it get? And what should we (or a common attitude is what should politicians and others!) do about it? And therefore the capitulation largely continues.
Some people believe that regulations do more harm than good but neglect to give credit when they work (e.g. regulations that pertain to the safety of food, water, buildings, consumer rights). And this relates to collective action problems regarding the environment – when people think regulations aren’t bringing any apparent and immediate benefits to them personally, they’ll think regulations are just a way to ‘control us’ for some other conspiratorial purpose.
Some others genuinely think that tackling or adapting to climate change is primarily or even solely the responsibility of governmental leaders to do something about it, but we should all personally take responsibilities too and regulate our own behaviours and lifestyles… unless we’re asking to be forced to by laws and regulations (much like the single-use plastic carrier bag charge in the UK since 2015, which has admittedly been largely successful according to the dramatic drop in such plastic bags being used, as reported by the major supermarkets themselves). Must we be shoved before we move?!
Protests are held against governments to do something about this problem that involves our individual and collective action to tackle. It’s as if the free choice of many people is to demand a nanny state because (other) people aren’t taking enough personal responsibilities for their own actions. But I suppose if people who are free to speak, assemble and vote demand greater laws and regulations then isn’t that what the people want?! Governments can indeed initiate major environmental projects, but that costs taxes to fund them and lots of people complain about paying taxes, which places governments in a bind. Nothing comes for free, yet if we don’t want to pay (whether through taxation or via the free market) for protecting something that’s important to us, such as the air we breathe, we’ll eventually pay for it in other ways, such as with our children’s health. Governments can do a lot and should be somewhat pressured to play their part but what they do will be in the form of laws and punishments or publicly-funded projects and incentives.
Politicians can absolutely do a lot about environmental protection yet are arguably failing, with too much ‘hot air’ (pun intended – woof – which is also the sound something makes when it goes up in flames!) when it comes to setting international agreements and domestic targets yet not enforcing enough actual action or meeting those targets. But a quandary for governments is, when voting for our leaders and their policies, the national economy is the main priority for most voters in many countries – being more important than the long-term global environment. So can politicians blame voters who are more concerned about preserving their jobs and lifestyles than the environment? They could also argue that they don’t want to interfere too much with industries and people’s lives so it’s therefore down to us to act for the future of the planet.
Well the sensible answer again is for everyone to do the things we should all be doing, and this will include such things as governmental regulations, individual citizens voting with their wallets (not just complaining with words) to affect industries, and industries innovating to minimise their environmental footprints, rather than constantly passing the responsibilities onto each other.
We cannot just rely on industries. The behaviour of many businesses is ‘as long as I’m getting paid then I won’t question it or my customers, and I don’t care about anything else’. Industries also have a bad habit of saying, “Don’t interfere” yet a moment later saying, “We were just following the law” in the aftermath of a failure concerning that industry i.e. under their own admission, they just did the minimum according to what the law demanded without the self-regulating sense to do more to prevent any failures! So whenever existing laws are being blamed for being insufficient, and industries won’t do more under their own initiative, then that logically means that the laws must get tougher.
In business, the economics must always make sense even if we have a social or ecological motivation for being in business. But from a life-on-this-planet perspective, environmental sustainability must make sense even if we have a profit motivation for being in business. And since environmental sustainability is bigger and more paramount overall – for even just selfishly the human species for humans – profit must ultimately be subordinate to environmental sustainability in the bigger and longer picture. Individualistically, profit matters most, but collectively, sustainability matters critically. Not every single aspect of a business must be profitable (akin to loss leaders in a shop) as long as the overall business is profitable – so businesses should have enough scope to be both profitable and environmentally sustainable in the long-term, or we might have to question their particular existence.
In summary, we typically fail to personally do enough when we blame others for collective action problems. And we cannot constantly rationalise that our own individual actions won’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things, whether they’re positive or negative (e.g. bringing my own reusable flask to get a coffee, my one avoidable car journey).
If you have any thoughts about how to realistically and practically tackle this collective action problem then please use the Twitter comment button below.