Prior to the so-called COP26 conference, Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, Bartholemew I of Constantinople, urged the world to “listen to the cry of the earth” regarding climate change.
With the 39,000-delegate extravaganza having concluded on the weekend, it’s tempting to disregard the three Christian leaders’ advice and laugh instead.
Not, let’s hastily emphasize, mocking laughter about the very real and very serious issue of climate change itself. No. More a warm-hearted chuckle with a barely discernible eye roll that anyone should have expected more than the close to zero results that COP26 produced.
As the authoritatively climate convinced New York Times reported when the final communiqué was unfurled before a breathlessly waiting world on the weekend, the upshot is the (not-quite-a) revelation that for the past two weeks, there’s been a whole lot of fakin’ going on among the assembled diplomats, activists, journalists, and hangers about. And there’s a very real risk the fakery will continue for the foreseeable future.
“The new agreement in Glasgow asks countries to come back by the end of next year with stronger pledges to cut emissions by 2030,” the NYT reported. “Though the agreement states clearly that, on average, all nations will need to slash their carbon dioxide emissions nearly in half this decade to hold warming below 1.5 degree Celsius, it leaves unresolved how the burden of those cuts will be shared among nations.”
In other words, we’re all going to do something but no one knows exactly what or who will ensure it’s done, yes? “It remains to be seen if countries follow through; there are no sanctions or penalties if they fail to do so,” the Times reporter confirms.
Oh, well then. That will work like a dream, won’t it? Or not so much: “Money, meanwhile, remained a huge sticking point in the talks,” the NYT advises somberly.
Isn’t money just so funny that way? Ever the sticking point never the solution. For this, as the always stellar Blacklock’s Reporter ferreted out, Canada sent 277 delegates to Glasgow at a cost of about $1.6 million?
“Canada’s delegation included Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, Deputy Environment Minister Thelma Hogan, Assistant Deputy Minister Catherine Stewart, Climate Change Ambassador Patricia Fuller, Climate Change Director Joanna Dafoe and twenty-five advisors and negotiators with the department,” the Ottawa-based news site determined.
“Other Canadians in attendance included the Prime Minister’s official photographer, official videographer and lead speechwriter, seventeen press secretaries and communications directors, four CBC reporters and the entire Green Party caucus comprised of two MPs,” it reported.
Rest assured that whatever the 277-strong Canadian delegation contributed to global salvation will require further study and, in a pinch, numerous future trips abroad. Perhaps it’s the cry of Canadian taxpayers, not just the earth’s, that should be listened to.
Certainly, the spiritual trinity of Francis, Welby and Bartholomew I might have been better off putting pragmatics ahead of eco-theo-poetry in their historic joint statement. In fairness, the “cry of the earth” does deserve good marks for metaphor. Alas, like COP26 itself, it misses the mark badly in terms of specific action to, um, stem the rising tide of global temperatures.
That’s unfortunate given recent work in economics showing workable action on climate change will occur only when the quantifiable cost of doing nothing exceeds the input price of doing something. Until then, even Greta Thunberg livestreaming climate crisis ululations while riding a dolphin across the Seven Seas will still have an effective result of bupkas.
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, there’s vigorous debate, among climate economists, and so cause for real hope, that the “social cost of carbon” will provoke genuine behavioural reforms because it profits us to make them. The debate has been sparked by calculations showing that the combined cost of global damage from climate change can actually produce future savings if we avoid it in the first place.
Under the long-standing existing model developed by Nobel laureate William Nordhaus, a pioneer of climate economics in 1975, “future damage from global warming would come to 1.3 per cent of future gross domestic product and put the social cost of carbon at under $5 a ton. That could only justify reducing emissions by nine per cent,” – nowhere close to the Holy Grail of net zero.
On winning a share of the Nobel Prize in economics for 2018, Nordhaus described climate change as a “menace (that) looms over our future” but also warned the Paris Climate Accord’s 1.5 to 2 per cent warming target was economically unfeasible. As the Journal reports, it would “cost 3.5 per cent of (global) GDP whereas the damage from temperatures rising three degrees was just two per cent of GDP.” What does it profit a man to give up his SUV and do nothing to solve the climate problem?
Emerging models combining climate change, GDP projections and population distribution, however, reconfigure the costs by a minimum 33 per cent. It begins to make it “profitable” to take rising temperatures into serious account but regarding avoiding them as money in the bank. A model developed by University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone, for example, factors into climate change the costs of premature death and decreased labour productivity, both missing from earlier calculations.
The Wall Street Journal article emphasizes such re-evaluations are up for debate. But it’s a debate about facts and, most importantly, figures. Thinking about it, though, there’s no reason why hard knuckle calculation shouldn’t be the key to climate paradise regained. After all, Our Lord formulated the most powerfully lucid cost-benefit analysis ever when he asked: “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
Economists might substitute the word “shirt” for “soul,” but that is merely this-world/next-world semantics. Climate economists, too, might update Scripture further by asking: “What does it profit a man to give up his SUV and do nothing to solve global warming?”
The great mystico-theological warbler Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.” More pragmatically, there is a cost to everything; it’s how the light bulb comes on. We change for the better when reform extracts a lower cost than sustaining bad existing habits. Surely the Pope, the Archbishop and the Patriarch, all learned men who lead billions of Christian believers, can see the urgent wisdom of accepting that premise.
Let us pray the lightbulb comes on soon so we can relax again in the cared-for world God gave us, wipe away our tears of fear, and maybe even let out a happy laugh.
This column is based on a version that appeared earlier in the Catholic Register newspaper.
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