Friday, July 13, 2012

Why don't the rich care more about Climate Change?

William Timberman says he first wrote this post as a comment here, it's entirely appropriate my comment to that thread also spawned a post for me:  That is to address the bizarre lack of urgency on the part of America's Owners over the climate crisis.   Why aren't Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or the hundreds of other billionaires more interested in fixing the climate crisis?

Let's ignore the billionaires who are actually themselves deniers, I'm sure there's a few, but if T. Boone Pickens can face reality, I'm going to guess people as highly informed as billionaires would almost need to be, cannot really be unaware of this nor afford to deny it.  

I can think of a couple possible explanations:
1) They're fools who think they'll just ride above all the problems.
2) They expect the invisible hand or geoengineering to solve it.
3) They're trapped in a prisoner's dilemma

The first explanation is the most obvious and cynical.  I think the ultra-rich suffer some of the same ego effects that Hollywood stars have:  It's only too easy to surround yourself with sycophants and golddiggers who will constantly tell you how great you are.  Then add in the ego boost of tremendous personal wealth, and you can probably fairly easily end up believing that you got super rich all by yourself, and are now indestructable.  Ian Welsh often points out that the super rich live in a different world, staying at $20,000/night hotels, flying in private planes from private terminals to private yachts and so forth.  The problems of little people never affect them.  They could easily massively underestimate the problems of climate change to think it won't ever reach them.  For the older ones this is probably true, but they usually have kids, so must have given some thought to the world their kids will live in.

I also can't ignore the second.  Neoliberalism is by far the dominant viewpoint of elites.  Markets fix things.  Problems arrive, and are somehow solved by someone.  As much as I like the videos at, there is an underlying triumphantilism to those events that is almost celebrating the inevitable victory of private genuis over all the world's problems.  Further, even if fusion or cheaper-than-oil solar electricity don't magically appear, or come past the tipping point where Siberia's methane is all being released, geoengineering is plausible and technologically feasible.  We already have enough planes to seed the atmosphere with sulphur.  I'm no fan of geoengineering (except as a very last resort) and fear the huge externalities and unexpected consequences that might stem from any of the schemes, but it does present an easy escape for intellectual cowards to hang their hopes.  

But I also wonder how much role the third plays.  See, I had this thought from another Warming Wednesday piece discussing how a big wealth management/consulting firm has now modified its portfolio recommendation to include hedging against the likely effects of ongoing climate change.  It seems like the rich are quietly going about the business of continuing to maximize returns even as storms, floods and droughts ravage the planet and maybe a rainforest or two dries up.  I mean, if you know things are going to become terrible, and just start hedging by shorting this and that, or buying up the stuff that will become scarce in a new climate world, then you know the problem is real, serious and getting worse.  Why not do something about it?

The answer here has to do with a special kind of prisoner's dilemma where one prisoner is any individual wealthy person, and the other "prisoner" is all the rest of them as a sort of monolithic collective.  If this seems hard to grasp, just think of any situation where you evaluate your own position against the world as a whole - so the dilemma happens that no individual rich person can really move the needle on this alone.  So if they bolt from the pack and start pursuing a climate solution (and backing it with real money) they'll just miss out on all the great economic opportunities that their peers will continue to enjoy (as if they are the other prisoner who still rats out his peer in the other room).  Since they can't make the other prisoner cooperate in solving the crisis, and believe the crisis will happen anyway, they decide they may as well stay on the party boat until it sinks.

A shorter version of this could be "they believe it is inevitable" and it's probably the most depressing of the three.

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