When It Comes to Climate Change, Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms

Dr. Bruce Hull

By: Bruce Hull

Ignoring a disease can ruin your life. For most diseases, people have two choices: cure the causes or treat the symptoms. Take obesity as an example. Two causes are overeating and lack of exercise. People can cure obesity by dieting and exercise or they can treat the symptoms with insulin injections, blood pressure medicines, knee replacements, and other expensive and invasive procedures. The cure requires a bit of self-restraint, but provides other benefits like lower medical expenses, better job prospects, and increased energy levels. Treatment of symptoms costs a lot and often doesn’t work.

Like obesity, climate change also has multiple causes. The primary cause is emission of greenhouse gasses from the energy systems that power human civilization. The cure requires shifting energy consumption to solar, wind, tidal and other low carbon systems as well as consuming and using less. Or we can treat the symptoms of climate change by building sea walls, rebuilding infrastructure, relocating cites, inventing new types of crops that produce food in drought and heat, and managing new disease vectors and heat-related illnesses. The cure requires a bit of self-restraint, but provides other benefits like green jobs and healthy air. Treatment of symptoms costs a lot and often doesn’t work.

In the parlance of climate change, the cure is called mitigation and the treatment is called adaptation. The Paris Agreement is about mitigation. Most American’s want it, even most Trump supporters want it, but U.S. President Trump still seems willing to ignore its risks and costs.

The climate-obesity analogy goes further. We can blame our obesity on food companies and hope that scientists invent food that is sugar and fat free so that we can eat in excess without harming ourselves. Likewise, we can blame our greenhouse gas emissions on energy companies and hope that scientists will invent a cure. That is, we can risk hubris, continue business as usual, and hope technology invents a cure before the disease kills us.

The analogy goes further still. When a disease pushes you close to death, you may accept riskier treatment. You may volunteer for the experimental drug or organ transplant knowing the treatment might not work and could kill you sooner. Climate change treatment offers a similar high-risk option: geoengineering. We could shoot sulfur into the atmosphere to control sunshine or poor iron into oceans to absorb carbon. The treatments might not work and likely will harm other ecosystem services that sustain human civilization.

There is one more medical analogy of import. This one explains the divide between Republican and Democrat positions on climate change. Republicans worry that the treatment might be worse than the disease. Some treatments for climate change could grow government and increase regulation: cap and trade, for example, requires an enormous bureaucracy to set caps and monitor and redistribute monetary trades. Conservative Republican and former congressman Bob Inglis explains the conservative Republican revulsion to this treatment: it would be like going to the doctor complaining of a back pain and being told that the treatment requires removing and re-attaching your head. Suddenly your back pain  becomes tolerable. Instead, he argues, if the treatment were revenue neutral and increased American economic competitiveness, like the border adjusted carbon tax he advocates, then climate change mitigation might be a pill Republicans could swallow.

We know how to cure climate change. The technologies and tools to help us succeed exist. We just need the will to swallow the pill.

[This post first appeared on the TriplePundit site.]

Bruce Hull is a senior fellow at the Center for Leadership and Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech, based near Washington DC. He teaches, writes, and speaks about leadership practices for the cross-sector space where business, government, and civil society collaborate.