Tomorrow ~ Cause and effect

Laurel Ridge

By Paul Quigg, columnist

When actions we take today will not have an immediate impact on our lives, we immediately discount today’s action and get on with our lives. The further in the future that we anticipate the results will have an effect on us, the less value we give to today’s actions. This future result of today’s actions is called “deferred gratification” and in economic terms, “time discounting”. The time frames studied are usually limited to 10 years after which results quickly lose their viability. This theory has been proven true for many years.

This presents an enormous problem for climate change action when we are dealing with 50-, 75- and 100-year time frames between cause and effect. All climate change studies spend a great deal of their time saying that we have to overlook and disregard deferred gratification for ethical reasons. They have no rational argument for denying deferred gratification, so they have to fall back on “ethical” reasons in order to justify any global warming action today. In the last few years, deferred gratification concerns are being ignored, and immediate drastic action is the only hope for the future of humanity.

This noble “ethical” call for immediate action is not based on reality. Current concerns and events dominate our lives today, consequently, we have severely slowed climate mitigation efforts. Energy dominates the political actions countries are making today, and climate concerns are near the bottom of the list. The current problems are just too close to home, and they will not be ignored.

Our brains evolved in a time of local concerns and linear timeframes. Today, we live in global and exponential timeframes. Our brains are unable to absorb our new reality, and we panic and behave irrationally.

Is this good or bad? I don’t know. I do know that global actions today are rational and realistic, and countries and individuals will respond in their own special interests. The realities of human nature are very discouraging, but asking us to ignore these realities does nothing to address climate action and gives us a false sense of security.

Mr. Quigg, a University of Virginia graduate and resident of Luray, has practiced architecture in the Mid-Atlantic region since 1962. As a lifelong environmentalist, in the 70’s he was appalled at the polluted air and water and has dedicated much of his time since in studying and commenting on the environment. He has been published in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. 

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14 Comments

  1. Therefore we must cease, stop, choke out, waylay, destroy, all redundancy of thought and energy production.
    Energy production is killing the earth and us too.
    We want to breath in clean air with our last breath while dying frozen stiff.

    • Robert, It is extremely difficult to understand what you are trying to say. You say “Energy production is killing the earth and us too.”
      Fossil fuel energy production has produced the incredible global wealth we enjoy today. Are you saying this is a tragedy? Would you be advocating that we should be living in a per fossil fuel economy?
      Your other sentences are just random words to me.

  2. Paul, being so old, you have the luxury of giving up. I guess we’ll have this sad defeated column to remember you by. Good work.

    • Claire, I am old, but nowhere did I say I was giving up. It is a sad column because it points out a human trait that discourages any significant climate mitigation. You add nothing to this column with your pathetic response, so if you can’t find some reasonable thoughts to add to the discussion, please find someone else harass.

      • Unfortunately you’re the one with the louder voice here and are the one offering no solutions. If we read through your columns, you’re telling people that the problems are too large and complicated to do anything about it. What exactly is the point of these posts of yours?

        • Claire, I’m glad you have chosen to join the discussion.
          I admit I have been concentrating on the problems and my purpose was to get your attention and start to understand how difficult it will probably be to slow the warming. The activist’s talk about holding the warming to 1.5C. I believe this number is so far from reality that any hope that the number is viable is ridiculous. 1.5 C was part of the conversation 10-15 years ago but it was dropped as the consensus was that it was an impossible goal because of the momentum and inertia in the energy sector. It made a bold reentry in 2015 or 2017 for some reason and has continued to be considered a possibility. We will be very lucky to hold the warming to 2C.
          The energy sector is huge and it can’t be turned off or reduced without having a catastrophic effect on the economy. This is the momentum and inertia which controls future energy policy. The population is growing and the poorest want some middle-class stuff and the wealthy do not like high energy costs.
          Recent Russian energy policies have caused a huge rise in energy costs and we are abandoning climate mitigation policies daily in order to reduce energy costs.
          We are doing some mitigation efforts, but they are pathetically inadequate to have much effect.
          I wish I could be more positive but there are certain realities which must be part of the ultimate solution.

  3. Being familiar with the ongoing work of the IPCC, Paul, you’ll know that science has been able to state with ever stronger confidence that the worrisome climate effects of our carbon economy have already arrived. Natural variation in climate does not explain the global temperature rise nor the increased frequency of destructive weather events. Fortunate people like you and me have not been severely affected yet, but in many other places on the globe the futurity problem you discussed doesn’t apply. It’s not a matter, there, of what may happen in 50 or 75 years.

    You are absolutely right, though, that the nature of a slow moving catastrophe makes it hard for us humans to act foresightfully even when we know the problem isn’t remote. There are more immediate problems and needs, as well as healthy desires (for instance, to travel by car and plane and buy stuff to enjoy). So I think what most of us do, including me, is to roll the dice and hope against hope that we’ll beat the stacked odds.

