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Quick summary of premises of this question:

  • There's major anthropogenic global warming going on, and predictions say it will accelerate the next 50 years if global and radical action is not taken
  • Everything seems to indicate that such global and radical action is not going to be taken by most countries, for various and numerous reasons that would be out of scope to cover here.
  • If any single country takes radical action alone, its economy will be unfairly disadvantaged on the global market and people will import goods from other countries not taking action, meaning all effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is futile until done on a global scope.

Viewed from a small country, (such as my own, Switzerland), it seems much more effective to assume that global warming is happening anyway, and invest money for protecting against negative effects of global warming locally, such as: Planting trees massively in cities to protect from the warmth, invest to adapt agriculture and leisure to new climate, protecting the population from natural disasters and secure drinkable water supplies.

The current way politicians are leading to, investing massively to reduce greenhouse gas emission in the gamble that all countries will do the same, when everything seems to indicate they won't do it and don't want to do it, seems hopeless. Why are we still aiming this way ?

  • Global reduction of global warming is very expensive. It's a gamble on foreign countries and chances of any global success appears to be very low as this is written (2019).
  • Local adaptation to global warming is very expensive. But it's effectiveness is 100% guaranteed.
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    Why assume that the measures needed to reduce CO2 emissions are economically disadvantageous? For one small example, if Switzerland runs most of its railways on electricity rather than diesel (as it does, at least from my observation when I lived there), and that electricity comes from hydropower rather than fossil fuel generation, then it has shielded its transport system from disruptions in fossil fuel supply, which is advantageous. – jamesqf Nov 15 '19 at 17:46
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Viewed from a small country, (such as my own, Switzerland), it seems much more effective to assume that global warming is happening anyway, and invest money for protecting against negative effects of global warming locally, such as: Planting trees massively in cities to protect from the warmth, invest to adapt agriculture and leisure to new climate, protecting the population from natural disasters and secure drinkable water supplies.

I appreciate that the natural Swiss response to international problems is isolation, but in this case Switzerland is actually ahead on environmentally friendly electricity generation. It also has tiny local fossil fuel extraction. I suspect the nuclear buildout happened at roughly the same time as France and for roughly the same reasons: energy independence.

If a country is dependent on fossil fuels for its energy and has no significant local production, then it is at the mercy of external circumstances. Either price rise shocks (such as the end of the 1970s) or supply issues. That can provide a solid reason for transitioning to non-fossil energy even without considering the environment.

Mitigation is not an option available to all countries. The Maldives are predicted to be entirely underwater by 2100 in some of the worst case scenarios. Far larger areas of Bangladesh, Florida, etc are also likely to be affected.

Disasters tend not to stay local, either. Yemen, apart from all the politics, is also a resource exhaustion war - the country is simply running out of groundwater.

Local adaptation to global warming is very expensive. But it's effectiveness is 100% guaranteed

Is it? Hardly anything is 100% guaranteed. And do you need to import anything from or sell to a country which may be at risk? Do you need oil from Saudi Arabia, which has already had a refinery hit by missiles from the Yemen war?

The current way politicians are leading to, investing massively to reduce greenhouse gas emission in the gamble that all countries will do the same, when everything seems to indicate they won't do it and don't want to do it, seems hopeless. Why are we still aiming this way?

I would question this fatalism - while we are definitely behind, there are international agreements in place that all countries will take measures. And quite a lot have already been taken. UK carbon intensity is falling. China has cut back on its use of coal power due to air quality issues. And so on.

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  • My question was for any country, really, and not just mine. Also, we already have significant local production of both renewable and nuclear energy. People using cars (unfortunately way too many people - damn them) needs petrol from Saudi Arabia, but I don't, and I feel like it would be forseeable for my country to get rid of that in the next 20 years - which is not the case for most EU countries let alone the world. IMO as long as there's significant supplies oil, coal and natural gas somewhere it'll be burned by someone, causing global warming. This can hardly be avoided. – Bregalad Nov 15 '19 at 15:39
  • Leaving it in the ground is the hardest problem, but I don't think it's unsolvable. After all, OPEC managed to cut production.. – pjc50 Nov 15 '19 at 16:05
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    Also I appreciate that the natural Swiss response to international problems is isolation When a danger arises, for example a fire, or a flooding, the first emergency is to protect yourself, only then should save other people if you can. – Bregalad Nov 15 '19 at 16:06
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    @Bregalad there may be circumstances in which saving yourself individually is not an option and collaboration is the only successful approach. Shakleton comes to mind, for example. – pjc50 Nov 15 '19 at 16:31
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I think your basic premise that reducing global warming can only be done in an economically damaging way is wrong in at least some areas. Of course one can reduce CO2 emmisions by just shutting down certain industries but that is not the only way and renewable energy is a good example.

If you want to increase electricty generation through building new infrastructure, wind or solar are the cheapest options in a low of places in the world today. They have higher initial investment cost than a coal power plant but are cheaper in maintenance. If you consider the total cost over the next 20 years or so, wind and solar win out in places with decent wind or enough sun. You can also see evidence of this by the fact that a large proportion of newly build power generation is renewable. However, if you already have a coal power plant build, it is much cheaper to just keep it running then to tear it down and replace it by renewables, so this happens very rarely.

