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A conservative opposition to anti Global Warming policy is that it will lead to a "One World Government". This is often derided as a conspiracy theory.

Here is a thought experiment: If my country (Australia) were to enact a law preventing the burning of fossil fuels, there would be a series of effects:

  • Global fossil fuel emissions go down temporarily
  • Global fossil fuel prices go down due to reduced demand
  • Global fossil fuel emissions go back up as other countries take advantage of cheaper fossil fuels and use more.

I imagine that global consumption of fossil fuel would increase until the price raises back to what it was before the reduction in demand.

The net long term effect would be that global emissions stay about the same.

But the side effect would be that my country's economy would be decimated. The more strictly we reduce fossil fuels the more we will be injured.

Therefore, how can a country do any more than hurt itself by unilaterally reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

It seems that the only option is with treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, Paris Protocol and various EU initiatives.

But these treaties have the same issue, only member states will reduce their emissions, this will drive down the demand for fossil fuels, which in turn will make fossil fuels cheaper for non-member countries (e.g. Russia, China, Iran, etc.) these countries will then consume more fuels. This will give them a huge economic advantage attracting more industry and migration etc. Eventually, overall fossil fuel consumption will return to normal.

The net effect is that any co2 reducing treaty will hurt the members and benefit the non members.

Also even if a treaty is established, the price of fossil fuels will drop, which will make evasion by private citizens more and more profitable. Governments will therefore need to spend increasing amounts of money to enforce the treaty on their citizens. A government could easily shirk its obligations by simply spending a minimum on enforcement and allowing citizens to get around the restrictions on burning carbon. The less a government spends on enforcing the treaty, the better its economy will do. The citizens of the less compliant member states will therefore "take up the slack" caused by the lower price of fuels caused by the more treaty-compliant states.

The only way of avoiding this problem would be a global team of inspectors and enforcers, with the power to direct policing effort and spending in the countries bound by the "treaty". Having a global power directing your countries police force and budget will be undesirable by any member state, so at some point, a member state will try to leave. If a state is a democracy, then it's people may vote to leave the treaty.

But if one member state is allowed to leave, the whole thing breaks down, as that state would benefit enormously from the now cheap supply of fuel, experiencing massive re-industrialization, and economic growth until it (and other dissenters, inspired by its economic boom) make up for the reduction in greenhouse emissions and renders the whole treaty a pointless exercise in enriching the non-compliant states.

Therefore, force will be needed, if necessary military force to override the will of that member state and its people, and keep the state a "member".

If the only effective political solution to global warming requires some kind of involuntary "treaty" organization, and this organization requires the final say on at least policing budget and policy in the member organizations, and the power to militarily force compliance, overriding the democratic will of that member state, isn't that by definition a "World Government"?

Any political solution that doesn't involve force will simply benefit every state that chooses not to comply and thus be self defeating.

Notes:

I think trade sanctions may be proposed as a potential alternative to direct force. But then the economic damage of the sanctions would have to exceed the benefit of being able to freely use fossil fuels. If only one country left the treaty, and all world governments imposed sanctions this could indeed impose a big cost on that country. But since there would be a huge incentive for other countries to join the dissenter (free use of fossil fuels) they would likely soon have multiple willing trading partners, reducing the impact of sanctions.

Note that current climate treaties may not have been impactful enough to actually reduce the price of fuels globally yet. And if the relationship between demand and price is not linear, there may be some reduction in demand possible before price is affected. However current treaties haven't been impactful enough to avoid global warming either.

Also, let's leave out non-political solutions to global warming such as improved renewable technology being voluntarily adopted.

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    Kyoto is superseded by Paris Protocol. China, Russia and Iran all are signatories. One can also imagine, once the situation gets dire enough, that holdouts get boycotted. I mean it is an interesting chain of reasoning here, but how is it really answerable, in the meaning of this site? You are asking us to either voice opinions, or predict the future. Jul 25 at 3:03
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    Here's another thought experiment: how about Australia climbs down from its 17.1t/yr per capita to something more akin to the world avg of 5t/year before it worries overmuch about what others are up? My country, Canada, could also do likewise, from its even worse 18.5. China and Iran are both under 8 and Russia is at 11. Sweden is at 4.5 ;-) Jul 25 at 3:05
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    What do you mean by "solution to global warming"? Do you mean minimization of greenhouse gas emissions, minimization of all anthropogenic factors in warming or stopping warming altogether? Because these are very different (and increasingly unreachable) goals. Jul 25 at 6:44
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    @roo2 - I question the assertion that lowered prices will lead to a significant increase in usage elsewhere. That industry is very inelastic - prices even went negative for a while early in the pandemic, and that still didn't have a major increase in demand. And since the rest of this question is based on that assumption, I suspect that that's your answer.
    – Bobson
    Jul 25 at 14:58
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    The setup that you took so many wards to describe is usually called the tragedy of commons. As there was no prior on a planetary scale, this Q is too speculative in my view.
    – Fizz
    Jul 25 at 16:23

