‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’

As politicians and business leaders gather in Davos, climate expert Jørgen Randers argues that democracy will continue to hamper climate action

How depressed would you be if you had spent more than 40 years warning of an impending global catastrophe, only to be continually ignored even as you watch the disaster unfolding?

So spare a thought for Jørgen Randers, who back in 1972 co-authored the seminal work Limits to Growth (pdf), which highlighted the devastating impacts of exponential economic and population growth on a planet with finite resources.

As politicians and business leaders gather in Davos to look at ways to breathe new life into the global battle to address climate change, they would do well to listen to Randers’ sobering perspective.

The professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School has been pretty close to giving up his struggle to wake us up to our unsustainable ways, and in 2004 published a pessimistic update of his 1972 report showing the predictions made at the time are turning out to be largely accurate.

What he cannot bear is how politicians of all persuasions have failed to act even as the scientific evidence of climate change mounts up, and as a result he has largely lost faith in the democratic process to handle complex issues.

In a newly published paper in the Swedish magazine Extrakt he writes:

It is cost-effective to postpone global climate action. It is profitable to let the world go to hell.

I believe that the tyranny of the short term will prevail over the decades to come. As a result, a number of long-term problems will not be solved, even if they could have been, and even as they cause gradually increasing difficulties for all voters.

Randers says the reason for inaction is that there will be little observable benefit during the first 20 years of any fiscal sacrifice, even though tougher regulations and taxes will guarantee a better climate for our children and grandchildren.

He has personal experience of this, having chaired a commission in Norway that in 2006 came up with a 15-point plan to solve the climate problem if every Norwegian was willing to pay €250 (£191) in extra taxes every year for the next generation or so.

If the plan had been given the green light, it would have allowed the country to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds by 2050 and provide a case study other rich countries could learn from.

He says:

In my mind, the cost was ridiculously low, equivalent to an increase in income taxes from 36% to 37%, given that this plan would eliminate the most serious threat to the rich world in this century.

In spite of this, a vast majority of Norwegians were against this sacrifice. To be frank, most voters preferred to use the money for other causes – like yet another weekend trip to London or Sweden for shopping.

When it comes to more regulation or higher taxes, Randers says voters tend to revolt and, as a result, politicians will continue to refuse to take courageous steps for fear of being thrown out of office at the next election.

“The capitalist system does not help,” says Randers. “Capitalism is carefully designed to allocate capital to the most profitable projects. And this is exactly what we don’t need today.

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– research thanks to Kael L.

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