A far-ranging, thought-provoking, and excellent interview with Vaclav Smil in the lead-up to his new book. A few excerpts:
You don’t have to have 200 countries to sign on the dotted line to reduce emissions. But you have to have at least all the big emitters: China, the United States, India, Russia. What are the chances today of Russia, China and the U.S. signing on the dotted line as to the actual reduction of emissions by 2030? Also please notice that the Paris agreement has no legally binding language. In an ideal world, we could cut our emissions if we put our minds into it. But the point is it has to be done by all these actors in concert. Are we going to come together and make that global compact to make it work? That’s the question.
People do sacrifice for our children, take the right steps. But the same people who will buy a solar panel and heat pump will buy an S.U.V. People will stop eating meat, then fly for a vacation in Toscana. We are messy, hard-to-define individuals. We are subject to fashions and whims — this is the beauty of humanity. Most of us are trying to do the right things with climate, but it is difficult when you have to move on the energy front, food front, materials front. People have to realize that this problem is unprecedented because of the numbers — billions of everything — and the pressure of acting rapidly as we never acted before. This doesn’t make it hopeless, but it makes it excruciatingly more difficult.
So how do you understand the risk of climate change? Are we just screwed? The key to understanding risk — forget about climate change — is very simple. It’s discounting the future. People will eat pork bellies and drink a liter of alcohol every day because the joy of eating pork belly and drinking surpasses the possible bad payoff 30 years down the road. Suppose we start investing like crazy and start bringing down the carbon as rapidly as possible. The first beneficiaries will be people living in the 2070s because of what’s already in the system. The temperature will keep rising even as we are reducing these emissions. So you are asking people now to make quote-unquote sacrifices while the first benefits will accrue to their children and the real benefits will accrue to their grandchildren. You have to redo the basic human wiring in the brain to change this risk analysis and say, I value 2055 or 2060 as much as I value tomorrow. None of us is wired to think that way.
Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.