11 Answers 11

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(Kyoto is superseded by Paris Protocol. FWIW: China, Russia and Iran all are signatories, they pollute at 7.4, 11.4 and 8.1t/capita respectively, considerably less than Australia (17t), Canada (18.5t) and US (15t). Sweden sits at 4.5t despite being apparently a happy, wealthy. country calling into question a number of assumptions made here. EU average is 6.1t).

First of all, you'll find that the problem of not doing one's share is known as the free rider problem. Search for it and you'll find your "solutions" are hardly very mainstream. You can also search for "tragedy of commons global warming".

Here's a link to some recent analysis from economists viewpoints.

Currently, the advice is to shoot for binding compact "clubs" of countries.

The idea of a Climate Club should be viewed as an idealized solution of the free-riding problem that prevents the efficient provision of global public goods. Like free trade or physics in a vacuum, it will never exist in its pure form. Rather, it is a blueprint that can be used to understand the basic forces at work and sketch a system that can overcome free-riding. Here is a brief description of the proposed Climate Club: the club is an agreement by participating countries to undertake harmonized emissions reductions.

Note that, as you read some articles, a number of them seem to be pointing back to the same source (which posits wikipedia as a free rider example). So beware of belief in a concensus.

One article discussing tragedy of commons in depth says:

These trends suggest two additional ways in which the tragedy of the commons framing fails for climate change. First, there is no longer a necessary misalignment of incentives between the emitters of greenhouse gases and society at large. ... Every household will soon have a financial incentive to stop burning oil and gas, regardless of what their neighbors do. So if fossil fuels are still in business, it will not be because of an unjust cost advantage, born from the existence of an externality ... Second, it now appears that a technical solution does exist for climate change. Integrated assessment models suggest that by switching to non-fossil energy sources, we can continue to see global economic activity grow, at roughly the same pace, even as greenhouse gas emissions come to a halt [21]. Climate change is like enlarging the public school.

Now, I think this is entirely too rosy. Transitioning will be painful.

But to view non-use as a zero-sum game (if I don't pollute, others will take advantage) is naive in the expected gains (once capital has been expended, plenty of renewables and nuclear are relatively expense-free, compared to ongoing expenses for gas, coal or oil).

So the assumption that, in the 2030-2050 horizon fossil fuel use will be a massive economic multiplier is an assumption (and one this question takes for granted).

Electric cars are already starting to get to a lower cost of ownership, for example. And, in really spiffy, high performance, forms. Not to say the rest will be as easy, it won't.

This Q's setup is much like the famous Prisoner's dilemma

This was one of the first big conceptual breakthroughs in game theory and has informed a lot of our thinking about agent behavior in competitive contexts.

Thing is, that is a zero-sum, no-repeat game. Perfectly applicable to many, but not all situations. Researchers have since built on its findings. One thing that has come out is that the results vary drastically once repetition is brought in - collaboration is much likely to be pursued as a strategy. Without being all starry-eyed about nations' collaborative natures, or lack thereof, climate change, spanning over decades, is more repetition-based than one-off.

The assumption that business as usual will be economically feasible for countries is wrong:

Given sufficient pain, do-nothing policies will become make their proponents unattractive to voters in many rich democratic countries (which, China aside, are also main members of the high emission club). Oh, and let's not forget Australia.

There is also a real generational component to perceptions.

Caveat: all this desire from voters for their governments to "do something about climate change" may not always translate into accepting actual inconveniences, constraints and extra taxes. Typically, subsidies get talked up a lot more than carbon taxes, despite economists generally finding the carbon costing key.

We've been here before.

Coal supplanted wood for energy use in Europe in the 1700s. Not because it was popular, but because Europe ran out of forests. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Paris protocol won't work in time to stop at < 2.0 rise. So what?

