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  • Michał Stęchły

What individuals can do about climate - part 1, motivation

Dear Reader!


A while back I decided to collect and write down my thoughts on the climate crisis, and on what us “normal folks” can do about it. I’ve sent those materials to a group of my friends who are interested in the matter. The feedback I’ve gotten shows that this information has increased the awareness of the problem for some people, and it helped others make changes to their lifestyle.


The things I’m writing about here are a mixture of conclusions from the philosophy of Effective Altruism, a bunch of other sources, and my own thoughts. The main concern of these is climate change and environmental issues, but there are other existential risks and issues in this world, no less important. A big portion of the ideas in this text applies to other areas, too.


Why do I think that I have something interesting to say about it? Well, this is a topic I think about literally every single day and that has been driving a lot of my actions over the last couple of years.

And let me reiterate: those are my personal opinions; I’m able to find the basis for a lot of them (probably most of them) in various sources. I’m not including these sources here, because, frankly, I don’t always remember where I’ve read/heard/seen something. You’re free to disagree with anything that’s in here. I make mistakes, I’m susceptible to disinformation, and I don’t always double-check everything I read. But I’m always open to feedback and discussion :)


This is the first article in a series. Most of that is already written, it just needs to be translated to English and edited. In this one, I focus on certain principles and philosophical arguments. Everyday applications of these principles will follow. 


In this part I will cover the following topics:

  • Effective Altruism

  • Why it’s important to take action today

  • Why do I even bother writing this?

  • Choosing the "socially beneficial" option

  • Pascal’s Wager

  • Whatever we do doesn’t matter, because China and India…

  • Why capitalism won’t solve this problem

  • Other threats


Note 1:

This has been originally written in Polish for Polish audience. Even though I believe most of it is universal, the relevance of some points or examples might vary between different countries or cultures—sorry if that’s the case for you!


Note 2:

I don’t want to repeat things you can easily find elsewhere, so I’ll underline some key terms, and if you don’t know what they refer to, you can Google them or find a relevant YouTube video. If I tried to detail everything I’m mentioning here, it would be way too much information and those of you who are already somewhat familiar with the topic would get bored too easily.


Note 3:

I’m including a lot of links towards the end. They won’t cover all of the materials I’ve come across on a given subject, it’s just a selection of ones I consider the most valuable and relevant for the topics I touched on here.


Note 4:

I’m well aware that some points I make might be oversimplified. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1. It’s a blogpost not a treatise.

2. I believe that for people who encounter given argument for the first time, there is more value in getting the gist of it first and then perhaps delving in the details. For more advanced thinkers - constructive disagreement is always welcome. If you can help me construct better arguments without the loss of brevity, I’m more than happy!


Note 5: 

This post is not about quantum computing at all :) 


Effective Altruism


The core idea of effective altruism is that if we want to do something good for the world, it makes sense to think it through and do something that’s the most effective use of our resources/capabilities. You can find a good introduction to the concept here: https://www.effectivealtruism.org.


And once we actually do something, let’s also check if the effects of that something are indeed what we intended.

As far as this movement goes, I’m primarily going off the site www.80000hours.org — I really can’t recommend enough.


EA organizations tackle problems such as:

  • Checking which charities are the most effective,

  • Assessing how important the various problems humanity faces are,

  • Advising young people on how to direct their careers to have the largest positive impact possible (80,000 hours).

A very important aspect is to make sure you’re “data-driven,” i.e. that your decisions are based on data and research. If you have an idea to do something, or stop doing something, first try to get some more information on the subject, since the idea might not be the best way to address the situation, all things considered, or it might have wide-ranging consequences (or it might only look good on paper for other reasons).

There are a bunch of examples, ranging from humanitarian aid in Africa to social programs in US (You can read more humanitarian aid in this paper or this article. More on social programs here.


I think getting to know the ideas of EA better is one of the most important things you can take away from this series of articles - so please make sure you visit https://www.effectivealtruism.org and www.80000hours.org :)


Why it’s important to take action today


I recommend getting familiar with concepts of exponential growth and positive feedback loops first—that will make it easier to follow my arguments from here on out.


