What if Solving the Climate Crisis Is Simple ?
Updated: Jan 13
In his book "Resetting the Future: What if Solving the Climate Crisis Is Simple", Tom Bowman puts his finger on the sore spot: by framing the climate crisis as a wicked problem that needs to be solved top-down, people become despondent and passive. It is much more effective to consider the climate crisis as a simple problem.
There exists a perception problem with climate change. For many of us, the climate crisis looks like a tangle of intertwined and interacting problems. If you pull one thread, you quickly become entangled in many others: energy generation and distribution, buildings and urban planning, local and global transport systems, global supply chains, investment and financial markets, corporate governance, civil governance, international development and aid, consumer behaviour, waste management, national and global security, education, environmental justice and human rights, biodiversity and much more. Faced with such a wicked problem, it is near impossible to devise a master plan that takes all possible scenarios into account. After all, any action can have undesirable side-effects and even make things worse.
This framing gives people the impression that the problem is 1. very complex and 2. in the hands of many actors, whose behaviour we cannot influence anyway.
As a result, many people do not - not really - believe that the climate crisis is solvable. In the US, for example, only 6% believe that we can stop global warming. They can no longer see the wood for the trees. The message seems to be: Continue with pure willpower, do your very best on a political and personal level, without any guarantee of success. An exhausting and not very motivating job.
This makes them receptive to other narratives: the fossil fuel industry's targeted campaigns to sow doubt about climate change, or to convince people that we had better give up the fight.
Why is perception so important?
Why is perception so important ? Mental models shape our world view, but also determine - and limit - the solutions available to us.
People are less rational than is generally believed. We have a mental model in our heads of what the world looks like, and scripts of how we should behave. If the model is incorrect, then our response is also totally inadequate. For example, it took a long time before we took the Corona pandemic seriously. COVID-19 was a 'Chinese virus', and it did not occur to us that the same thing could happen in Europe until we saw the overcrowded hospitals in Italy.
Another example is the tsunami that hit Thailand on 26 December 2004. There are video recordings of people walking on the beach. They see the wave coming, but they are not worried at all. Even when the water washes around their ankles, they are still laughing. A few seconds later people, trees and cars are swept away. Their mental model was: we are on holiday on a sunny beach, and only at the very last moment - when it was too late - that script was rewritten. Our perception of the climate crisis will determine what we can ultimately do about it.
Changing perceptions: presenting climate change as a simple problem
For policymakers and experts, the climate crisis is indeed a complex problem. But it is unproductive to formulate it as such to citizens and businesses.
Experts are, of course, happy to talk about their expertise in detail, but in truth a ten-year-old is better able to tell the population what needs to be done: stop burning fossil fuels well before 2050.
Of course, that does not say everything about the climate crisis. We shouldn't ignore the problems of deforestation, land use change, methane emissions from cattle ... But by concentrating on fossil fuels, a huge step forward can be taken.
The best way to change our collective attitude is through "Simple messages, often repeated, by various trusted bodies (Edward Maibach)".
The top-down approach versus the adaptive approach
If the climate crisis is approached as a wicked problem, a master plan is needed that takes all eventualities into account and that must be imposed top-down by the government on the citizens and companies.
Apart from the fact that it is virtually impossible to draw up such a master plan, this is also demotivating. The government tends to make decisions over the heads of the citizens instead of really listening to them and taking their concerns into account. People have different values and beliefs, and there is nothing that arouses more resentment than making assumptions about the values and beliefs people should hold.
A bottom-up, or adaptive approach works much better. Let people and companies take one simple rule into account in all their decisions: stop burning fossil fuels well before 2050, but leave them free to decide how (through high tech or low tech solutions, through technological or organisational measures) they want to solve this problem. This will unleash the creativity and entrepreneurship of society as a whole.
We want to encourage rapid, creative experimentation, so that we can fail quickly, succeed quickly, share knowledge, give up things that don't work and copy things that do work. Crucial to this approach is: we do not need to know the whole plan from the start.
This approach motivates people, because the initiative lies with them, not with the government. In addition, incremental improvements provide an opportunity to celebrate small successes all the time.
The hidden potential of the adaptive approach is invariably underestimated by experts, because economic models are not well able to take into account the impact of innovation. This is good news: if we go down this road, the future will be better than we can foresee.
To a new status quo
People are inclined to stick to the status quo, the course of events as they are used to. However, we are also quickly getting used to a new status quo. This was demonstrated last year during the Corona crisis, as working from home, wearing mouth masks and keeping our distance quickly became the new normal, which was still unthinkable at the beginning of 2020.
This gives hope. If we can change the status quo, if we can create a new normal in which striving for minimum emissions and minimum fossil fuel consumption becomes the norm, then we will change the whole dynamics of the problem. The carbon-neutral society may be closer than we think.
Bowman has made me think about the mental model I have in my mind about climate change. I have always considered the climate crisis as both a complex and a simple problem. And typically - I took it for granted that others would think the same way.
How can a problem be complex and simple at the same time? Take for instance the study of a gas: it is impossible to calculate and predict the position and velocity of all the molecules in a gas. But the question is: do you need to know all these details ? For example, to calculate a thermodynamic cycle (yes, sorry, I'm an engineer) it's sufficient to know the macro quantities: volume, pressure and temperature. A quadrillion parameters is thus reduced to 3.
In the same way, I believe that a course change in society and economy is possible without trying to control all the details. The climate crisis is solvable, but we have to look at it from the right angle: as a simple problem. We have to calculate with a few parameters, not a quadrillion.
Like Tom Bowman, I believe we need to mobilise the creativity and entrepreneurship of the whole of society to solve the climate crisis, and this cannot be achieved with a top-down approach. An adaptive approach is necessary.
However, Tom Bowman believes that it is enough to replace the complex message with a simple one to trigger this adaptive approach and I do not agree with that. People do not all share the same values. For some, the concern for preserving a liveable planet is enough to make the right choices. Some do not care. 100 companies cause 70% of global CO2 emissions and they are not going to be convinced by a simple message. Or rather, I propose to translate the simple message into a simple financial message.
How do you translate "stop burning fossil fuels" in financial terms? By introducing a gradually increasing tax on all fossil fuels. This tax can be introduced without causing a tax increase. By distributing the proceeds of the tax to people as Climate Income, low and mid income households are protected. It is a green tax shift, a redistribution of the big polluters to the people who pollute little.
The Climate Income is a simple financial message, triggering an adaptive, empowering approach to solving climate change. It mobilizes the creativity and innovation of citizens and companies to reduce CO2 emissions and stop fossil fuel usage across all sectors of the economy, and covering the scope of all human activities. According to IPCC calculations, by simply implementing this policy, we can achieve 90% of the 1.5° climate target by 2050.
There is currently a European Citizens' Initiative running (until 6 February 2021) for the introduction of the Climate Income. Please sign the petition at: https://eci.ec.europa.eu/007/public/#/initiative.
Brigitte Van Gerven