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A Matter of Time and Behaviour

It can be considered common sense that our way of life affects our planet in a bad way. We know the sea level and temperature are rising, both woods that are unnecessarily being burnt and fossil fuels drive up the level of CO2 in our atmosphere, and our ecological footprints are bigger than they should. Environmentalists have tried to convince governments of the need to intervene in this evergrowing problem, but the awareness and action that environmentalists try to create do not appeal to the public at all. For many of us it is very difficult to worry about something that is not yet visible, although the rising temperature and heavier storms seem to be the first signs that climate change is actually happening. 2016 has, for example, been the warmest year in recorded history, and the ice on the Arctic and Greenland is really melting. We all know this, but we are not actively changing something in our way of life to solve the problem. Since people are reluctant to change their lifestyles in order to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change, the problem remains. A few weeks ago, Leonardo DiCaprio released his documentary ‘Before the Flood’, wherein he tries to answer the question whether it is too late to stop the process of global warming. Climate change becomes visible in his documentary, but the need for the warning, which comes with this visibility, is often overseen. If it is common sense that our lifestyle affects the process of global warming, then why are we doing so little to stop it? The most important question concerning the matter of global warming and climate change is no longer what actually is happening or what we can do to stop worsening the situation, but what should change in the mindset of humankind to start effectively tackling the problem.

As mentioned before, most of us know what global warming is, that it is inevitable, and that there are extensive measures required for a sustainable environment. It is known that CO2 is the main reason for the acceleration of global warming, since global warming and climate change are two natural processes which humankind is simply worsening. The amount of CO2 in our atmosphere increases with emissions from either industrial plants, cars, and cattle, but also by the use of fossil fuels. Electric cars are there to solve the problem of car emissions, and energy from sun and wind should replace the use of fossil fuels in the future. Electric cars and renewable energy are currently quite expensive, but once invested in solar and wind, energy will be free forever. Fortunately, last year’s Paris Agreement, which was signed by 195 countries, takes the affordability of renewable energy into account. Although this sounds like a great prospect, it will take much time and effort to replace the old sources of energy by renewable sources all across the world. It will be difficult for less developed countries to keep up with all the innovations and new technologies, but only time will tell how this is going to evolve.

Moreover, the emissions caused by cattle could only be lowered by reducing the amount of cattle breeding to an acceptable level. However, this is quite difficult to achieve, since meat consumption is considered normal, and changes in this status quo will meet resistance by the people who are used to having meat for dinner. Therefore, the real problem is that some solutions to prevent a further acceleration of the process of global warming are neither accessible nor wanted.

In DiCaprio’s documentary, macro-economist Gregory Mankiw states that all elected leaders are in fact the people’s elected followers. A leader therefore reflects the opinion of its people. As long as the public is not willing to reduce the amount of CO2 used for daily life, governments will not set regulations to decrease that amount either. We can see this happening in the United States right now. Donald Trump has been elected by the world’s biggest consumers and denies that climate change is real. According to Obama’s successor, ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.’ The American people have elected a leader that will not change their spending-culture in the short run, but seem to forget that a policy which ignores the state of the environment will change their culture even more drastically in the future. Mankiw argues that it is reasonable of people to think only about the short run, since people already have a lot to worry about. He states that ‘people do not want to think about climate change when making every decision, since they can’t.’  This time-inconsistency problem could be better understood in the light of loss aversion. Loss aversion is a concept in behavioural economics, where it is assumed that losses seem bigger than gains. In the event of changing policies concerning cattle breeding or carbon taxes – policies every citizen has to do with – people have the tendency to reject changes, because ‘new’ policies will increase the probability of an undesirable situation, which can be considered a loss. This will in turn lead to a continuation of the environmental problem, since something has to be changed in order to maintain the same quality of life in the future. This fear for the unknown is why we are stuck in the situation where we know there is a problem to solve, but are reluctant to move first.

All in all, I think that we should acknowledge there is a problem that cannot solely be solved by government regulations, since the main problem lies within the behaviour that causes the huge amount of emissions. The Paris Agreement is a great step forward, and carbon taxes will enable consumers to choose solar and wind energy over fossil fuels and could be a step forward as well, but even this is not enough. Right now, we do not want to think about climate change while taking the car instead of using public transportation, or while having beef for dinner for the seventh time a week, or while deciding on staying at the same energy provider instead of switching to solar panels. Right now we do not, but eventually we should. We should not worry about the possible loss resulting from the changes in our lifestyle, since the scenario of not changing anything would result in an even bigger loss. If we would start caring about the environment and create some sort of awareness, the elected leaders who can put work into progress and even acceleration are to come naturally. But this awareness starts with us. So whether you are skeptical towards environmentalism or not, try to keep in mind that there is no escaping from global warming and its consequences. Now, while we are still able to limit the consequences of climate change, I think that we should. Only then, hopefully, can we consider ‘greener energy’ and a smaller ecological footprint for all of us common sense.


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