    • Will, Thanks for a reasoned response.
      You speak of “increased frequency of destructive weather events. This may or may not be true as the media is intent on making every storm catastrophic. I have no memory of a terrible tornado season this spring, and the hurricane is early with no signs of Atlantic activity. While we may be having more destructive storms, the fatality rate is way, way down due to early warnings. Property damage is way up due to our enormous wealth and our insistence on building in vulnerable places.
      I have complete confidence that fossil fuels are primarily behind global warming, but I have very little confidence in the catastrophic consequences the alarmists predict. I have followed the alarmist’s predictions for over 50 years and they ignore the incredible human progress over those years and continue their “doomsday” rhetoric.
      The weather seems to be doing some strange things and it is cause for concern, but every season has its own differences and the effect current weather has on future climate is way down the road.
      I don’t like to be the bearer of discouraging theories but they must be considered in order to anticipate future climate trends.
      As “fortunate people” we must do our best to help bring the worlds poorest into the ranks of the fortunate.

  4. I think it is important to remember that the earth is billions of years old. In the context of time using 20, 50, 75, 100, or 500 years as a metric to measure the amount of change or the speed of change seems to be somewhat of a sample size that could be misguided or misunderstood. The climate has changed many times over billions of years. On a recent hiking trip in the SNP I noticed a snapshot about climate change in the visitors center at Big Meadows, which describes large variations of climate across the last 45,000 years (45,000 years is just a blip on the screen of a billion years). This was very similar to what I found hiking in the Badlands National Park, which was once an inland sea and is an area filled with aquatic fossils, but now is a rough and tumble area of buttes and canyons. Recent trips to the Great Lakes also reminded me of how the massive fresh water lakes were formed by a changing climate over the eons.

    Don’t misunderstand my point, we should do our best to be good stewards of the environment, and we should investigate and utilize new technologies to power our transportation, homes and businesses; while at the same time accept that the climate does change and will continue to change along the way.

    And as a reminder, there are currently many environmental concerns related to the production of solar panels and batteries. Additionally, without a robust recycling program a long-term environmental catastrophe is in the making because of the defined lifespan of solar equipment and batteries.

    • All of human existence is pretty much a blip on the geologic screen, just sayin. Our timescales are so very compressed compared to that of the environment that gave rise to us. But we have no other choice but to adjust our caring to these eyeblinks of time. Climate does continue to change naturally, but as far as temperature is concerned, we have juiced its rise unnaturally. It is probable that we’re causing quick follow-on climate changes.

      I get what you’re saying about our solutions creating new problems, so we might be choosing the lesser evil with solar energy. But how long can we go on, always growing our energy supply, no matter what technology we use? Something tells me that we’re deceiving ourselves, and that drastically cutting back our per capita use is the only real way out. I should get motivated and take serious look at the 2000 Watt Society. My incentives to do it are lacking, I’m afraid.

  5. There are a number of authors who attack the alarmism that bothers you. One I read is by Steven Koonin, a science advisor to Obama. The statistician Bjorn Lomborg has followed that same theme for many years. These are not lightweights by any means; they’re more knowledgeable than I could ever hope to be. Yet for me, those who decry alarmism need also to put on the table what seem to be the facts, and to recognize a need to act–because even if they think media voices are hyping doom, the do-nothing scenario leads us to a bad place. I do not believe that the science community itself is engaging in hype (you may disagree). That is who we must listen to.

    To throw another name down, the eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman said that climate change is a problem humans are incapable of dealing with, because of our time-discounting brains (as you stated). I do hope you’re both wrong!

  6. Will, I’m familiar with Koonin and Khaneneman, and I have followed Lomborg since his entry on the scene. I have all of Lomborg’s books.
    How we act is the grand question. How much of our economy must be dedicated to cutting emissions? Our efforts to date have been minuscule and we don’t seem to fundamentally want to make the sacrifices needed.
    If we had some reasonable idea of what the climate will be like with 2C we could make some logical decisions. The activists cry catastrophe, catastrophe, and I can only hope they are wrong.
    A British columnist, Matt Ridley often writes on climate matters.

  7. Well, Paul, we do now have the (probably inappropriately named) Inflation Reduction Act), a measure that is extremely late in coming, but does makes the U.S. Glasgow commitment not entirely a lost cause. That we’ve known about our warming problem for
    50 years but have just now acted decisively on a national level is…I suppose discouraging and encouraging at the same time. And,
    look, it’s a big government program, its hallmark won’t be efficiency. But its best effect might be to energize efforts on the state and municipal levels.

    Anyway, thanks for getting us thinking about these concerns.

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