In This Review
Climate change is often described as a “wicked problem,” meaning that it resists easy definition and defies conventional solutions. It transcends political boundaries and cannot be solved by a single country, but international governance is a weak substitute. It is a collective-action problem that demands a collective solution, but it has instead led to a great deal of finger-pointing. Its effects—rising seas, intense storms, desertification, and so on—are felt most acutely in developing countries, far away from the industrialized nations that are most responsible for the problem. And government attempts to address such negative externalities (as economists call these nonmonetized costs for third parties) by forcing producers to shoulder the burden caused by their carbon emissions have fallen flat. In short, humanity uses the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for pollutants, and deeply vested interests resist changing that.
Climate change also confounds customary human timescales. The worst effects of today’s emissions won’t be felt for generations, which makes morally unsustainable behavior easier to rationalize. And the harm done by humans induces natural systems to compound their sins: the rising temperatures are melting the Arctic’s permafrost, which in turn unleashes further monstrous quantities of carbon
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