When the crap hits the fan, people will have no choice.

Currently, we are seeing a lot of problems at the 1.1/1.2 threshold. This is early, way too early. Paris aimed for 1.5 ideally, 2.0 at worse. I don't think we have any models telling us we are on course for less than 2.0 right now.

At 2.2-3.0, problems will multiply massively. Examples:

  • Bangladesh, a good deal of which sits <2m altitude, will lose too much land and has 160M inhabitants, packed in a Netherlands level density. Fancy their refugees?
  • We are seeing likely problems wrt wet bulb temperatures in poor places like India or Pakistan.
  • Agricultural yields will trend lower in many areas.

Once things get really bad there will be a strong incentive to bring the shirkers back in line.

In 2022 we already have a model for transmitting costs to non-compliant states, if there is sufficient consensus to do so: If countries are fed up with free riders, they can just boycott buying their goods.

Are we going to get there? No idea. Hopefully not. But it is at least as likely as this fantasy of world government.

Alternatively, imports from non-compliant states could just receive tariffs corresponding to their CO2 cost, as craq suggests in their answer.

p.s. Besides emissions per capita, at some point the world will also need to wake up to the fact that population growth is incompatible with both limiting damages and sustaining said population on its national territory.

p.p.s. Just because adaptation and carbon reductions are necessary does not mean that all approaches to do something are equal. There is plenty of scope for economically and technically illiterate proposals to woo voters and attract subsidies. We can't afford too many policy failures like North America's ethanol fuel approach. Or Germany's Energy Wende which has cost lots but not reduced emissions all that much compared to a benchmark of its European peers.

Also, in 2022, after 30 months of politicized handling of a non-political global epidemic, my expectations of economic rationality from political actors wrt global warming are considerably lower than it was in 2019.

BTW, if you Google "world government" "climate change" - those quotes are there for a reason - you see very little coming up that looks anything like your carefully constructed claims about economic theories. If those views had backing in mainstream economic theory, something would show up.


In the words of Lebowski, this whole thing is like, my opinion, man. And you are all welcome to disagree. This question, built on a string of undemonstrated assumptions, has received a number of upvotes, but answers to it are not empirically provable by references to facts. Nor, as Fizz points out, are there many historical precedent to derive likely scenarios from. You are asking us to predict the future and provide opinions. Which is why I am critical of it being asked in the first place.

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    "Coal supplanted wood for energy use in Europe in the 1700s. Not because it was popular, but because Europe ran out of forests. Necessity is the mother of invention." Yeah, but global fossil fuel reserves won't run out before global warming is probably drastic.
    – Fizz
    Jul 25 at 16:49
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    That is true. But the point is that no one wanted to make the switch at the time and it was done because it had to be done (if for pretty much opposite reasons as you point out). Jul 25 at 16:51
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    With regard to the comparison between Sweden vs. Australia, Canada, and the USA, I'd question a few things with regard to this comparison: 1) Differences in travel patterns. No amount of political policy will change the fact that the former is far, far smaller than the other three with regularly needed travel distances being much less. 2) I'm curious whether these numbers account for where goods and services are produced vs. where they are consumed. If a Swede buys a product made in America or uses a website hosted in America, are the carbon emissions counted against Sweden or America?
    – reirab
    Jul 25 at 23:37
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    I think you're argument has three premises: Public opinion will continue turning against fossil fuels and put massive pressure on governments to reduce emissions. Renewables will get much better, making fossil fuels only a slight advantage. Boycotts and sanctions on non-compliant countries will be so impactful that it is worth giving up the free use of fossil fuels to avoid them. I think you've done well to make good arguments but overall all three of these points seem very doubtful. Sweden is blessed with massive hydroelectric & wind resources and the willingness to use nuclear power. Jul 25 at 23:50
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    "If those views had backing in mainstream economic theory, something would show up [in Google]". That's a strange argument "If it were so, Google would have told me so". WRT "mainstream economic theory", economic researchers employed to find political solutions to climate change may hold as a first principle that a political solution to climate change is possible. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Jul 26 at 2:18
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One possibility, which reflects the realities of globalised trades and free markets, is to apply tariffs at the border for imports from countries which are not reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. The EU has already implemented such a policy.

https://taxation-customs.ec.europa.eu/green-taxation-0/carbon-border-adjustment-mechanism_en

Now industries in the EU are not disadvantaged compared to their international competitors for having to comply with stricter environmental regulations. At least, for products sold within the EU. This also provides an incentive for competitors outside the EU to improve environmental regulations, since they pay levies anyway, but the beneficiary from the levies is the EU, not their local government.

