Finding Our Common Humanity

The news about the Fourth U.S. Climate Assessment and how President Trump responded dismissively and with a lack of knowledge, highlights the importance of supporting the science of our environment and embracing our need for collective action. The environmental challenges humans face are worldwide – a statement that often alludes national entities.

Australia can teach us about handling climate change and how bad things can persist without action. As you may know, less rain is falling and more water is evaporating in Australia due to higher temperatures which results in an 80 percent reduction in the water reservoirs that supply Perth since 1970. The country’s water challenges are exacerbated by population growth. The local governments spent over $1.5 billion on desalination plants and water recycling from sewage. Other actions have been restrictions on watering lawns and higher prices for natural resources.

On the other side of the country, the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing rapid coral depletion. The higher water temperatures resulting from global warming have led to more frequent bouts of bleaching, leaving the reef too little time to recover – resulting in a lack of ocean resiliency.

Every imaginable impact is occurring in Australia – more wildfires, parched landscapes, depleted water supplies, and unusual weather events. The citizens have learned how to conserve – the country uses only 26 liters of water per U.S. Dollar of GDP compared to China that uses 1,048 liters of water per U.S. Dollar of GDP.

Australia set up the first federal government agency devoted to cutting emissions. This action led to a carbon tax and carbon markets, yet these actions have been overturned by political strife. Studies show that 75% of the Australian population is concerned about climate change. Most of the people think the government is not doing enough to help adapt to climate change. The government is hesitant to act because of political fallout – a stance that makes no sense given the popular sentiment.

So why can’t governments like Australia act and maintain their actions? Here is just one major idea. Climate change is caught in a vicious cycle of narratives. Dale Jamieson, in his book Reason in a Dark Time, shows various frames (his word for narratives) through which people define science-related issues. For example, social progress is one frame.  People see climate science as a means of improving quality of life or solving problems; the alternative interpretation of science as a way to be in harmony with nature or to master it. Others interpret science through a conflict strategy such as who is winning and losing a debate; as a battle of personalities. Thus, political parties square off on science rather than trying to understand the messages that science can produce. Others may take a moral or ethical stance as a matter of right or wrong; or of respect or disrespect for limits, thresholds, or boundaries.

These frames block us from seeing others’ explanations or solutions. If you are against big government, then government solutions to climate change (no matter how appropriate and effective) will be dismissed.

We need a collective narrative. We clearly have a collective action problem, as well. Since every generation benefits from its own emissions but the costs are deferred to future generations, they have an incentive not to control their emissions.  Since current generations suffer from the emissions of the previous generations, benefitting from current emissions may seem like just compensation for that they have suffered. Climate change is the ultimate problem area as it defies jurisdictions and specific finger pointing. It is a world-wide collective action challenge.

What to do? We must start with our common humanity and demonstrate a collective sympathy and empathy – all in short supply. I am not sure democracy is up to the challenge of climate change. Political action is only part of the need we have – we must see the world beyond national borders understanding that we have to protect non-citizens, future people, even at the expense of current economic outcomes. Starting with the common humanity perspective is a must to get started on solving climate change challenges.

We can use economics to ask “how much will these actions cost?” We can balance the economics with asking “What is the right thing to do?” Ethics alone cannot solve the problem; economics alone cannot solve the problem – we need both approaches. Economics leads us to think rationally and in our self-interest; ethics pushes us to think expansively, collectively, and impartially. Don’t let yourself slip into one camp or the other – maintain focus on both questions! Force yourself to think collectively, about common humanity. We need to reach beyond our individuality and think more collectively, a point made over and over by the popular historian Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus.

If you want to read an interesting commentary on finding common ground, take a look at Sebastin Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. He ends his book with sage advice:  “..belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs… That sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in history. It may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.


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