The economist hosts a yearly competition for young writers about some topic and this year’s revolved around climate change. The prompt this year was: what fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?
There was a 1,000 word limit and the winner is invited to a UN Youth Climate Summit in a location of their choice. The transcript of my submission is below.
The world is dying. Temperatures could increase by up to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, and the frequency and severity of natural disasters will continue to worsen. There will be more droughts and more heat waves, and we will have an ice-free arctic for the first time in 2.6 million years.
But while the world slowly dies around us, life has never been better for the humans living on it. More than half of the world is now considered middle class, a marked improvement from less than 30 years ago when half the world was living in extreme poverty. We have eradicated smallpox, almost eradicated polio, and are continuing to make medical breakthroughs.
Advances in technology have enables many of these changes. It has made the world a better place by providing frictionless global communication, increasing compute power, and in many ways has leveled the playing field. For all our progress, however, human contribution to climate change has only gotten worse in the past decades.
A lazy economist may pronounce climate change inevitable. After all, profit maximizing institutions will always favor trading the future for short-term gains. But a lazy economist fails to realize that in a world of instant information and a surplus of choices, large corporations no longer have a stranglehold on the consumer. Consumers can now choose where to buy their goods, and choose companies whose values align with theirs.
I remember watching a video of a man removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. It was difficult to watch, but the world took notice. As the video went viral, marine conservationists were able to translate public outrage into political and economic change.
Seattle was the first US city to ban plastic straws, stir sticks, and utensils. New York City Council soon followed by introducing legislation to ban plastic straws by 2020. Even Starbucks participated by pledging to move away from plastic straws. These actions are proof that political and economic institutions are consumer-sensitive, and bow to collective public pressures.
However, oftentimes the voice of the people is obfuscated by a division in the population, which forces companies to choose which consumer to serve. For fundamental issues that affect the whole world, like climate change, this division is dangerous. It is impossible to make significant progress on complex problems if the world cannot agree it needs to solve them.
Fred Seitz and Fred Singer are best known for their work on the atomic bomb and observational satellites, but they should probably be best known for challenging popular science. Backed by think tanks and private corporations, they have challenged and denied science on some of the most important issues to date.
They have argued against the link between smoking and cancer, testified that acid rain is caused by volcanoes rather than human pollution, and alleged that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rigged the science on secondhand smoke. In the last few decades they have turned their attention to global warming and climate change, denying its existence despite mounting evidence.
This is where technology needs to take a stand. Just like every human should be born with equal and unalienable rights, the unambiguous truth has the right to shine above lies, no matter what political or corporate entity is behind them.
Despite 97 percent of scientists agreeing that climate-warming trends are caused by human activities, thanks to Seitz and Singer the public remains convinced that the scientific community is divided on climate change. An ABC poll showed that 64 percent of Americans believed there was ‘a lot of disagreement among scientists.’
This divide between perception and reality has impeded any progress on climate change initiatives. But while it is easiest to blame Seitz and Singer, we must also put the blame on the technology companies that give them a platform to spread disinformation. By providing a platform they are complicit in the lack of progress.
Luckily, technology companies are susceptible to the same public pressures that effected change for plastic straws. Carlos Maza is a YouTuber who has been continually harassed by far-right content creator Stephen Crowder for being gay. Despite Carlos continually flagging the offensive content and requesting YouTube to take down the videos, YouTube failed to act.
On May 30th, Carlos created a long Twitter thread documenting the years of abuse and called out YouTube for failing to protect him on their platform. Within a day the thread went viral, and on June 4th YouTube publicly announced they reviewed the flagged content and demonetized Stephen’s account.
The other large tech companies have also bowed to public pressure. Google has made policy changes after employee walkouts and Facebook has committed to removing fake news from the newsfeed. While removing harassment and fake political articles are a worthy cause, nothing affects the entire world like climate change.
The four largest tech companies are valued at around $4 trillion, which accounts for one seventh of the total value of the US stock market. So far, with great power has come limited responsibility. This is unacceptable, and they ought to take responsibility for propagating disinformation that has stymied progress.
However, history has shown that left to their own devices tech companies will maintain the status quo. Public pressure is the only way to get them to change. Tech companies will regulate and remove climate denier content just as they have done with LGBTQ harassment and Nazi propaganda if the public demands it.
Only when the world understand the true scientific consensus regarding climate change can we join together to create real solutions. The proposed solutions of today are failing. Governments are incapable of enforcing true change, so we need a new solution. This new solution requires tech companies to both block misinformation and promote productive content. However, this will only happen if people continue to make their voices heard and pressure them into changing. This has been an effective solution in the past, and is our best chance moving forward.