The on-call denialist and the keys to solving climate change

Juho Rönni
Always remember fair play if you want to mitigate climate change. In order to buy an electric car, a pensioner on low income needs more support than a successful engineer.

Climate change. Write that word in your texts, publish the article online and share it on social media. It will only take a few minutes until the first commentator announces that this CO2 thing that you are writing about is complete nonsense. What if climate change doesn’t really exist after all?

The on-call denialist has awoken. How should we reply to them? What can we say to a person who calmly smiles while their house is on fire?

A neighbour shouts and waves their hands, but the owner of the house asks calmly, what if the house isn’t actually on fire? A doctor has just broken the news about a disease that is spreading quickly, but the patient says to their loved-ones, what if it isn’t really true? The moon landings were a fraud; did the astronauts ever actually leave Earth orbit?

I see this phenomenon almost every time I end up on social media.

The opinions of the international scientific community on climate change are still being questioned there. The same people who will do everything possible to make good lives for their children and grandchildren, close their eyes to the biggest threat to the future of their descendents.

Tragedy of the Commons

The message of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has remained pretty much unchanged for the past 20 years: the Earth is moving towards a climate crisis. The coming years are crucial. The head of the WMO, World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, says that the level of ambition has to be increased threefold if we are to restrict global warming to two degrees.

The majority of Finns are of the opinion that climate change has to be mitigated. However, many still think change should begin with their neighbours rather than themselves.

We understand the need for change, but we resist it because we suspect that it’s not a fair game. We have what is known as a “Tragedy of the Commons”. We know very well that if we invest lots of money in clean technology, our miserly neighbour will also benefit from a better environment. We might also be concerned about the effect of climate politics on the distribution of income amongst citizens.

The solution to this problem is central when we distribute the costs of mitigating climate change. It’s not enough that politics about the climate are sustainable. They also have to be socially sustainable so that the efforts against climate change become a power for unity and not division.

Concentrate support where it’s most needed

In the future when we combine different clean-technology solutions into a single package, we should also highlight the social dimension. Many potential solutions are focused on housing and travel, that is, aspects of consumption that are more difficult to reduce the lower the income of the person.

It seems inevitable that we will need to increase taxation of fossil fuels in the future. This will hit hardest those citizens who heat their properties with oil and who travel to work by car.

According to Statistics Finland, the top ten percent of earners in Finland cause 2.6 times greater emissions than the lowest ten per cent. It is not fair that the cost of reducing emissions changes the distribution of income in favour of the top earners.

A pensioner on a low income will certainly need more support to invest in a heat pump than a successful engineer. Also, support for buying electric cars and price reductions for public transport should be aimed first and foremost at those who need it the most.

If using your own car becomes more difficult, this can be alleviated by making the use of public transport more appealing.

How about free buses, trams, and metro for people on low income? What about a 50 per cent price reduction for those in the middle-income bracket? And when your old combustion engine finally gives out, how does a earnings-based scrap-car credit or exchange rebate for a chargeable biogas, hybrid, or fully electric car sound?

How about zero VAT on train travel? Or a 200-euro annual voucher for train tickets per household? Maybe one passenger-flight-tax-free holiday flight per year, the second at 20 per cent tax, the third at 50 per cent?

These are just questions, not answers. But we do need these kinds of incentives so that ordinary people will accept the coming changes.

It could be politically wise to allow the average family to travel once a year to Greece for their holiday with reasonable expense. If we need to limit the growth of air travel, it only seems fair to direct the restrictions to those who fly repeatedly rather than those who hardly fly at all.

How do we bypass psychological blocks?

The aforementioned suggestions are all extremely marginal solutions. However, their role may well be bigger than expected when we try to bypass the psychological blocks that are slowing the fight against climate change. The first step is always the hardest, the second is easier.

The climate crisis can be averted. However, it will not happen based on the decisions of the political and financial elite, and the highly educated and highly paid. Success will demand close international cooperation and efficient national solutions that do not unreasonably complicate anyone’s life. There are many tens of serious solutions to consider.

In addition to large and small streams we also need information, and hope based on information.

People need to be told that mitigating climate change will cut gross domestic product by one percent in the coming years so that the standard of living for the lifetime of our children and grandchildren will be a few percent higher. It follows the same logic as the construction of railways in the 19th century: in the short and mid-term, it cost a lot, caused headaches and was met with resistance, but it improved the world massively.

Many of the solutions to mitigate climate change will immediately improve the finances of nations, companies, and households. When we benefit from these solutions, we will not need to reduce the temperature in our houses to 18 degrees in the winter or ban the use of private cars on Mondays and Wednesdays.

A heat pump is an expensive investment, but in the long run it saves a large sum of money.

The development of solar and wind energy has exceeded expectations during the 2010s. Wind farms were long considered unnecessary, expensive and inconsequential, but wind energy has now become the cheapest form of energy production. Battery technology is also developing at a gratifying rate.

Another benefit of climate work is employment. The development, construction, installation, and maintenance of new cleaner energy systems and circular economy solutions employs thousands of people in Finland, and millions around the world. And if we add the investments that bodies like the IPCC and WMO recommend, jobs in the clean economy increase dramatically.

Finland is among the group of countries that can reach zero emissions first. A Finnish child born in the 2020s will definitely cause less emissions during its lifetime than a child of the 1950s.

The birth of my child changed my thinking

My family consists of myself, my spouse, and our 1-year-old daughter. I work in a company that reduces the emissions and energy use in Finnish properties. Previously, I thought that that was my contribution. I was involved in establishing a company that cuts the burden on the climate to such an extent that my emissions are of no significance.

The birth of my child changed my thinking. I have also begun to consider my own actions and examples; I’m not particularly happy with them.

I can see my own situation by taking the Sitra Lifestyle Test, which has been taken over 850 000 times. The average carbon footprint is 7 200 kg CO₂ equivalent per year, and my result was 9 900kg.

There is plenty of room for improvement: I drive a diesel car, our house is warmed by the Helsinki district heating system, and we produce too much food waste. Thankfully, I have managed to reduce my air travel.

Looking ahead to the future I am cautiously optimistic. In my daily work I see how people are capable of organising a cleaner life than before. This is made possible by collaboration, the faster uptake of technology, and responsible decision making. Purposeful steps forward will ensure that we make a difference before it’s too late.

The author, Juho Rönni, is in charge of corporate development and is co-founder at LeaseGreen, a cleantech service company specialised in energy efficiency solutions for large real estate and industrial processes.

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