New Rules for Our Climate Emergency 

An avalanche of climate bullshit is underway

As a species we are inherently altruistic and cooperative.

That was the conclusion from a series of revolutionary game theory experiments by Manfred Milinski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute Evolutionary Biology in Germany (There’s a recent documentary on this: The Altruism Revolution

However when Milinski used similar experiments to see if people would sacrifice a little to protect the climate and their own future, and was surprised to find only about half would do so.

"People do not act rationally, even to protect their own interest," he told me way back in 2008. 

Based on this, Milinski predicted that the Copenhagen climate talks to be held the next year would fail. Why? Free Riders. Countries like Canada and the US would say acting on climate was important but would make no firm commitments, effectively do nothing. Other countries would follow or also delay action until they saw others acting. 

What should have been an easy win-win became a lose-lose.

Some important lessons came from those experiments:

  • Cooperation by a large group with widely different backgrounds takes a lot practice: It took 21 years of meetings to get the Paris climate agreement

  • If no one is acting as if climate change is a serious problem, then how can it be one?

  • People need to truly understand how high the risks of climate are. Few people did in 2009. 

“People have to realise that the river of CO2 is rising fast and is putting them and their children in grave danger,” said Milinski in 2008 as part of a series I did on the psychological and behavioural changes needed to deal with climate change. 

Based on the overall conclusion of that series: 

New Rules for our Climate Emergency 

1. Reward climate-safe behaviour 

2. Punish climate transgressors 

3. Publicly praise those who are trying to protect the environment

A more controversial 4th Rule: Naming and shaming. For example to discourage the purchase of an SUV they could carry a sticker saying: “This car is highly inefficient; its emissions contribute to lung cancer and hazardous climate change.” I’m sure you could think of other possibilities.

I bring this up because it seems everyone is now saying they are working towards net zero carbon emissions — including all the big oil-producing companies and countries. Everyone’s on board it would seem. But recall Milinski’s research on free riders.

Reality check on where we are right now

Need-to-Know 1: We already have too much fossil-fuel burning infrastructure in place to stay below 2C according to the latest science

Need-to-Know 2: Companies continue to build more and countries are counting on increased production of coal, oil, and gas

Need-to-Know 3: Climate impacts are already hitting hard. Around the world more damaging downpours that wipe out farmers' crops and storms like hurricanes are stronger. Hotter temperatures are fuelling wildfires and causing crippling heat waves, where our kids can't play outside. Sea levels are rising, which will flood tens of millions of homes.

Need-to-Know 4: There’s an avalanche of climate bullshit roaring towards us: 

  • Tar sands executive was just named a “climate champion” for a UN climate conference, COP 26 in Glasgow; as was vice president from Royal Bank of Canada, the fifth largest funder of coal in the world 

  • Shell CEO: “You need our help on climate change” — meanwhile continuing to fund anti-climate lobbying

  • Ongoing lucrative pay and share options have created an incentive for oil company executives to resist climate action

  • Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to say climate is an “existential threat” but invested in billions to build the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline

  • Offsets — Countries and Companies say they will offset their emissions by planting trees: Nestlé’s goal of offsetting 13m tonnes of CO2 a year would require 4.4m hectares of land a year. Need another planet at that rate

  • Countries continue to subsidize fossil fuels despite a decade of promising to eliminate these

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environmental editor has also noticed this avalanche of climate bullshitting and suggests a simple metric I’ll call Need-to-Know 5: If a government and corporate decision does not really cut carbon NOW then we are failing to treat the climate crisis like the emergency it is.

Here’s some of the language tricks and propaganda being used by those who want to delay meaningful action while claiming otherwise — also known as predatory delay:

  •  “We are all to blame for climate change.”

    — Both fossil fuel industry and governments use this while blocking or failing to provide us with actual alternatives. But sure, blame the victims

  • “We need responsible oil and gas development to create jobs and wealth to pay for the transition to a sustainable future.” 

    — Can’t solve a problem by making it worse. As we have seen with the pandemic, there is plenty of money when governments’ decide its necessary

  • “We can have a healthy environment and a healthy economy.” 

    —Sounds good right? Except a healthy environment is essential for human survival, it is not a nice-to-have bonus. 

  • Framing climate change as a risk somewhere in the far future when it is our reality today

  • Framing oil and gas industry as vital to the ‘national interest’ or fate of the nation when the industry’s primary purpose is to enrich shareholders regardless of their nationality.

  • Invoking the sanctity of the rule of law when people oppose further expansion of fossil fuel production and are labelled terrorists 

  • Framing environmentalism as a political ideology rather than a universal desire for self-preservation and to protect our one and only home.

There is growing acceptance we’re in a climate emergency but less awareness of the urgency. And even less understanding of sweeping changes that are needed. Even political and corporate leaders who truly understand the nature of our emergency are failing to act appropriately. I suspect they believe taking the required climate action to stay around 1.5C would lead to considerable public backlash. They’re probably right. However that backlash could be muted through smart, equitable transition planing and honest leadership

We have turned the corner on climate change. Governments and companies have started to set emission reduction targets for 2030. Those targets aren’t yet good enough, nor are we acting on those weak targets with the required speed. Emissions in 2021 are very likely to be close to the highest ever and that’s with much less air travel.

Meanwhile scientists and others increasingly warn we are facing a ghastly future sooner than later unless we make those sweeping changes.

We need to call out climate BS wherever we see it. And help others to see it too. Here’s an updated New Rules.

New Rules for our Climate Emergency 

1. Reward climate-safe behaviour

2. Punish climate transgressors 

3. Publicly praise those who are trying to protect the environment

4. Name and shame climate transgressors

5. If a decision to take action does not really cut carbon NOW then it’s Climate BS

Do share this where ever you can. (Here it is as a shareable pdf file)

New Rules for our Climate Emergency

Until next time, please stay strong and stay safe.