It’s a matter of time

Antarctica1

A view of Antarctica from the 2041 expedition this week

On the third day of the Antarctica expedition -still in Ushuaia- we heard a lecture by an economist who generates future scenarios for a major international oil company. In the first part of her lecture, she showed us the estimated economic impact of current environmental trends: massive scarcity of food (especially in underdeveloped regions), depletion of water sources, increased frequency of major weather events, and irreversible changes to ecosystems (among others).

In the second part of her lecture, she showed us the estimated costs of curbing emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to healthy levels: an impact of 3-5% on world GDP by 2050. The conclusion was quite clear: the future impact of continuing on this path dwarfs the cost of changing our ways now.

Immediately, the question emerges: if this is so evident, if the decision is so clear-cut, why aren’t we changing?

Although the answer is complex -and might vary greatly from country to country- a clear theme seems to come up over and over again: short-sightedness and a focus on the immediate. At a national level, political systems in most democratic countries run elections every 4-6 years. And while the positive effects of drastically changing our environmental policy will not become evident for several years, the costs (both economic and political) associated with these changes will be felt instantly. Few politicians, especially those looking for reelection (of self or party), seem willing to sacrifice today´s votes for the benefits of tomorrow – more so if said benefits will be reaped by future administrations.

When talking about companies in general, the investments needed to minimize environmental impact are usually made in the short term, with benefits felt over the long run (i.e. long payback periods). Most companies, especially those that are risk-adverse, do not see the value in these expenses. The perceived net present values of these investments are simply not attractive enough. The lack of clarity of a country’s environmental policy over the long term further adds to a reluctance to commit to change. Again, the benefits of tomorrow are sacrificed for today’s bottom line.

In the end, who should begin this much needed shift? Should companies take the first step, or should governments first implement enabling policies? In this chicken-and-egg debate, a third possibility emerges: why don’t we, as both citizens and consumers, publicly agree on the importance of this issue? I like to think that a simple, unified statement in this regard would show our leaders -politicians and businessmen- that our concern will not disappear. If anything, our interest to secure a sustainable way of life will only increase with time. In other words, a clear message would reduce the uncertainty for decision makers by saying: we care about this now and will continue to care about it in the future.

How should we go about stating this? Should we press our politicians through civil organizations? Should we publicize our elected officials’ record on the environment -and then use our vote to punish those who fall short? Should we use our wallets to reward environmentally conscious companies? To be honest, I don’t have the answers yet; I’m still not sure where we can find the “80/20” (i.e. where should we focus our efforts for the greatest impact).

I will keep you posted as the answers arise. In the meantime, I’d like to wrap this post with a quote we heard early on in the Expedition, that has kept rolling around my brain ever since:

“Solutions to every major problem in the world -environmental, social, and political- already exist out there; we have just not been able to agree and implement them.” 

– Diego

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