Climate change—global warming—is dangerous for several reasons. One of them is the fact that we humans aren’t very good at thinking about things with:

  • really long timescales,

  • a rate of changes that is, well, changing. 

When I say “long timescales,” I mean anything more than several years ahead (and sometimes, even less than that). 


Part of the reason why understanding climate change is problematic is because at first, it was proceeding rather slowly, and then suddenly it picked up speed; we now have good cause to expect the changes to happen even quicker.

I’ll simplify things a bit to make them easier to grasp. The numbers are made up in this instance.


Each ton of CO2 has some impact on the atmosphere. Let’s say that over the course of a year this one ton causes 10J of additional energy to remain in the atmosphere. How’s that energy consumed? Well, it increases the temperature, naturally.

With that in mind, it’s pretty obvious there’s a different end result if we introduce this one ton to the atmosphere now, as opposed to 10 years from now, ain’t that right?

The effect of that is we’ll either have 200J, or 100J sloshing about in the atmosphere.


But that’s not the end of it.


We need to also consider feedback loops. An example I like is the ice in Greenland.

Once upon a time, Greenland was covered with snow. Usually snow is white, so it tended to reflect quite a bit of sunlight. As a result, not a lot of energy remained in the snow, and in effect, not a lot of it melted.

But then, sometime, somewhere came a day when the melt was big enough for a bit of ground to come out from under the snow. And the ground is black, so—surprise!—it takes in much more light (energy) than the snow. And so, the ground begins to get warmer, and passes on some of that warmth to the snow around it. The snow around it starts to melt, uncovering more ground, which leads to the melting going faster and faster. And the process keeps ramping itself up. Nothing had changed for a thousand years, and then the entire snow is gone in a matter of less than two decades.


There are several phenomena on Earth that can lead to activating feedback loops. Just a few of them are:

  • the decreasing of the snow caps,

  • the thawing of permafrost and the release of greenhouse gasses from it,

  • desertification.

More on those here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_feedback and here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0 .


Positive feedback loops usually have the following elements:

  • A tipping point,

  • at first things go slow, but once they pick up speed, the changes are unstoppable.

Again, we’d probably like them to either not occur at all, or to occur as late as possible, which would give us time to react. And that’s why the sooner we curb our emissions, the better.


That’s also an argument against simply believing that future technological progress is a silver bullet—some things will be impossible to undo.


Why do I even bother writing this?

This article is meant to reach an “average person”, let’s say her name is Anne. What do we care if Anne takes what I wrote to heart? Does anything at all changes if she introduces various changes into her life and decreases her carbon footprint and general resource consumption?


Frankly? Not a whole lot.


You could then argue that if this piece is read and followed by a thousand Annes, maybe a hundred thousand of them, that might change something.


Well… maybe a little.


But we have to be honest with ourselves: our daily activities, as needed and important as they are, won’t solve the problem by themselves. We need larger, systemic solutions.


OK, so how are “systemic” decisions made? Well… by people. People like you and me.


We humans want to be consistent. As Robert Cialdini shows in Influence: Science and Practice, one’s need to be perceived as a consistent person can push us to take some really interesting actions.


Therefore, if we’re consistent in small things, it’ll be easier for us to be consistent in the big things.

Let’s say one day Anne decides to start a company. Will it be easier for her to create an environmentally responsible business if, for the previous 5 years, she had been trying to limit food waste and traveling by plane?


I definitely think so.


So going back to the initial question - why do I even bother?


Because even if in most cases changes in the behaviour of most individuals won’t change the world, changes in the behaviour of some might really move the needle.


There's also another reason. Doing something is better than doing nothing – as long as there is a risk that we're all in grave danger, every action, matters. Also, it’s one of the ways I follow the philosophy of Pascal’s Wager (see below).



Choosing the “socially beneficial” option


Let’s say there’s a construction company which wanted to build a new residential building in town. It turns out that it doesn’t pay off to build something with too few floors, because then the return on investment is negative. It doesn’t pay off to build something too high, because then you’re faced with a whole new class of structural problems. A perfect solution for the company would be to build either 13 or 14 floors. OK, so which is it, 13 or 14? From the construction company’s perspective, that’s a cosmetic difference. But what about the town’s perspective? Perhaps the town is facing a housing crisis and the dozen extra apartments on the 14th floor would really help? Or maybe there are airways in the area we’re building, so it would be better to keep the building lower?

