Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
The 5 greatest challenges to fighting climate change
Climate change: Most of the world agrees it’s a danger, but how do we conquer it? What’s holding us back? Christopher Knittel, professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, laid out five of the biggest challenges in a recent interview.
CO2 is a global pollutant that can’t be locally contained
“The first key feature of climate change that puts it at odds with past environmental issues is that it’s a global pollutant, rather than a local pollutant. [Whether] I release a ton of CO2 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in London, it does the same damage to the globe,” Knittel said. “Contrast that with local pollutants, where if I release a ton of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide in Cambridge, the majority of the damage stays near Cambridge.”
Thus, CO2 is far harder to manage and regulate.
For now, climate change is still hypothetical
The damage caused by most climate change pollutants will happen in the future. Which means most of us won’t truly be affected by climate change — it’s a hypothetical scenario conveyed in charts and graphs. While we’d like politicians and voters to be moved by altruism, this isn’t always the case. In general, policymakers have little incentive to act.
“People [who stand to be] most harmed by climate change aren’t even born yet. Going back to the policymaker’s perspective, she has much less of an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because those reductions are going to benefit voters in the future and not her current voters,” Knittel said.
There’s no direct link to a smoking gun
Despite the global threat from climate-altering pollutants, it’s hard for scientists to link them to a specific environmental disaster, Knittel said. Without a definitive culprit, it’s easier for skeptics to ignore or explain away climate change effects.
Developing countries contribute to a large share of pollution
Simply put, this isn’t their top priority.
“We’re asking very poor countries that are worried about where their next meal is coming from, or whether they can send their kids to school, to incur costs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to benefit the world. And that’s a tough ask for a policymaker inside of a developing country,” he said.
Modern living is part of the problem
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but modern conveniences like electricity, transportation, and air conditioning contribute to climate change, and remedies potentially involve significant sacrifice and lifestyle change.
“Although we’ve seen great strides in reductions in solar costs and batteries for electric vehicles, these are still expensive alternatives. There is no free lunch when it comes to overcoming climate change,” Knittel warned.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, Knittel said, “If an evil genius had set out to design the perfect environmental crisis … those five factors would have made climate change a brilliant choice. But we didn’t need an evil genius. We stumbled into it on our own.”
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