Of course, there are some caveats. These kind of measures can only be implemented by a large economy with a strong negotiating position, such as the EU. If small countries such as Thailand or Argentina tried it without acting as part of a trading bloc, they could end up being excluded from international markets. There's also the complex issue of defining how much to levy each product from each country.

If I were an optimist, I could imagine policies like these proliferating around the world, until all major trading markets incentivise governments and industries to reduce emissions. A worldwide consensus achieved by the 'invisible hand' of everybody acting in their own best interests, and without a world government.

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Hard to say. There is no real prior.

The ozone layer [Montreal] treaty in not (enough of a) prior, because it was easy enough to substitute one gas for another, which solved that problem, but that won't work for climate change. In fact the HFCs that substituted CFCs are themselves greenhouse gasses.

Predicting the the economics of climate change, down to all the feedback loops due to policy changes in one country but not in antoher is probably substantially harder than predicting the climate change itself. (Think for instance how many predicted well (or accepted) just a couple of years ago the inflation we see today; and we had pandemics and wars before, albeit not global supply chains so intertwined.) Depending which particular model you're willing to consider (and parameter values), the free-rider problem might be overcome in this case, or it might not.

As an aside, while the G7 has recently adopted some of the "climate club" terminoloyg, it's not too clear if they've adopted anything more substantial in that regard, like some concrete "club goods" that would be denied to non-participants. A rcently proposed typology of clubs would apply the term even without the latter element; in that regard even the UNFCCC qualifies, except for its too-broad membership.

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  • If the "Climate Club" starts using sanctions then that's already similar to the "Climate Treaty" that I was talking about. They will also need to deal with members who only partially comply. If a member of the club doesn't devote enough policing to sufficiently prevent its citizens from using fossil fuels, that country must be sanctioned too. The club will need a force of independent inspectors or a country could easily under-report the carbon they used. If sanctions aren't enough to enforce compliance, the "Club" must either collapse, or resort to Military force. A "World Government Club" Jul 26 at 2:08
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Slavery is an example of nations coming together to address a global problem in the absence of a world government.

Despite being widespread in the past, it is now illegal in every country. There continues to be slavery in the world, and nations continue in their efforts to eradicate it.

This might suggest that a political solution to climate change is possible, even without a world government.

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    Slavery wasn't ended peacfully by mutual agreement it required unilateral force of the British Empire bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/royal_navy_article_01.shtml and led to the US Civil war. Force was definitely required in this case. I'd also point out that slavery is still widespread in some parts of the world even today face2faceafrica.com/article/slavery-africa-today Jul 26 at 6:27
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    @roo2: the equivalent today would be naval embargo against oil shipments. (As far as I know nobody is proposing that, yet. Leaving aside cases like Iran, but even there... how did it work out?)
    – Fizz
    Jul 26 at 7:41
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    The aim for abolition of slavery in England was partially supported by encouraging people to boycott sugar which was strongly associated with the practice. Jul 27 at 0:05
  • @roo2 : yes, slavery still exists, but illegally. Just like murder still exists, but it's illegal.
    – vsz
    Jul 27 at 13:08
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That conservative opposition is wrong but also right. A global, concurrent, and binding effort are needed to combat climate change. You can't just have some nation cutting down fossil fuel usage--when electrification and carbon-free of industry aren't at a certain level. This just makes that nation weaker and its rival stronger. No matter who "that nation" is.

In a fiction work, the following words are said: "The Earth is in environmental catastrophe and a god is needed to save humanity. A god so cold, so ruthless, that all obstacles in its way are destroyed. That god is our Earth Federation Government." To combat the environmental disaster, the EF government forcibly shipped people to outer space colonies to reduce the population burden on Earth. Of course it resulted in wars and a few colony drops, but that is another story.

The key point is that in our world, at this stage, there is no way everyone's interests would be protected in the fight against climate change. If you reduce the fossil fuel intake of the industry you would kill the livelihood of the coal and oil workers, some fossil fuel-dependent industries, and the power of oil money-dependent nations. These individuals and groups DO NOT want to change--"my grandfather works in the coal mine, my dad works in the coal mine, and so should I. Protect our coal mine!!!"

