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Deluding Ourselves to Disaster: Why We Fail to Act on the Climate Threat. Mark Jaccard School of Resource and Environmental Management Simon Fraser University February, 2012. Outline. The climate change threat and our motives for action

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Deluding ourselves to disaster why we fail to act on the climate threat
Deluding Ourselves to Disaster:Why We Fail to Act on the Climate Threat

Mark Jaccard

School of Resource and Environmental Management

Simon Fraser University

February, 2012

Jaccard-Simon Fraser University


The climate change threat and our motives for action

The details – emissions, concentrations, temperature, impacts

Political promises and their implications for energy & emissions

Reasons for the multi-decade failure to act, with focus on delusions

Personal and collective strategies for effective climate action

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  • Tipping point

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Values and acting on the climate threat

Self-interest – each of us is inside the test tube of a global experiment that scientists say will have catastrophic impacts on us and our offspring.

Responsibility for the biosphere – climate change to cause mass extinctions.

Responsibility for other humans – rich countries developed by burning fossil fuels, yet initial impacts will be concentrated in poorer countries.

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Responsibility by country in cumulative carbon emissions
Responsibility by country in cumulative carbon emissions

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Climate related mortality per million people by 2000
Climate-related mortality per million people by 2000

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Prescription vs prediction

  • While different values lead to different “prescriptions” for how humans ought to act, what might we realistically hope for, given human tendency to:

  • hold beliefs that favor one’s interests (self-interest bias),

  • overlook inconvenient logical connections (cognitive dissonance),

  • think uncritically (susceptibility to misinformation), and

  • have institutions incapable of long-term collective pursuits.

  • Need strategies that motivate successful national and global action, in spite of these characteristics of individuals and society – exercise in “prediction,” not wishful thinking.

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Details: emissions, concentrations, temperatures, impacts to 2100 +

  • Source of confusion

  • CO2 e = CO2 + methane + nitrous oxide + others


  • Scientists contemplate 4C beyond 2100

Sources: IPCC, Energy Modeling Forum, Anderson & Bows, 2009

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Past sea level 2100 +vs temperature

  • Long-term effect

Source: Archer

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Political promises & implications 2100 +

Political leaders promise at Copenhagen in 2009 not to allow temperature increase to exceed 2°C.

Political leaders of most rich countries promise to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. Canada (Harper) promises 65%.

But even to achieve 550 ppm CO2e, global emissions must fall at least 50% by 2050 (if rich fall 80%, poor must fall 30%).

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Emissions trajectory for 550 CO2e 2100 +

Falling global emissions before 2020

550 CO2e target needs 50% global drop by 2050

Source: Bowan & Ranger, 2009

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Current world energy-CO 2100 +2 path

Next 50 years?



CO2 emitting = 85%

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CO2–free energy share to achieve 550 CO2e 2100 +

50% reduction from growing system requires 80% CO2-free globally

Only possible if all energy investment is CO2-free from today

15% in 2010

50% in 2030

80% in 2050

CO2-free energy share = biomass + other renewables + nuclear + fossil fuels with CCS

Source: Nakicenovic

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CO2-free share by sector to achieve 550 2100 +ppm CO2e

Electricity generation - 90% CO2-free by 2050

(renewables, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, nuclear).

Buildings - 85% CO2-free by 2050

(heat pumps, passive solar, biofuels, photovoltaics, solar hot water)

Vehicles - 80% CO2-free by 2050

(electric, biofuel, hydrogen)

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Truth-testing our politicians: 2100 +

the case of Canada

Canadian government aggressively promotes tar sands expansion, including Keystone and Gateway pipelines.

Is the government’s action consistent with its 2050 promise?

Independent research consistently says no.

E.g. MIT researchers model Canada’s 2050 target and the global path to 550 CO2e – assess implications for tar sands over 40 years.

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Achieving 550 2100 +ppm CO2e plus Harper’s promise: MIT study

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Tar sands under 50% global CO2e reduction to 2050 2100 +

2010-2050, higher cost / higher emission oil unprofitable under reduced oil demand and CO2e reduction policies

(regulations or charge of $100 /tCO2 by 2020, $200 by 2035).

Investments today in tar sands production and pipelines are inconsistent with Harper’s promise to reduce emissions 65% by 2050 and with global achievement of 550 ppm CO2e.

The main reason for the demise of the oil sands industry with global CO2 policy is that the demand for oil worldwide drops substantially. … it can be met with conventional oil resources that entail less CO2 emissions in the production process.”

- Chan et al., MIT, 2010

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Summary: obvious conclusions from independent studies 2100 +

World not on the path to 450 CO2e (=350 CO2).

World not on the path to 550 CO2e.

Canada not on a path to 65% reduction by 2050 (tar sands + pipeline investments = government not telling truth).

Canada / world locking on to path to 800 CO2e by 2100.

This path has catastrophic damages from extreme weather, disease, ecosystem destruction, sea level rise and ocean acidification – to be experienced by people who are alive today.

You, and especially your children.

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Understanding the failure to act 2100 +

  • We’ve had past “successes” addressing environmental threats

    • acid emissions, smog creating emissions, ozone-depleting emissions, lead emissions, etc.

  • Yet climate policy failure now approaching three decades

  • Do climate-altering emissions present a more difficult problem?

