Seeing Double: The Missing Ingredient

Global warming seems to be an unstoppable trend. The United Nations estimates that we now have only 12 years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough to prevent a catastrophic global temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Despite the dire timeline, scientific consensus and widespread awareness, global carbon emissions have continued to rise. So why have these arenas shown such limited success?

Scientists are not to blame. To combat the multitude of factors that cause climate change, scientists have developed an equally broad range of solutions. Carbon taxes, electric vehicles, renewable energy sources and other measures can help to stop climate change, so long as enough people and governments invest sufficient resources in implementing them.

But so far, countries and political parties haven’t done that. Nationalism, regionalism and short-term interests continue to sap countries’ motivation to collaborate on the climate crisis. Russia has refused to cooperate because of geopolitical rivalries, dependency on oil and the possibility that global warming will improve its own climate. Other countries like India have prioritized short-term economic needs because of widespread poverty and a more unstable government. Nationalists in countries like the United States have refused to acknowledge the danger, illustrated most clearly by President Donald Trump’s constant refusal to collaborate to address the issue. Many environmentalists have tried to appeal to these countries’ duties as global citizens, but with little success. Nor is there enough time to wait for more countries to adopt the values of liberals.

With the desperate timeline that climate change presents, we don’t have time to globalize the world. Out of necessity, we must modify our plans to accommodate reality. How, then, could environmentalists inspire this divided and myopic world we live in to take decisive action on climate change? They can do so by tapping into one of the most basic human motivators: competition. The world’s leaders should present environmentalism less as a communal effort and more as a competition, where countries and groups strive to surpass each other in their efforts to stop climate change.

Historically, humanity’s biggest advancements have occurred in times of competition. One need not look farther than the Space Race to see how rivalry can spur individuals and nations to challenge the limits of their abilities, even when the tangible stakes are relatively low. Today, even relatively poor nations spend lavishly when hosting sports events or organizing military parades in an effort to flaunt their country’s greatness. Take Ethiopia, which planted 350 million trees in a single day in July 2019, not as part of a global initiative, but in an attempt to beat the previous record holder, India.

In a hypothetical “Earth Race,” towns and even households could compete via social media to minimize their environmental impact. Wealthy neighbors could compare electric cars, cities could advertise their energy self-sufficiency as a source of local pride and Amherst and Williams could vie for the title of greenest college in Massachusetts. Every person feels some connection to a community, and any effective global movement to stop climate change must tap into that passionate allegiance.

Marketing environmentalism as a competition would also make the enormous investment required to stop global warming appeal to the same groups which now most actively oppose it: right-wing nationalists. Slogans like “We are going to start winning again” and “America first” can be channeled in new directions, turning this rhetorical kerosene into fuel for a new, bipartisan environmental movement. Paradoxically, such a nationalist program would benefit not only the U.S., but also the entire world.

Previous attempts to curb climate change have failed to make much impact in the emerging world. Nations like China and India often see demands that they comply with international quotas as little more than a Western attempt to slow their economic progress. But rebranding climate change as a competition rather than a mandate would provide the chance for a nation to unify itself, prove itself a rising power and compete with the West in an area where the latter may not necessarily have an overwhelming head start. Even historic opponents of the West, such as Russia, might be interested in stopping climate change if it were presented as an opportunity to outperform Russia’s rivals, rather than being forced to imitate them.

One might object by saying that countries and corporations are unlikely to take action based on something as vague and intangible as victory in an environmentalist competition. Yet this competition would not be merely symbolic. When enough countries invest in renewable energy and sustainable consumption, green technology will become an increasingly valuable economic commodity. Corporations might compete to produce the most efficient solar panels, the best carbon sequestration methods or the cheapest artificial meat, because doing so will give them a leading role in the economy of the future. Even if a country refused to get involved in the competition, it could soon become enticed to enter the “Earth Race” because of the tangible benefits of entering the global market.

Competition must not go too far, of course. Scientific and economic collaboration among countries remains essential. Yet collaboration benefits all parties involved, so countries would be incentivized to collaborate for the sake of their own regional pride, as well as global necessity. International organizations like the United Nations and the Nobel Institute could play a crucial role in motivating the competition through establishing new goals and prizes, while ensuring that countries’ desire to outdo each other serves the ultimate purpose of stopping climate change.

A spirit of friendly competition will not solve climate change alone. To be effective, it must combine with effective policies and technological innovations. Still, a competitive framework would help ensure that even landlocked nations invest in preventing the seas from rising, that corporations obey the environmental measures passed by their governments and that even repressive dictatorships throw their full might into the effort. Competition already fuels action in the majority of the world. Perhaps the power source’s origin is imperfect, but it burns hot, clean and most importantly, fast.

Note: readers should consider going to the Climate Strike this Friday, Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. on the First-Year Quad to support the kind of dramatic action needed to combat climate change.