If you delay the de-fossilization of industry, then other people living near coastlines, tornado/typhoon regions, and drought-prone regions would suffer due to environmental disasters.

And who is to say that the nations trying to develop their economy should stop their fossil-fuel-dependent development and stay poor so that the western nation who exploited them could continue their lifestyles?

No matter what, somebody is going to be harmed. It is just a matter of who.

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  • It would be nice if this answer was more clear about the ways the conservative position was wrong or right.
    – carrizal
    Jul 26 at 1:04
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    @carrizal In real life, right or wrong cannot fully describe most policitcal decisions. My answer shows that his position is wrong in this regard, right in another regard
    – Faito Dayo
    Jul 26 at 2:02
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    It's also very difficult to solve a problem after it's been heavily politicized, because then the party which has taken up the mantle of the "saviour" will profit more from labeling the others as evil than from actually solving the issue. Therefore they will often formulate propositions so extreme as to guarantee the opposition will never support them, so that they can keep fighting and amass political capital. Also, actions which look better will be preferred against actions which might be more effective but less visible.
    – vsz
    Jul 27 at 13:59
  • Rather than banning industry, what you can do is penalize consumption. For example, with a meat tax, citizens of country X can be as rich as they were before, but now they can't get as much meat as before, but they can get more electric cars (the money from the meat tax is used to subsidize electric cars) so they are not poorer in real terms. Since farmers in country X are still able to make just as much meat and send it overseas, they are not penalized any more than farmers in country Y are.
    – user253751
    Jul 27 at 14:36
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    @FaitoDayo : "the burden created by western colonialism and hegemonism" the burden like not having a life expectancy below 30 years like they always had before, therefore having an increasing population, because of medicine and technology introduced by westerners? Would it be better to live in conditions as they were before that? Most of the starvation in developing countries is linked to a rapid population explosion, as infant death was reduced a lot more than the number of births.
    – vsz
    Jul 27 at 17:07
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Wouldn't some countries make up for the reduction in emissions by others by using more?

Doubtful and highly speculative.

If only a small number of countries produce more emissions, they may not have energy requirements with emissions matching the global reduction, even if they move heavily or entirely into fossil fuels.

If there are fewer countries using fossil fuels, demand would be less reliable and less consistent, which would increase price.

If any countries supplying fossil fuels commit to reducing climate change by supplying less or no fossil fuels, this would increase the price.

There may also be other economic factors, like the cost of shifting the sources of one's energy and thresholds for when which sources of energy costs how much compared to others (some combination of fossil fuels and renewables could be the cheapest solution). But this is a bit beyond the scope of my knowledge: I just intend to point out that it's not as straightforward as "one goes down, another goes up". If anything, that seems like the counter-intuitive assumption (which could perhaps happen to some extent, but it seems very unlikely to happen on a one-to-one basis).

Wouldn't countries just hurt themselves by reducing emissions?

Even if this were likely (which I don't believe it is), that still wouldn't mean one should do nothing to try to prevent global devastation.

Why would countries stay in treaties if they can benefit economically from not being in treaties?

Because they realise the economic benefit doesn't outweigh the harm done to the climate (which would affect their own country too, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent than it affects others).

This should become increasingly clear to more and more countries as global temperatures increase (at which point that damage would unfortunately already be done, as the current damage is already done, but decreased emissions will reduce further damage).

Also, climate change isn't a binary "we stopped it" or "we didn't stop it": any reduction in emissions slows down global temperature increase.

Isn't military force strictly necessary to enforce solutions to climate change?

No, for the reasons mentioned above.

Also, going to war (which is what typically happens when you have people opposing a military force) comes with a lot of damage to the environment. So it's not even clear that a military force would be a viable solution (even if it didn't go against principles of international politics, the autonomy of countries, peace and valuing human lives).

What about sanctions?

This could be a much better option that opting for military force.

The economic impact of severe sanctions would likely be much worse than the benefit of sticking to fossil fuels.

But this would only be viable once there are only a few countries holding out, in which case the rest of world would presumably already have decided that the "huge incentive" of the free use of fossil fuels is not worth the cost to the environment, even without any risk of being cut off from the rest of the global community (which is no small downside). So it doesn't seem likely for there to be all that many dissenters.

Let's leave out non-political solutions to global warming such as improved renewable technology being voluntarily adopted.

Why? It seems highly relevant.

