The new government’s only priority: climate change

If winter has come to Winterfell, here is where climate change is coming, which in some places will be winter, in others summer, and in others natural disasters of various types and origin. And if in Winterfell a good part of the population has decided to put aside their differences in order to face together the King of the Night and his army of the dead, here… our politicians continue to argue about who has the biggest flag and climate change is advancing unstoppably. Given that the objective of this blog in its 10 years of life is “to promote the analysis and commentary of prestigious economic researchers about the main problems facing society today, with special attention to Spain”, I believe that, although I am neither prestigious nor economic, it is my task as a collaborator to bring this problem back here, but to emphasize more and more that we can no longer wait a minute to address this problem. This is all the more urgent because in the recent election campaign leading up to the April 28th general election, the five forces that hold a large majority of the seats in Congress have spoken between nothing and zero about climate change, and this is scarier than the white walkers.

As early as last October I wrote a post about either acting now or it won’t be possible at all to keep global warming below 1.5°C. My purpose now is, again in line with this blog, to provide new evidence that this is in even more of a hurry. To begin with, the warning published last March that models may be underestimating the impacts of climate change. What researchers are doing here is using the 2003 heat and drought wave in Europe as a test bed to assess how well or badly models are doing in extreme conditions. To do this, they consider a wide range of impact models affecting agriculture, water resources, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, energy and human health, and compare the models’ predictions with the impacts observed in different sectors. As an example, let us look at the case of wheat production in the period under review, shown in the graph below.

What we see is that the circles, which correspond to the actually observed production, are mostly below the band that comprises the prediction of the different models, represented by the orange stripes. Let us also take into account that the vertical axis measures the anomaly, the low production, in standard deviations from the average, so that low productions are really low and extraordinary. Similar results are found for maize production or primary ecosystem productivity, and the predictions are also bad for mortality in southern European countries, which also far exceed the models. It is not all bad, as the models’ predictions are better for the levels of major rivers and also for hydropower production, for example, but poor results in important fields such as agriculture and health add to the concern already caused by what the models say.

On the other hand, another heat wave, in this case the 2018 heat wave in the UK, teaches us something important about the perception of climate change and its consequences on people’s behaviour. In this April paper, the authors take advantage of the fact that the summer of 2018 was the hottest on record in the UK, with the most extreme temperatures concentrated in the south and east of England to study the effect of these extremes (which for them are temperatures equal to or greater than 29ºC, in Montoro I wanted to see them at 47.3ºC). The results of the study are basically two: firstly, exposure to extreme temperatures has a clear and significant effect on the perception of energy security, measured in terms of the possibility of future power cuts. The other important result is that even if they were concerned about possible problems with the energy supply, consumption was not affected and inhabitants of regions with extreme temperatures consumed the same as those who were less heated.

In this sense, another study that appeared this winter emphasizes how households contribute to climate change. For this work, the authors use data from the HOPE project (HOusehold Preferences for reducing greenhouse gas Emissions in four European high-income countries), completed less than a year ago and covering France, Germany, Norway and Sweden. At first, the authors recognize that these countries are not representative of the world but they do argue that they can be representative of urban environments in OECD countries. Of the various conclusions that result from the article, two are particularly important in the context we are considering here: voluntary efforts made in households will not be sufficient to carry out the drastic reduction in emissions required for the 1.5ºC objective, and a regulatory policy imposed by governments will be necessary to achieve significant changes in behavior. Among the contributions of households to climate change, those derived from mobility are the most difficult to attack. The other relevant conclusion is that there is a clear discrepancy between the responsibilities and actions needed in accordance with recommended climate policies and the perception of responsibility in households. In the article the authors quote verbatim from one of their interviews (the translation is mine):

“I’ve already done a lot. What do the others do, […] why should I worry when others don’t? I can sacrifice […] and put the climate before other things only if everyone collaborates. If it was a law, everyone would have to do it.”

So far we have seen that models may very likely underestimate the effects of climate change in the future, that people may be perceiving climate change and still behave in a business as usual way, and that in addition, as with any typical public goods problem, the people who are helping to mitigate climate change may be getting tired of being the few who are doing it, and that action by governments is needed to address the problem. And here we come back to the urgency of the matter: apart from what I said in the post a few months ago, at the end of March we had the umpteenth blast: the World Meteorological Organization published its latest status report covering the period up to and including 2018. The title says it all: “The state of the climate in 2018 shows an increase in the effects of climate change” (press release and summary here, English document here). The press release includes, in Spanish, the highlights of the report, but the message is one: climate change and its effects are accelerating: not only is everything getting worse in areas such as natural disasters, food security, population displacement, air quality and health, ocean heat, sea level, and a long etcetera, but it is getting worse faster.

It is in this context that movements such as the Youth Fridays for Future, led by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, have emerged. Young people are realizing that they are going to have the biggest problem, and their elders are sitting on their hands, and they are rightly getting fed up, even questioning the usefulness of continuing to go to school (a question I do not share; in fact we better go because the struggle does not end with us). In his own words in forums like Davos or the European Parliament, I would like the President of the Government coming out of yesterday’s elections to feel “panic, because the house is on fire”. All the candidates for president of the main parties have young or very young children; they should start thinking about them if they don’t want to think about their voters or their country. There is plenty of evidence that the phenomenon is there and we are creating it. Evidence that it is accelerating and that it may be even worse than predicted is abundant. Evidence that mitigation policies are needed and that the problem is not going to fix itself, is abundant. The problems that need to be addressed right now are summarized in NeG here. And if we wait until the white walkers are in the crypt of Winterfell, we are dead. Summer is coming.