I don’t know. But the construction company could find out what’s more beneficial for the town. And since it makes no difference for the company itself, why not choose the thing that’s good for the community?


Or take another example: you’re on a very crowded bus. You’ve left the home early, and you still have half an hour left before you’re meant to meet your friend. You could reach the final stop and wait for your friend there. Or you could get off two stops early, take a walk, and leave all the people in the bus with one person’s worth more space for those two stops (+walking is healthy :) ).


In summary: if you’re faced with two options that are otherwise equal to you (you have no clear preference for either), instead of doing a coin toss or selecting the thing that’s slightly more convenient, try to think about which choice maximizes the benefit for the community or society at large.


Pascal’s Wager


As I think about climate, Pascal’s Wager comes to my mind a lot. If you’re not familiar with it, the wiki's here, go on and read


It’s often formed in terms of society, but I’d prefer to get at this from an individual’s point of view. What I mean here is the approach that “a change in my behavior has a tangible/negligible impact on climate change” and “climate change will not/will lead to the fall of civilization as we know it.”


Let us consider the possibilities:


My impact is tangible and the danger is real

Here, there’s no two ways about it: you need to act and moreover, I believe it’s your moral obligation—inaction on your part significantly contributes to the fall of human civilization.


My impact is tangible and the danger is overstated

There is currently no doubt that climate change will have a negative effect on the world. That said, the effects may not be as dramatic as some people think. What do we do then? We could take on some sacrifices that will probably make our lives harder, and in exchange we might not save the world (because it won’t need saving), but at least those negative effects that occur will be smaller. Maybe we’ll make one more species of vole survive? Maybe another piece of the coral reef? Maybe islanders will have one day more to evacuate? Is that reward enough for all the things we give up?


My impact is negligible and the danger is real

We’re screwed no matter what we do. Well... so we can party while we still can! Take a plane to your holiday spot. Double-beef burgers everyday. Take your car (a huge Hummer of course!) literally everywhere. Buy all the things. Don’t recycle, since it’s a waste of time anyway. 

We’re all going to die, so let’s enjoy life while it lasts.


My impact is negligible and the danger is overstated

Whatever we do, it’s going to be OK. I mean, not really OK—what with the hurricanes, droughts, and so on—but at least humanity is going to survive. And our actions don’t change anything, so there’s no reason to change anything about our way of life. So that’s kinda cool :)


All right, the problem is we don’t know which of those four scenarios is actually real. But outlining the matter from this angle still sheds some light on the decisions we should make.


The things we’re talking about are so serious, they verge on the abstract. It should help if we run a small thought experiment.


Let’s say our not-doing-anything is like saving a million dollars—if for no other reason, it’s that otherwise we’d need to give up some of our time, and our time is valuable.


On the other hand, if our inaction leads to the collapse of civilization, that’s kind of like shooting ourselves in the head.


So now we’re down to a round of Russian roulette.

If someone gave you a million dollars and put a ten-shot revolver, with one bullet in the chamber, on the table and told you to take one shot—would you?


What if the chance was 1 to 100? 1 to 1,000? 1 to 1 million? What ratio would be enough for you to risk your life for a million dollars?


Let’s change things up. What if the revolver was aimed not at your temple, but at someone else’s? A child? How much would someone have to pay you for you to take a risk like that?


It’s a graphic example, but an effective one. Humans aren’t too good with abstract statements like “in 10 years,” “collapse of civilization,” “one in a million chance,” etc. But everyone can understand the vision of a bullet to the head.


Coming back to the actual problem: if the chance that your action could have a tangible impact on our reality and could save millions of lives is even a fraction of a percent—isn’t it worth the trouble?


A similar point is made here.


Warning

This metaphor is imperfect by design and you can poke some holes in it (e.g. google for “Pascal Wager many gods objections", and while you read substitute “many gods” with “other existential threats”). Nevertheless, I think it’s a good starting point for thinking about uncertainty of the impact of your actions.