If some countries reduce their emissions by moving to renewables, they'll spend a lot on researching renewables, therefore renewable technology will obviously become much more effective and much cheaper, which will make voluntarily adoption of the improved renewable technology increasingly likely as time passes.

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  • "If any countries supplying fossil fuels commit to reducing climate change by supplying less or no fossil fuels, this would increase the price." I think that is a really good point, maybe a supply side solution is a better answer, like OPEC on steroids to raise the price of oil and with a moral justification of fighting global warming. I can actually almost see that working, although it would have the same problem of incentivising people to sell their fuels at below the "Club" rate Jul 26 at 11:49
  • Increased investment in renewables will definitely lower prices in some ways, although increased demand for certain commodities such as lithium used in batteries, rare earths used in electric motors, substances used in solar panels, will push up prices in other areas. Nonetheless, it would be surprising if vast increase in manufacturing capability (coupled with state investment to support local industry) did not push down prices overall, just as it has done in most other high-tech industries - the growth in mobile phones or integrated circuits are similar.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 26 at 14:07
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Ideally the solution is for governments to think about the long term and the big picture rather than the short term.

It's true that a nation could take advantage of the drop in fossil fuel prices, but they're just postponing the inevitable. If they don't do something about climate change, weather disasters will become more frequent. These will have severe impacts on their economies, eventually costing more than what they saved in energy prices.

This will be difficult, since politicians in democracies often don't think much beyond the next election cycle. But almost all politicians have families -- children and grandchildren. If they care at all about their wellbeing when they grow up, they'll take action to mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, a related problem is that politicians are usually wealthy, and they can afford to take personal actions to protect their families, while the rest of the population suffers.

Theoretically the democratic process allows people to vote selfish people like this out of office. But practice doesn't usually match theory -- incumbents generally have a big advantage unless they do something eggregious.

So we're finally left with grass-roots action, although this is not likely to have the big dent in energy use that we need to address the crisis.

All in all, pessimism is not unwarranted. What's needed for this goes against many aspects of human nature.

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  • Maybe a different approach should be selected then?
    – alamar
    Jul 27 at 17:42
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I think you should consider the supply side more. Your example Australia is the world's third largest fossil fuel supplier (second only to Russia and Saudi Arabia), and so it does possess the ability to unilaterally reduce global fossil fuel emissions and increase global prices.

The use of fossil fuels may be distributed throughout the economy (e.g. combustion by vehicles) but the extraction of fossil fuels (from permanent geological sequestration into todays economy) is very concentrated. Not every country even has significant reserves, mines and wells. The ownership of this infrastructure is even more concentrated (e.g. just 90 companies are responsible for two thirds of all global emissions, historical and present).

This supply side concentration would allow emissions to be stopped with a far more viable and limited military strike or sabotage (specifically of crude oil refineries and coal power stations, to avoid the environmental disasters associated with targeting wells and mines) rather than necessitating a general war and regime change. Or the few corporations to which this infrastructure is property could be influenced peacefully, such as through hostile takeovers or by sanctions (on the companies themselves, or the shareholders, or the executives and their families).

That said, I agree with the other answers - even though climate change may have winners and losers, I think you overlook incentives for countries to voluntarily phase out fossil fuels. There is strategic benefit to weaning from domestic dependence on foreign energy supplies. There is also a potential strategic desirability to denying revenue to several particular states with economies dependant on fossil fuel exports. There are potential economic advantages in modernising energy infrastructure earlier rather than later. The cost of alternative energy is becoming competitive with the status quo. There is political pressure in democracies, and the evidence of climate change is becoming ever more difficult to deny. Although this is presently a "tragedy of the commons", there are climate benefits to slowing emissions (even if some countries do still refuse to cooperate), and there is a legal risk of international reparations in the future. Also, you know, existential risks of inaction (ecosystem collapse, uninhabitability..) for leaders concerned with their legacies and descendants.

