By now all but the hopelessly stupid or deliberately ignorant understand the basics of climate change. Increasing the amounts of a few gases in the atmosphere traps heat and make the planet’s equilibrium temperature higher. The big three are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and mainly carbon dioxide (CO2): humans are pumping these gases out like there’s no tomorrow – more precisely, as though we were all leaving the planet in a few decades. CO2 is the big one, and it mainly comes from burning coal, oil, natural gas, and forests: if we want the planet to be habitable for the big 2076 parties, that’s what we have to stop doing.

These gases are, in effect, pollutants like the gunk in automobile exhaust that made the air in LA brown until we put a stop to it, or the phosphorus in your dish soap that makes algae grow in lakes and rivers, but they have two tragic and pernicious qualities that our familiar pollutants don’t have. First, because they last a long time in the air, and the atmosphere is well mixed with winds, their effects aren’t felt only in the legal jurisdiction in which they are emitted, but everywhere, by everyone. Second, because the processes are slow and easy to miss in the normal variation of weather, Exxon and Consolidation Coal can pay politicians and TV weather reporters to say it isn’t happening, and doing the right, expensive things about climate will not show results we can see before the next election or the one after that.

The California government, after some back and forth with the feds, had the capacity to control smog in CA from cars in CA, and the citizens of California compared their benefits of clean air to their costs for cleaner cars, found the former larger, and made themselves better off. People in Singapore are just now enduring smog beyond the worst weeks in the bad old days in Los Angeles; why don’t they fix it? The Singapore government is not diffident about authority: what the Singapore leadership want Singaporeans to do, they do. And they understand economic externalities very well: if you leave a bowl of water on your terrace, in which a mosquito might make a family that transmits dengue from one of your neighbors to another, you will get a very unpleasant taste of government action. But the air in Singapore is not being befouled by Singaporeans: it is being befouled by Indonesians burning down their forests (yes, lots of global warming underway there too) for palm plantations. Indonesia will not see the benefits of clean air in Singapore and Malaysia if it stops, but it will certainly see the costs of selling less palm oil.

Maybe some bilateral diplomacy will put the fires out; maybe Singapore can take Indonesia to the World Court; maybe Singapore can just pay Indonesia to stop burning the forest. Unfair as the last option seems, depending on the price it might still be a good deal for them. But global warming isn’t just a bunch of bilateral externalities across a strait between two neighbors who have each others’ phone numbers, it’s everywhere from everyone, and Prof. Coase would be the first to point out that private deals won’t butter this parsnip. California has put in place a largish set of policies to help stabilize the climate, and I’m proud we’ve done it. But the good we do is immediately diluted about 1:200 [about one human in 200 lives in California], and it’s really hard to find policies with a benefit/cost ratio of two hundred to one, which is what they need to make Californians better off by implenting them. For China and India, it’s easier (but still hard); for my home town, which only has about 1/60,000th of the world’s population, there’s no climate policy that’s net beneficial (unless it has associated payoffs like less traffic or less traditional pollution), and for my family, fuhgeddaboudid.

Climate change is a multi-actor prisoners’ dilemma: for almost all the jurisdictions in the world, taken one-by-one, it’s better on a cold self-interest basis to do nothing about climate, whether you think the rest of the world will step up or you think all those other governments will make the same calculation and do nothing. The Easter Islanders didn’t decide in a town meeting to cut down all their palm trees; they decided tree by tree that “there are lots of palm trees left, cutting down this one won’t hurt much” and then “if I don’t cut down this palm tree and use it, someone else will and I’ll be out of luck…they’re going pretty fast.”

Finally, it’s just so unfair. Burn less coal, and miners with no good economic options in poor areas of West Virginia and Kentucky will be out of work, and these are hardworking people who never wanted to put a bunch of Bangladeshis (or East Side New Yorkers) under water, they just wanted to make an honest living giving folks warm showers and light at night. It’s totally unjust that the Chinese and Indians, just climbing out of poverty, should be denied the industrial century the west got rich in. Unfair.

Climate stabilization advocates, members of my intellectual and political tribe, are often so discouraged by the foregoing, and so desperate about the feckless response to the disaster we are bequeathing our children, that they point to this or that town whose economy was saved by a windmill factory or some such thing: “green business is good business!” Others are rather desperately clinging to foolishness, like using land we will increasingly need for food and storing carbon in forests to grow motor fuel. I myself desperately want there to be a policy that will fix the climate with no actual heavy lifting by anyone. (And of course the completely cynical or terminally stupid, like John Boehner, will say “let’s not do anything while there’s unemployment and the economy is recovering” today and “let’s not risk our prosperity” when times are better tomorrow.)

If I thought it would work, I might join this chorus and preach that we will all get rich making windmills , but it won’t fly. The facts, that will make themselves known willy-nilly, are that climate stabilization will be very expensive, independently of the asymmetry of costs and benefits (if we go on as we are the Swiss will have to learn to grow coffee and oranges, but those Bangla Deshis will have to find a whole new place to live in a crowded neighborhood). We will have to liquidate enormous capital investments in car-dependent suburbs and coal plants, and we will have to learn to live with less stuff of every kind, and we will deny people who never got to drive cars a future they have every right to. Then we will have to buy enormous amounts of expensive stuff like a smart electric grid and trains. Habits and aspirations that almost reach the level of identity definition will have to be abandoned, like driving wherever we want alone and parking free when we get there, and living in a big house with rooms we hardly ever sit in.

The only future more expensive and painful than a carbon-free one is the only other one on the table. The honest framing of Obama’s speech tomorrow – which may not be the most useful or effective one – is that of Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ address, and, my fellow Americans, we may do our best and pay a lot of dues and still lose the battle, whether because the old men who run China are more afraid of street riots this year than world economic collapse after they are dead, or because the Koch Brothers and their pals have oil in the ground they haven’t sold yet, or because our broken Congress can’t stop obsessing about abortions and hating Obama. Can you say the words existential threat? Well, climate change is an existential threat to human civilization, which is pretty serious – but climate stabilization is an existential threat to the wealth and status of very powerful people, and now you’re talking consequential, baby. Existential threats are toxic to thinking straight.

Damon Runyon was partly right: everything in life is six to five against…but some propositions have much worse odds. Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, not only technically (that’s actually the easy part) but also politically, psychologically, economically, and morally. It’s unfair in many ways, but mostly because it’s come upon us before we have developed the institutions that would enable us to confront it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.