Another effect at play here is technological advances. Germany heavily subsidised wind and solar power over the last 20 years and the demand that was created that way is one of the main reasons why these technologies are so cheap today. So a relatively small country can create leverage effects that way that lead to much bigger global reductions in global warming then the effects on its on territory.

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    That premise seems wrong to me - coal isn't available everywhere, only certain countries can mine it. Same with oil. Hawaii for example is looking to increase renewables to cut the cost of imported fuel. – pjc50 Nov 15 '19 at 12:33
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    @user2501323 The maintenance argument is bogus. A modern coal power plant or a modern coal mine is at least as complicated to maintain as a solar panel or a wind turbine. The storage argument is valid, with current technology one can't go 100% wind/solar but one can have a decent chunk of energy production in wind/solar and use the more expensive power generation options in times of night/no-wind. That is still cheaper than burning fuel 24/7. – quarague Nov 15 '19 at 13:11
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    At least complex - yes. But more expensive. You may watch for it in Germany,France, every european country, which has moved to "green" generation. Also, should be mentioned that solar panels are VERY unecological to produce. – user2501323 Nov 15 '19 at 13:22
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    Neodymium is not especially environmentally hazardous to mine, and is required in fairly small quantities, compared to the damage of coal mining, coal ash, and coal thorium release. – pjc50 Nov 15 '19 at 14:47
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    @Bregalad I'm with you on the consumerism critique but not the rest of your argument. First, all of economics is based on win-win situations, A buys something from B because A and B believer they are better of after the transaction, otherwise there is no transaction. Of course this only works for people, with the environment it is a lot more tricky. Secondly, better technology can mean producing more goods with less resources and less damage to the environment. Globally GDP is increasing faster than electricity consumption or CO2 production. – quarague Nov 15 '19 at 15:59
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Even if we ignore the moral component, there are several purely economic reasons to invest in slowing/stopping global warming, and in convincing others to do the same.

  • For several major nations, it's significantly cheaper than building dams, relocating citizens, giving up land, and rebuilding harbors.
  • Rising sea levels and the disruption of harbors will severely impact existing international trade routes, increasing cost of goods, and increasing unemployment.
  • Changes in climate patterns will affect harvests, again impacting trade and in some cases leading to famine.
  • Famine, shortages, large economic changes, and rising sea levels will lead to mass migrations, which will destabilize source, transit, and destination nations alike.
  • Add all the trade disruption, mass migration and famine together, and they will cause several unpredictable political changes, possibly up to and including some hot wars. Which themselves cause more trade disruption, more mass migration and more famine.

Exact predictions are difficult because the actual impact of the above depends mostly on the speed of the climate change, and the geopolitical situation decades into the future, both of which are unknown.


But you're asking why a small nation should care, given their impact is negligible. What we're facing is a tragedy of the commons. Such a situation can be resolved by binding the participating parties in a set of rules. Small nations don't have the economic impact to achieve this on their own, but if they actively reduce their emissions the chances that such a set of rules will be created increase from multiple angles:

  • Having reduced emissions gives them moral superiority, which is something of value in negotiations.
  • Reducing emissions allows smaller nations to find like-minded other nations - distinguished by actions rather than just words - which can then form a block to put more pressure on the remaining nations
  • Getting the public to agree on reducing emissions lessens internal push back against economic pressure (sanctions) against polluters.
  • By setting a concrete example, the political and economic risks are reduced for other nations who want to copy (and improve upon) the policies.
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    Yup, but most people don't give a shit about what you just say. Using their car is more important to them than making efforts to fight problems that will happen in the future but that are not happening right now. – Bregalad Nov 16 '19 at 18:16
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If you insist I may try to find some logical arguments, including:

  • developing green technologies, that could be used later by other countries, thus such local investment would actually have indirectly a desired global impact
  • with increasing GDP per capita, then people actually start taking care about long term environmental impact (before you start worrying how would you survive next century, you should no longer be worrying how you survive next day)
  • work as small scale experiment showing that you can have low CO2 emission and rich economy, so others would simply follow your lead in a while

Setting this aside, I personally suspect that in this decision there was little of brilliant geopolitical game, and lot's of emotion:

  • EU emission reduction looks impressive, until we notice that in the same time we increased our import of Chinese goods, so effectively we outsourced the carbon emission
  • In panic after Fukushima Germans closed their nuclear power plants
  • By mixture of unrelated R&D and dumb luck, America shifted big part of its energy production from coal to shale gas, thus achieved so nice reduction, in spite of official policy leaning towards blocking any global reduction agreements
  • Countries in temperate or cold climate should be mostly fine with slightly longer vegetation seasons, so if the reaction was proportional to individual threat Nordic countries shouldn't be at forefront of combating climate change, they should be lagging in contrast to Spain (which according to IPCC is going to desertify).

So it appears to me mostly as "We're the good guys who would save the world" approach. While the starting premise of trying to keep the emissions down was reasonable (and worked with curbing emission of gasses causing ozone layer hole), apparently here the whole project was much more tedious and expensive, so led to creation of a political movements with their own dynamics (like usual ideological purity escalation), what finally led to adoption of sub-optimal policies.

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