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    Really? Russia has more fossil fuel reserves than any country. And also the most nukes (well parity with the US nowadays, IIRC). "Bomb the supply" doesn't seem so workable, unless you're aiming for nuclear winter.
    – Fizz
    Jul 28 at 4:59
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    Actually, it seems a "small" nuclear war of about 50 nukers might work "ok" in temp regard en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter#Climatic_effects I guess we'd have to egg India and Pakistan to make one, before they get too many nukes?
    – Fizz
    Jul 28 at 5:06
  • I think that you're right, supply side is much more likely to be effective than demand side. It does have the same issues of incentivizing non-compliance. As the price of oil is driven unbelievably high, producing nations could become extremely, extremely wealthy by selling more oil. I still think that it would likely still need military force to make it work (as you suggested) but I think that such an option is much more likely to succeed in crippling the supply of fuel and bringing down CO2 levels than a global usage reduction "Club". Jul 28 at 5:55
  • I think this is it, a political solution to climate change that cannot be called a "World Government". I personally am more afraid of a cartel limiting the supply of fuel than I am of climate change, but I think you've answered the question. Jul 28 at 5:57
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The two basic assumptions of your question are wrong, which makes the scenarios derived from them useless:

  1. Solar electricity generation is no longer more expensive than fossil. The details are of course more complicated than one would wish for (regional differences, accounting for upfront capital cost vs. running cost, storage cost) but the general gist is that renewables become cheaper at a fast pace while fossils stay in the same ballpark. Simply follow the first hits in a google search like "solar electricity production price vs coal".

    This little, ten year old chart from businessinsider shows the trend very impressively: Solar vs. (In case you missed it, the vertical grey line to the right is the cost of solar. That's how fast its price collapses. The intersection with the more costly fossil fuels happened 10 years ago.)

    Consequently, there will not be an economic incentive for countries to use up the fossil fuel reserves: Even ignoring the externalized cost does not make fossil cheaper.

  2. People and countries do not behave like the proverbial homo economicus. In particular, parents do forfeit consumption in order to save for their children. Obviously, entire peoples could decide to not destroy the planet for the benefit of their descendants.

    We also know that fashion, trends and reputation play a big role in consumptive choices. It may well be that in the future companies and countries using fossil energy would face boycotts, much like apartheid-era South Africa.

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  • Unfortunately, the details are so much "more complicated" that they make such graphs highly misleading. One cannot decouple the cost of solar (and wind) generation per se from the cost of the energy system as a whole. The truth is, for most regions of the world we still need back-up baseload generation for most of the network capacity (lest we accept a few days a year without power as a norm), and this cost must be factored in for fair comparison.
    – Zeus
    Jul 28 at 1:27
  • you have an interesting point about solar becoming cheaper, but my question is about a political solution only. This is a technical solution and would make a political solution happily unnecessary. Jul 28 at 5:58
  • @roo2 The "would" seems misplaced ;-). Apart from that, the second point I make leads to political solutions without a world government: Everybody cares for their children, so they stop destroying the planet. Seems fairly straight-forward to me. Jul 28 at 6:19
  • @Zeus The trend is that solar is becoming so cheap that even factoring everything in you want doesn't make it more expensive. Jul 28 at 6:23
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    also "Destroying the planet" seems a bit over the top, plants love CO2, "the planet" doesn't care if it gets a few degrees warmer (people living on the coast might!) Jul 28 at 7:04
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Human ability to cooperate is highly evolved and may overcome a free rider problem. Humans often behave in more complex ways than simply doing that is better personally for them. For instance, lots of donations are collected worldwide without any obvious benefit to the people who donate. People also donate they time to various community projects. Join armed forces to fight for the things they see right.

The biggest threat would be if the things do not go bad enough before the point of no return. Then various deniers can do a lot to disrupt the quite probable responses.

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Taxes and regulation applied locally should be fine. The idea that this needs a world government is without reasonable basis. The Economist has advocated carbon trading for years. There is already international agreement and treaties, encouraging nations to contribute toward legally binding targets, however they see fit, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I feel there are two important things worth mentioning, from the books 'The Uninhabitable Earth' by David Wallace-Wells, and 'They Knew' by James Gustave Speth. I strongly recommend everyone read both.

Give Renewables Money Instead of Fossil Fuels

Speth's book talks in detail about specific economic policies, which the Federal Government failed to utilise to improve the situation. From regulation on automobile emissions, to tax cuts for renewables, to direct government investment in renewables, to the contrary; expanded rights for companies to extract coal and oil, tax incentives for fossil fuel extraction, and so on. Speth has been personally involved with American energy policy, as an environmental lawyer who worked with various presidents in the Whitehouse and US Government generally.

Basically, we would have been in a better place already had governments acted on what their scientists kept telling them. And as this would have been implemented over a long time, the cost would have been negligible.

