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Commentary: Are We Fiddling While the Planet Warms?


Can we solve the climate crisis?  Are we wise enough?  In this segment of Valley Public Radio's commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Fiala asks whether, like Nero, we are fiddling while Rome burns.


President Obama recently announced a new initiative on climate change.  But will we be able to address climate change in time to prevent the worst that is predicted?  I doubt it.  Decades of dithering about global warming do not inspire hope. 

In the spring of 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a new high of 400 parts per million.  This concentration has not been seen on earth for two-and-a-half million years, when the earth was 3 degrees Centigrade warmer than it is today.  CO2 concentrations are rising and there is no concrete plan to slow things down.  Like Nero, we’re fiddling while Rome burns. 

But why not fiddle?  It is rational to enjoy yourself today and ignore the risk of catastrophic future harm.  Our brains are programmed by evolution to maximize our own short-term happiness.  A few of us may make self-sacrificial choices.  And some do prepare for their children’s futures.  But in general, we maximize our own self-interest in the near- to mid- future. 

We simply have no motivation to scrimp today for the well-being of unborn generations.  We are not programmed to take collective action to prevent long-term and speculative risks

Climate-friendly behavior can look positively irrational.  Individuals can bike to work or avoid using the air-conditioning, for example.  But why should I sacrifice my short-term happiness, when no one else does?  What’s the point of biking to work, if everyone else is driving?  What’s the point of dialing back the AC, when the folks next door are blasting theirs?

That sort of thinking is connected to a problem that philosophers call the “prisoner’s dilemma.” It turns out that if we suspect others of being self-interested, we won’t cooperate, and we will each choose to pursue our own self-interest.  But when everyone pursues their own self-interest, we end up with worse outcomes.  The result is tragedy.

Climate change requires massive cooperation—at the global and corporate level.  But we don’t trust each other.  We won’t sacrifice our short-term happiness.  And we simply don’t plan for the distant future. 

Affluent Americans will be able to surf the waves of climate change.  But the poor will not.  But here again is the problem.  In a hot, crowded future, poor people will want to blast the AC and drive big cars.  And affluent people will not willingly give up what we’ve got.  The hotter it gets, the worse the problem may become. 

I hope some political genius can solve this difficulty.  But the future looks bleak.  The mercury is rising.  And while we should be tuning up our bikes, most of us are tuning up our fiddles.  

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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