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Specific challenges of climate issue
Specific challenges of climate issue 2100 +

Global public good - individual initiatives of little value – need compliance enforcement mechanism

Delayed effects – must act now to prevent future impacts, but human decision-making often myopic (individual, market, politics).

Who pays - perceptions of equity aligned with self-interest (polluter pays vs equal payment per capita or GDP vs historical responsibility)

Uncertainty – complex earth-atmosphere system causes uncertainties, even though catastrophic outcome is virtually certain.

High starting costs – total transformation costs small, but high initial costs and risks to begin shift to CO2-free (renewables, CCS, nuclear)

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Critical role of US 2100 +

  • Bad luck (given global importance of US)

    • Election of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 (gave time for fossil fuel and anti-government lobbies to organize and campaign)

    • Delay allows opponents time to exploit flaws in human thinking in characterizing the climate risk and the costs of action

    • Issue falls victim to increasingly polarized US political system

  • Survey question: “Do humans affect the climate by burning fossil fuels?”

    • 1997 Yes - 52% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans

    • 2008 Yes - 76% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans

    • 2012 Today?

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Self-serving bias and efforts to discredit climate science & policy

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair

Exploiting anti-science bias – easier to convince people to disbelieve science when its conclusions conflict with their self-interest.

Exploiting anti-establishment bias – easier to convince people to disbelieve science by portraying IPCC as the establishment, which, conspiracy-like, forces all climate scientists to conform.

Exploiting anti-government bias – easier to convince people to resist climate policy if portrayed as excessive regulation, higher taxes, and “social engineering.”

Greenwashing campaigns – creating alternative images to the reality of GHG pollution – “clean coal,” “clean natural gas,” “ethical oil”

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Response being realistic about humans
Response: being realistic about humans policy

If we don’t take these characteristics into account, we will fail to motivate effective individual and political action on climate change.

Ironically, there are delusions associated both with those who don’t want to act on climate and those who do.

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Response: communicating science and risk policy

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Response: confronting the “what about the Chinese” argument

  • Question for high school students. Figure out how the international community achieves collective action on a public good when:

    • Some countries are much richer than others

    • The rich countries have much higher cumulative emissions

    • Poor countries want rich to pay all their costs

    • The rich countries can use subsidies and trade threats to get global compliance

  • Always the same answer.

    • Rich countries go first with cutting their emissions thus lowering the costs of CO2-free technologies and fuels

    • Soon they provide subsidies and apply trade measures (if necessary) to ensure universal compliance with global effort

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Response: confronting the “our emissions are small” argument

Canada is responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions.

In World War II, Canada was responsible for 2% of the Allied effort that defeated Germany and Japan.

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Response: confronting the “we need the economic growth & jobs” argument

Question for elementary school students. What happens when your job creation strategy destroys the planet?

Economic growth has been used often to justify harm.

Low carbon growth will be more energy-secure, cleaner, safer, quieter and more bio-diverse. Low-carbon growth is the future growth story. High-carbon growth, on the other hand, will destroy itself.

– Nicholas Stern

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Response: confronting the self-interest bias of fossil fuel regions

No use of fossil fuels

extremely difficult


fossil fuels with CCS

burning fossil fuels


CCS = carbon capture & storage

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Response: confronting the “we don’t need climate policy” argument

Corporate social responsibility as solution – but businesses ultimately compete on the basis of bottom-line and fossil fuels are cheap

Green consumerism as solution – but virtually all human expenditures of income involve energy use at some stage

Energy efficiency is cheap as solution – but usually it is more expensive and inconvenient than simply burning fossil fuels

Peak oil and high energy prices as solution – but the earth’s crust has a scary plentitude of fossil fuels and humans keep innovating to find and extract more

Carbon neutrality as solution – but most carbon offsets pay people for reductions they would have made and thus don’t divert from our trajectory of rising emissions – “false sense of progress”

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A scary plentitude of fossil fuels: Global Energy Assessment policy” argument

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Energy consumption and new devices (US data) policy” argument

Steve Groves, SFU – 2009

45 energy using devices

15 energy using devices

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Response: confronting the “climate policy can’t work” argument

Information and subsidies do not work – 20 years of evidence.

Economists insist on emissions pricing for economic efficiency (carbon tax and/or cap-and-trade), but this is difficult politically.

Yet successful environmental policies have been mostly regulations that require phase-out of undesired technologies and fuels (acid rain, smog, lead, ozone-depleting emissions, etc.).

Design regulations (and pricing) to be efficient – e.g., BC’s carbon tax and BC’s zero-emission electricity policy.

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Response: if government won’t act argument

(and perhaps is lying)

  • What is your moral duty as a citizen if independent evidence consistently shows your government is not telling the truth and that the implications are disastrous?

  • Public relations / social networking campaigns / boycotts – focus on popular culture, Hollywood, etc.

  • Legal action – 100 US coal plants delayed or postponed in past 5 years.

  • Non-violent civil actions (, Greenpeace, VTACC)

    • Sit-ins at government chambers and offices

    • Pickets at elected officials’ constituency offices

    • Blockades of fossil fuel facilities – coal plants, oil pipelines, oil sands

    • Blockades of downtown parking lots to hinder high-emission vehicles

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