The Cost of Mitigating Climate Change

One critical point made by Wallace-Wells is simply that as global warming increases greenhouse gases, the negative consequences (extreme weather, sea level rises, etc) will become so expensive to mitigate and repair that it will eventually wipe out GDP growth. Business-as-usual is not viable, and we only have a few decades to change course before the risk of runaway climate change becomes a reality, in which case 2-8c+ degrees of rise by the end of the century is almost inevitable.

"Adaptation to climate change is often viewed in terms of market tradeoffs, but in the coming decades the trade will work in the opposite direction, with relative prosperity a benefit of more aggressive action. Every degree of warming, it’s been estimated, costs a temperate country like the United States about one percentage point of GDP, and according to one recent paper, at 1.5 degrees the world would be $20 trillion richer than at 2 degrees. Turn the dial up another degree or two, and the costs balloon—the compound interest of environmental catastrophe. 3.7 degrees of warming would produce $551 trillion in damages, research suggests; total worldwide wealth is today about $280 trillion. Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100; multiply that by that 1 percent of GDP and you have almost entirely wiped out the very possibility of economic growth, which has not topped 5 percent globally in over forty years."

The critical point of Speth's book, is that the US Government has known about climate change for over fifty years, and that every administration has instead chosen the easy option; instead of doing the right thing to protect their children and grandchildren's futures. It's worth remembering a certain Greek proverb:

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

National/Local Governments Have Power

It's really important to acknowledge, as Speth points out, that the government is not a passive observer with regards to energy policy. Government is the principal decision maker, and they have the ability to shift policy toward something more sustainable.

This is very important, because it blows hand-wringing "what can the government do?" type arguments out of the water. The book lists a historical catalogue of decisions made by the US government which could have been different, and instead contributed needlessly to greenhouse gas emissions.

The argument that there will be an economic cost to transition is true, but this is also an opportunity, to create world-leading new industries with the support of local governments (just as the oil industry has enjoyed government welfare in the form of tax cuts, expansion of drilling rights, etc). It's like saying that we shouldn't invest in cars because think of all of the job losses from the horse industry.

Early Investment is Good Economics

At this point there are many exciting new technologies emerging, which will be able to reduce greenhouse gases while providing for our energy needs. One of the more curious cases is a nuclear firm Bill Gates has invested in, TerraPower (mentioned in the Netflix documentary 'Inside Bill's Brain'). Their nuclear scientists have successfully prototyped a completely safe and reliable nuclear reactor, which eats spent nuclear fuel.

History shows a simple repeating pattern: some nations invest in emerging industries, and later their corporations dominate world trade, and others don't, and get left behind. The transition away from fossil fuels will be the same. The longer nations fund fossil fuels, the less time they have to invest in tomorrow's global companies, and the more likely they are to become economically dependant technology consumers instead of profitable technology producers.

This Isn't a Good Faith Argument

The oil industry has deliberately spread misinformation for over forty years, when their own scientists told them that climate change was a real risk and danger to humanity as early as the 1980s. You'll find this as a recurring theme in Speth's book, and other reputable publications (Scientific American, etc).

In fact, as is repeatedly made clear by any analysis of the science over the last fifty years: scientific predictions have remained consistent and accurate for decades. The line about "uncertainty" has never been true, almost all reputable scientists, from those working for the public sector (US Government, NASA, EPA, etc), to the oil industry's own in-house experts (Exxon, etc), came to the same conclusions. But the energy industry's public statements have been in direct conflict with this for decades, because their policy has been to create misinformation. And we must take this into account when considering arguments about viability and economics.

The BBC recently broadcast a three part documentary 'Big Oil v the World', describing this history, using interviews with oil industry insiders, politicians, activists, etc (see written summary here).

To be clear: various large corporations which had significant political influence, from Exxon to Volkswagen, have engaged in systematic fraud, to deceive regulators and the public.

In conclusion:

  1. Business-as-usual is unsustainable, as it will create GDP-negating increases in costs of climate change mitigation.

  2. Local governments around the world have the power to incentivise research and renewables, instead of fossil fuels, creating jobs in new industries as jobs in old industries are lost. Early investment determines whose corporations become global leaders, and so when everyone eventually has to move away from fossil fuels, those late to the party will be years behind, forced to consume instead of produce technology.

  3. Decisions by local governments do not require a world government. But the longer we wait, the more expensive the cost of transitioning will be, and the higher the cost (additionally) of climate change mitigation to avoid worst case scenarios of 8c+ temperature increases.

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