The Last Word



By Sam Gutterman

The phrase “my way or the highway” epitomizes an inflexible mindset, dismissing alternative perspectives and options. But life is full of trade-offs, where conflicting objectives require tough decisions amid much uncertainty and misinformation.

Climate change serves as a stark illustration of these trade-offs. Weekly news cycles are dominated by reports of escalating environmental crises—another air or ocean heat record, a new flood, drought, wildfire, or infectious disease spread. Each event prompts discussions on climate change’s role, underscoring the urgency of action.

We are inching our way to a climate emergency. The crisis needs to be addressed head-on, rather than being kicked down the road until next year’s budget.

Nations grapple with crucial questions: how to allocate resources to mitigate risks, who will pay, and what sacrifices are necessary. Despite some skepticism, no country has sufficiently reduced greenhouse gas emissions to prevent inevitable damages.

Managing climate risk entails navigating various trade-offs:

  • Investment choices. There are many demands for our resources. But climate risk management needs to be given a high priority, even when its returns aren’t immediately obvious.
  • Mitigation and adaptation. Combining emissions reduction with adaptation efforts is crucial for addressing both immediate and long-term impacts.
  • Financial responsibility. Should climate change mitigation efforts be financed by those responsible for the problem or who suffer the consequences? Those affected have the most at stake and will give it a higher priority. But they may not have the needed resources.
  • Balancing costs and benefits. Why should I sacrifice while others don’t? I’m not vulnerable … why should I care? But ignoring the needs of the vulnerable is short-sighted, as those with more resources may pay even more later.
  • Time considerations. A significant trade-off is the value given to time—short-term cost compared with a long-term gain. One should apply discount rates and consider future generations.
  • Uncertainties. The future is far from settled. Loss prevention and effective technologies are needed. Also, beware of tail events!
  • Externalities and social value. My sacrifice or decarbonization action may do little to mitigate climate change compared to billions of cars and tons of greenhouse gas emissions—but if we only take a personal view, no progress will be made.

Once policy debates look at the world through the lens of trade-offs, they may become less about “me versus them” and more a matter of give and take, and how to reach the best possible solution for all stakeholders. These debates can then be based on facts, rather than misinformation and politicized views. Examining alternative scenarios and giving “solutions” appropriate weights together, everyone will do what they can and trust that others will do likewise.

Voters might be swayed if they understand the underlying issues, consequences, and trade-offs. Many will need to be convinced; after all, an energy transition will involve inconvenience and pain. But even if climate change is not a high personal risk, eventually the damage will affect us all. 

Switching to renewables may incur costs and societal shifts. Populist politicians might try to win votes by pushing back against green policy by exaggerating the costs, minimizing the benefits, and painting green politicians as out-of-touch urban elites who want to force everyone to cycle to work and turn vegan.

We need to craft practical, innovative, and attractive policies. Although I would allocate a high percentage of our budgets for mitigation and adaptation, that will not happen—the trade-offs we make individually and as a collective will determine our future climate and weather. To be sure, there are certain issues for which making trade-offs does not work. If an issue is existential, compromise is off the table. Striving for a “win-win” is ideal but not always feasible. However, when there are multiple sets of objectives or stakeholder priorities, trade-offs need to be considered. Life is a continuum of choices, taking action amid complexity.

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