Whatever we do doesn’t matter, because China and India…


An argument you can sometimes come across is “Our actions in Poland/Europe don’t matter anyway, because the populations of China and India are so big that even if we reduce our emissions to zero, it won’t change much.”


Sure, there’s a grain of truth in that—even if our emissions per capita are 10 times larger (and they’re not, you can check) than the emissions in India, there’s so many people there that our reductions have limited impact. And I’m not even mentioning China.


And regardless of the fact that I disagree with this argument (with 0.7 billion people living in Europe, the gap to India’s 1.3 billion or China’s 1.4 isn’t that big), there’s another way to view this issue.


Let’s just say Europe comes up with effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions, some of them systemic, some individual. We can also check which methods, despite seemingly promising, do not bring about the expected results. That means other countries can use our experiences and reduce or limit their emissions faster or more effectively.


One controversial example of a similar strategy is Tesla. Tesla’s goal wasn’t to take over the automotive market, but to increase the speed of developments in the field of electric vehicles by showing other companies it was feasible and that there was a market for cars like that. One argument for that point of view is Tesla’s making all of their patents public in 2014. 

I realize that it could’ve been a cynical PR stunt, and so could the company’s mission. Still, you can’t deny that the EV market has gained a lot of speed over the recent years.


The book Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin gives the example of—I believe—Monaco (read that a while ago), which in and of itself is tiny and has almost no impact on global emissions. But it still tries to promote ideas related to sustainable development, to be a proving ground for new solutions, etc. Europe as a whole could play a similar part for more populous, developing countries.


Why capitalism won’t solve this problem


Some people believe that free markets can solve most (if not all) the problems of the world. There is some merit to it, but in the case of environmental issues, that’s simply not true. There are (at least) a couple of reasons for that. 


Let’s start with two challenges that all the systems need to face - be it free markets, top-down chain commands, technological solutions and others.


The first one is that we are not perfect. Markets (or other systems) could solve many problems, if all humans were always rational, unbiased and had excellent decision-making processes. But that’s not the case—the system is not perfect, there are powerful groups of interest, etc. 


The second point is that even if the first point is invalid, the environmental effects of many of our actions are far away from the cause; there is too much uncertainty in what the exact effects are in the long term and how they are distributed across the whole globe. It’s too complex for the markets themselves to work efficiently.


Let’s now consider another two which are more market specific.


The third point is that money doesn’t equal to value. It’s easier for us, humans, to treat some topics as more important due to their moral implications, than for markets.


And lastly, we don’t have the time to wait for the markets to adjust. 


Actually, (and I’m not sure if this fits under free markets), there is also the problem of incentives. People most responsible for the climate change will usually be also the ones least affected by the changes. Let’s take a simple example:

A 60-year-old CEO of a company can actually have enough money to protect himself from a lot of environmental harm and he has about 20 years of his life left.

On the other hand, a 20-year-old student doesn’t have too much money and will stay around for another 60 years—given that the rate of change is accelerating, she will have to deal with much graver consequences.

Therefore—the former doesn’t have much incentive to change his behaviour, while the latter has all the incentives.


Other threats


Climate change isn’t the only threat to humanity. It’s not necessarily even the most grave one. Examples of some other threats include:

  • Rogue artificial intelligence

  • Global pandemics

  • Nuclear war

I’m focusing here on climate change because:

  • It’s important

  • It’s permeates many layers of our lives

  • There are so many ways people can help, on so many different levels

  • I think it’s a good starting point for people who want to do more good with their lives.

Many other topics are more neglected than climate change and if you decide to work on them, you can probably have much more impact than if you work on climate change.

If you would like to learn more about other risks, I recommend (again) 80000 hours, especially their podcast.


Closing notes


Thank you for reading, I hope you will find this helpful. As always it would be great to hear your feedback.


And as always I wanted to thank everyone who contributed to this blogpost, especially the one and only, Rafał Ociepa :) Also, special kudos to Rob Lee and Yuli Jadov from Toronto EA group for their feedback!


I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter (see at the bottom of the page), if you don’t want to miss the following posts from this series.


Have a nice day!

Michał