If we fix our human glitch, we can then save the world


It is understandable that most of us couldn’t care less right now about climate change. And yet...

IT’S AN interesting glitch, to say the least. Humans seem to be hardwired to worry about threats that are imminent, and to be positively sanguine about events that are potentially far more catastrophic but further away.

Come to think of it, we are not even particularly good at worrying about imminent threats. You are much more likely to die in a car accident than in an airplane crash, but people worry far less about the more real threat.

Given the state of the world economy, and that interesting human glitch, it makes perfect sense that most people couldn’t give a monkey’s right now about climate change. It’s somewhere off out there, and right now, a body has enough to do worrying about how to pay the mortgage on a negative equity house.

There was an obvious evolutionary advantage to being adaptable and on the lookout for short-term threats. We are wired to react to things that are in the immediate environment. No point worrying about something that might happen next year if you did not survive today because of a failure to be vigilant.

The only problem is, short-term thinking is absolutely wonderful when you live in a simple environment. None of us do, anymore.

Some nations are burying their heads even more deeply in the sand than we are. In Canada’s case, oil sands seem to be their preference for head-burying. Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol right after the Durban Conference on Climate Change.

It did so on the grounds that Canada would be subject to what it considered absurdly punitive fines, in the region of €10.33 billion, for failing to meet targets for cutting emissions.

Ironic, that, given Canada weathered the recession far better than most countries, although some experts believe that if you remove the profits made from oil exports, Canada looks a great deal more shaky.

Worrying about a mere €10 billion might seem doubly ironic to we Irish, given the level of debt our tiny economy is supposed to cope with. However, Canada has decided that short-term gain from oil exports trumps long-term survival.

As I said, human beings are very bad at dealing with longer-term threats. Unsurprisingly, some of the strongest voices at the Durban conference were those of small island nations.

The Alliance Of Small Island States’ (Aosis) declaration on climate change in 2009 listed effects such as sea-level rise, more frequent and extreme weather events, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, coastal erosion, and changing precipitation patterns.

Strange how all of that might focus the mind. To the credit of the EU, its representatives worked hard at Durban to achieve agreement, but all that happened was that there was an agreement that by 2015, details of a deal to come into effect by 2020 would be worked out.

It’s not enough. It’s not anywhere near enough. Aosis is not happy. It issued a statement that says: “It is a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity. There are no plausible technical, economic or legal impediments for not taking the actions required by science – we need to act now!”

Meanwhile, what does our own small island nation get convulsed about? A household charge. Admittedly, it is a blunt instrument with many unfair aspects, but compared with the implications of climate change, it seems to be a petty target.

But perhaps that, too, is understandable. We seem to live in the era when TINA reigns – There Is No Alternative. People feel hopeless and fatalistic and, therefore, refusing to pay something such as the household charge feels positive and good. In reality it is a distraction from far more important issues.

Our Government seems to be blithely ignoring climate change, in a desperate attempt to first stabilise, and then “get back to where we were”. What an increasingly hollow phrase that has become.

“Where we were” was a place teetering on the edge of disaster, except we didn’t know it. No one can say that we don’t know about the threat of climate change.

There is a great lack of an overarching vision. We need a bigger and better narrative than “getting back to where we were”. Where do we want to be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time? But this Government doesn’t understand that, as shown by everything from the failure to include solid fuel in the carbon tax, to the long-fingering of climate-change legislation.

Sustainability means a recognition that we only have one planet, and we are depleting its resources at an alarming rate. But people will not be persuaded to budge from short-term thinking unless there is a major incentive.

Albert Einstein allegedly said that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. We have to start the transition to a completely different way of viewing the economy, and low carbon lifestyles. It is not all about doom, gloom, and sacrifices.

We have all that already, in austerity measures that may prove ultimately pointless. A larger, more inspiring vision could see us moving towards gentler, less stressful lifestyles, opportunities for Ireland in alternative energies, and a fairer and more equal world.

It is about building a greener, cleaner world for our children. It can be done. But first, we have to overcome that human glitch.