6 reasons why we fail to act on climate change

There are no reasonable doubts that man-made climate change is happening and that it is likely to have a devastating effect on the planetary ecosystem, which includes us. Almost everyone knows it. And yet, collectively and individually, politically and privately, we fail to act. I am no exception. Why is that? The blog contains a personal list of hypotheses.

  • The cost of fighting climate change is much smaller than the cost of climate change
  • This is an intergenerational conflict as much as an international one
  • We have psychological, political, institutional barriers that make us act fundamentally irrationally

Climate change is happening already. The American Association for the Advancement of Science in its recent report “What We Know”, wrote: “The overwhelming evidence of human caused climate change documents both current impacts with significant costs and extraordinary future risks” (refer). The US National Climate Assessment concludes, that “climate change, once considered an issue of the distant future, has moved firmly into the present” (refer). The 2013 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the global temperature rise is “more likely than not to exceed 2°C” (refer). 2°C is considered to be the safe limit before our ecosystem changes irreversibly.


Failing to act on climate change is fundamentally irrational. The costs of preventing it are surprisingly low. As Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column: “there is one piece of the assessment [of the IPCC] that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.” (refer)

The costs due to climate change, on the other hand, are staggering – disproportionately high for the poor, who face widespread death and disease, but also for the rich whose standards of living will fall. If everything is so clear, then there should be no doubt about what to do. And yet, we seem to fail. Why? These are my personal hypotheses:

  • We would need to change our habits and (as a species) we are not good at that. (I am not changing myself…)
  • Perhaps it’s too big a problem? It seems too daunting to even contemplate. So we ignore it and stall and rather spend our time solving simpler problems.
  • There are political questions around distributive justice i.e. who should pay/do how much? While these should be solvable in one way or another (given the vast discrepancy between the cost of inaction and the cost of action), we absurdly seem to be ready to self-destruct rather than accept even the slightest perceived injustice. It’s like a very childish game of chicken (made more dangerous by the fact that there are many cars, not just two, racing towards each other).
  • As a whole (humanity), we seem to not yet have the institutions or governance to deal with it. (The good news is: we are building them. See, for instance the climate reports by the IPCC that aim to create a scientific base-line on what is actually happening.)
  • It’s an intergenerational conflict as much as an international one. I am stunned by the failure of the young (I’d still count myself among them…) to take the matter up more forcefully. The old guys in the developed world might think it’s not their problem. The trouble is, that they still call the shots.
  • Adverse power structures: A few benefit from playing down the problem. They probably have highly disproportionate access to decision-making. Big oil? A recent report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative said that oil companies would have to write-off around two thirds of their proven reserves (“unburnable carbon”), if we are to stick to the 2 degree climate change goal (refer). Markets, interestingly, still give oil companies high valuations, based on the assumption that they will not be limited by carbon goals.

Thinking of a positive note at the end… Is the rate of innovation and cost reduction in climate friendly technologies (especially: energy efficiency, renewables) much faster than in more mature traditional carbon-heavy technologies? Probably not. A lot of research goes into deep-sea oil drilling, fracking, even tar sands. But we are already investing as much into renewables as we are into fossil fuel power generation. However, that in itself will not make enough of a dent. We would need a more radical transformation of how we generate and use energy than the current path. We are at best on “rapid evolution” mode. What we need is to shift to “revolution” mode.

Previous blog post on climate change: Is India getting sidelined in climate diplomacy (refer)?

Tobias Engelmeier is the Director and Founder at BRIDGE TO INDIA. Twitter: @TEngelmeier

1 comment

  • You observe that the impact will not be equitable — more likely, there will be populations and geographies that will be winners. Countries, corporations and communities have begun to position themselves to reap the benefits — the posturing for the arctic “land-grab” is one example.

    Check out “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk:
    it postulates scenarios that should inform policy debate in countries that will be most affected.

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