The solution to global warming and the resultant climate change is a political issue. Politicians are dependent on the people for their power. This means that the people can force politicians to act on implementing solutions to avert global warming and the resultant climate change.
Even in non-democracies, the leaders need to attend to the general state of the nation if they want to avert a revolution, as several Arab leaders have been finding out in early 2011. In democratic countries, for centuries politics has been practised in the same manner: the leaders of countries are concerned about the next election. In politics, humanity does not exist, only the voters. The next century does not exist, only the next year. The next generation does not exist, only the next election.
President Obama has said that he is not President of the World. He is, rather, President of the United States and must defend the interests of his country’s voters, who are concerned about changing their cars and increasing their consumption, not about saving the planet. Politicians are unprepared for long-term planetary problems. They and their electorates have great difficulty in gauging what might happen in the future. When the voters in the developed West, who are the biggest emitters of the Green House Gases do think about, it the majority remain unmoved.
Concern about increases in expected frequency and severity of major weather events like droughts or floods is generally low in places such as the United States and Europe: even in Australia where there was massive flooding in early 2011 there is still popular resistance to taking action on averting global warmng and the resultant climate change. This may be because low probability events tend to be underestimated in decisions based upon personal experience, unless they have recently occurred in which case they are vastly overestimated. Many think of climate change risks (and thus of the benefits of mitigating them) both as considerably uncertain and as being mostly in the future (‘it is a problem for our children’s children’ is a fairly common view).
The risks are also considered geographically distant. The Maldives, which have a reputation for beauty and are a popular upmarket destination for well-off tourists, face being destroyed completely by rising sea levels. Whilst that may be lamented by people in Western Europe or the United States, in itself it is not a sufficient motivation for the majority who would probably never go there anyway. People are more concerned about what happens in their immediate vicinity than in far-off lands. Much more important to the voters is what is happening in their economy, now.
The two biggest emitters, China and the United States, are at very different stages of their economic development and are equally reluctant to make promises on reducing total emissions. Both accept that cuts are needed but there is an associated cost in making the change. If one country presses ahead without the other, there is the fear that their economy will suffer from higher costs of energy production without seeing any short-term advantage, so neither wants to ‘go first’. Each country is waiting for the others to agree to act at the same time. It is rather like the world is engaged in a giant game of ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.
Imagine, if you will, two criminals arrested under the suspicion of having committed a crime together. However, the police do not have sufficient evidence in order to have them convicted. The two prisoners are isolated from each other, and the police visit each of them to offer a deal: whoever offers evidence against the other will be freed. If neither of them accepts the offer, they will both be charged and face court.
Now they have a choice, but making the choice depends on how they think the other person will behave.
If they both keep quiet, they can be considered to be cooperating with each other or uniting against their common enemy, the police. They might still be charged with the crime, but there is a good chance they will be acquitted due to lack of evidence. Therefore, they will both gain. However, if one of them betrays the other one by confessing to the police, the one who breaks will gain more since he is freed; the one who remained silent, on the other hand, will receive the full punishment since he did not help the police and there is now sufficient proof with the statement of the betrayer. The silent one will face the full fury of the law.
If both betray each other, both will be punished, but less severely than if they had refused to talk as the justice system gives credit to criminals who confess to their actions.
The dilemma resides in the fact that each prisoner has a choice between only two options, but cannot make a good decision without knowing what the other one will do. This is similar to the dilemma that politicians face: everyone agrees cuts must be made, but they are frightened of putting their economies at risk. No wonder politicians prefer to talk about addressing poverty and development as priorities.
They are willing to acknowledge that global warming and the resultant climate change is the greatest threat to the future, but foregoing fossil energy driven economic growth, it seems, will have to wait. Unless the people tell them otherwise.