What toddler parenting taught me about global climate policy

click to enlarge President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. - Number 10, Flickr Creative Commons
Number 10, Flickr Creative Commons
President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

“Look, if you don’t stop this tantrum right now, we’re going to have to take away one of your toys!”

Some permutation of that threat can be heard on any given weeknight in our household. We’re not proud of it; these aren’t our finest hours.

Sarah and I are blessed to have an energetic, charming, and, in the parenting vernacular, spirited 3-year-old. The spirit spilleth over. Epic tantrums, we understand, are the cost of characteristics we hope will make our Emmalee a strong adult.

Our threats rarely work. Even in the logic of negotiation, they’re not very good threats. We’re both bargaining from a position of weakness — she’s already tantruming, after all. For her part, however powerful the loss of her toys is as an incentive, there are several aspects to this particular loss that blunt its psychological power. First, it's poorly defined. After all, it’s unclear exactly which toy she might lose, or when or for how long she will lose it. She’s also come to believe in her well-honed skills to both continue her tantrum and play up her charm just in the nick of time to save Hanah the rabbit or her Lego set from banishment. So she kicks the can down the road. She keeps tantruming, we keep threatening. And just as we identify a toy and take it away, she shuts off the tear valve and starts to apologize. The toy goes away for a few minutes, only to be sweet-talked back. Rinse and repeat. We all lose.

But why am I writing to you today about my daughter's tantrums? Well, it might just teach us a thing or two about global climate action. Both fail for the same reasons.

Just like my daughter’s undefined toy, what climate change will take from us is poorly defined. That flummoxes public policy in very predictable ways. Who is going to be harmed? It’s not clear. When? Not sure. How? Could be one of a range of possibilities. Because we can’t specifically identify the nature of the loss we’re trying to avert, we’re less committed to averting it.

There’s more. After all, we’re already experiencing climate change. It’s occurring in the form of once-in-a-lifetime hurricanes battering the Southeast. Unheralded wildfires are burning across the West Coast. Rainstorms are challenging our decaying infrastructure, leading to cataclysmic flooding events across the midwest. It’s already here.

But here’s the problem: While these climate events are astounding, they haven’t touched the vast majority of people on this globe in discernible ways. That motivated a perverse complacency. If climate change is already here, I guess it's not that bad, too many wrongly conclude.

What’s worse, most of the folks hit hardest by climate change aren’t the ones making decisions that could halt it. Global inequality has allowed those with the means to insulate themselves from the insecurity of climate change. Those best positioned to solve it have the least incentive to do so.

“If climate change is already here, I guess it’s not that bad,” too many wrongly conclude.

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Just like my daughter believes she can shut off her tears just in the nick of time, so do we as a society. We keep kicking the can down the road. That’s particularly tempting considering the cost of action on climate change is exactly the opposite of its consequences: It’s well-defined, immediate, and direct. And we humans are really bad at trading well-defined, immediate, and direct resources to avert poorly defined, long-term, indirect harm.

And those are the challenges facing action by just one country. The international incentives on climate action are even more vexing. In Glasgow, Scotland on Sunday, global leaders convened the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which climate experts are calling “the last best chance” to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Scientific consensus tells us that we need to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius (even though many scientists believe that we may already, in fact, peak at a higher temperature), to keep the most catastrophic consequences of climate change at bay. That requires the world’s largest emitters to do their part.

Here’s the hard part. Global climate change started with the industrial revolution centuries ago, when on the backs of cheap and easy fossil fuels, advanced economies like the U.S. and Europe developed into major economies. We remain some of the worst emitters today, but those emissions don’t change the very nature of our economy as they do in developing economies like India, where nearly 20% of the population still didn’t have electricity as late as 2018. Asking India to forgo the same cheap and easy energy sources that allowed us to develop would be like never giving our next child a toy because of the tantrum my daughter had years ago.

We have to make it up to them — which means massive investment in green technology and infrastructure in low-income countries to allow them to continue to develop without the massive emissions. That’s where the Green Climate Fund, a multinational investment fund for clean energy pathways in low-income countries created out of the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, comes in. The fund set an ambitious goal of raising $100 billion by 2020. It raised just a tenth of that. The U.S., by far the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter throughout history, has only committed $3 billion, reneging on that commitment under the Trump administration.

Perhaps COP26 will be the moment when we do our part. But we can’t even seem to get our own house in order. The Biden administration has committed to cutting emissions in half by 2030, yet his agenda to achieve that is being stymied by just one man who profits off of fossil fuels himself, holding the whole world hostage to his political temper tantrums. I wish I could bring Joe Manchin to my house to negotiate with my daughter. She’d win. Which is a good thing, because it’s her and her generation’s futures he’s trying to negotiate away.

Originally published Nov. 2 in The Incision. Get more at incision.substack.com.

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About The Author

Abdul El-Sayed

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist, public health expert, and progressive activist who served as Detroit’s health director and ran for governor in 2018. He is the author of Healing Politics: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic and Medicare for All: A Citizen's Guide, as well...
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