Civilisation – and my part in its downfall

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Learning and development services for international organisations
Go to content

Civilisation – and my part in its downfall

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Published by Bryan in Thoughts · 24 October 2021
Human beings are constantly trying to make sense of their worlds. A key part of sense making is thinking about causality, what is happening and why it is happening. If I see a tin can lining the road and kick it, the cause and effect are clear, but the situation is quite different with making sense of climate change. Firstly, the effect is not obvious. Every day we experience weather, but changes in the climate or much harder to sense: how do we really know that our summers are now 1° warmer than a few decades ago? Cause is also hard to identify: how can little I running a car engine in my little town affect the global climate? It is not hard to see how strategies for climate change denial can easily take root.

So what can I do to personalise me as a cause and relate it to an effect on the climate? As someone with a keen interest in promoting learning about environmental sustainability I have thought a lot about this problem, and wondered if the idea of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) might help. The SCC is an idea which has been around since the early 2000s, and has been developed as a way to measure the effect on societal well-being of emitting each extra tonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In practical terms that means how each tonne affects the climate so that summers get hotter, wildfires more frequent, freshwater less available, sea levels rising, oceans acidifying, and so on. Of course, working out what these effects are is extremely complicated and prone to all kinds of value judgements about what is or is not important, and as a result the SCC when quoted can vary hugely. It is also affected by discounting rates, the technique economists use to discount the value of something being spent today over a period of time. For example, the 2021 Dasgupta Review [1] reported that published values vary from US $15 to over $100 per tonne, but there are calculations which are significantly higher. Consequently, if you refuse to believe that burning fossil fuels causes climate change then you would ascribe a very low value to the SCC: during the United States’ Trump administration the SCC fell to as low as $1. [2]

So how do I personalise this? I am not an ecological economist so my approach was pretty basic. I looked at my business records and worked out that over the last three years I spent, on average, £1,200 on fuel each year for my 2 litre diesel engine car. During that period diesel fuel typically cost about £1.20 per litre, which means that I bought about 1,000 litres each year. An Internet search reveals that burning 1 litre of diesel fuel produces 2.68 kg of CO2, so my annual car emissions are therefore 2.68 tonnes of CO2 (fortunately the mathematics was easy!)

The total carbon cost for me and my car is therefore between $40 and $268 depending on which SCC I use. So, converting to my own currency and using a value somewhere in the middle (say $200), can I expect my government to send me a bill for £150 every year for the damage I’m doing to the climate? Of course not, and that’s the great thing about neoclassical economics. Dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is seen as an ‘externality’, something which we don’t need to think about in costing.

So in the absence of any perceived personal liability for the climate emergency there is no need for me to try and link cause and effect. No need for me to feel any responsibility.

Until that day when my grandson or granddaughter knock on my door and ask me why they are footing the bill for the mess that me and my generation caused. That is the day when the climate emergency gets personal.

1 Partha Dasgupta, ‘The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review’ (London: HM Treasury, 2021).
2 Robert S. Devine, The Sustainable Economy: The Hidden Costs of Climate Change and the Path to a Prosperous Future (New York: Anchor Books, 2020).

Back to content