The Frog in the Pot: the winning of big friends to scoop 
us out of climate peril

January 20, 2023 |

Winston Churchill once observed that you can rely of the United States to do the right thing, after all the alternatives have been exhausted. We are at this Churchillian moment on climate action, Americans (and others) will ultimately do what is necessary to safeguard the climate conditions that advantage our liberal, capitalist society, but we are taking a long time getting there, and we’re scavenging through the alternatives.

We have gone through the cycle of denial that greenhouse gases are building up, and the cycle of denial that the structure of our human economy is causing it. We are currently going through the cycle of denial that solutions are sustainable, affordable, reliable or available. 

In short, because the water is not actually boiling, rather it is uncomfortably warm and getting warmer, the frog has not summoned the will to jump out of the pot regardless of the consequences, because we are not sure we are not jumping into the fire below the pot.

The Problem of 70 percent for, 70 percent against

So we go on, 70 percent demanding action on climate change, 70 percent demanding that action on climate change pay for itself.

As Churchill elsewhere observed, we are “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful for impotency”. We simply cannot make up our minds, and part of that comes down not to a debate about  the consequences of climate change, but who will win and who will lose once climate change comes, not in the court of public opinion, but in the court of dollars.

The When and Why of Action

It’s not hard to figure when the nation will take action, because the script for the turnaround is well explained in The Big Short, the film about the Wall Street crash of 2008.

Deeb Winston, Goldman Sachs. Listen, I’ve been reviewing your position. I wanted to discuss your marks, make sure they’re fair.

I think you mean you’ve secured a net short position yourselves so you’re free to mark my swaps accurately for once. Because it’s now in your interest to do so.

Which is to suggest that the problem with the United States position on climate change is that the US has not figured out how to reward the usual suspects for doing anything about it.

If the Fortune 500 could make another fortune on climate change mitigation, we’d be mitigating fast — that’s not bitterness or cynicism, it’s just the way things work, and the sooner we stop expecting for the climate change revolution to be accomplished by the singing of Kumbaya and out-with-the-multinationals-the-Peace-Corps-is-here magical thinking, the better off we’ll be. Enriching the guys with their hands on the switch is a sure-fire way to get national action without the national blow-back. 

Sometimes, the greater good involves the enriching of idiots, as I think I said when praising the potential and development of blockchain technology.

Motivating Androcles

Because the solution for the frog in the pot is not to summon up the means to jump out, it is summoning up the assistance of a nearby person who can simply scoop you out. That person, far larger than the frog, has the means of assistance and needs no superhuman strength to achieve the frog’s desire. But you have to think about how to engage their support. 

Which is to say, the assets of large companies are not going away, the people that run large companies and their habits of mind are not going away, so why not just figure out ways for enrich them, and they’ll be glad to pull us out of the pot. 

I think Aesop told a fable or two along these lines — Androcles and the Lion comes to mind — that engaging someone’s altruism is less reliable and quick than engaging someone’s self-interest. So, stop shaming companies or expecting altruism, and engage their self-interest. If they are greenwashing, it is because we have made them afraid about the future. That’s on us, not them.

Does anyone really care whether Florida Power & Light or ExxonMobil owns the future? The companies care, the shareholders; no one else really. Asking for the solution to climate change be accompanied by a complete reshuffle of the hierarchy of great companies is to ensure that great companies will sit on the sidelines, hoping the problem goes away, investing their billions in business-as-usual instead of taking bold leaps towards the future.

About that Apollo moonshot

Yes, the United States put a man on the Moon with the celebrated Apollo program, But how fast would mankind have made it to the Moon if they had been required the plant the flag of, say, Burundi, on the lunar surface? Nothing against the find people of Burundi, but it’s a fair question.

It is self-evident to many that the battling of climate change comes bathed in economic opportunity for those who successfully navigate, to use a metaphor, the crossing of the river from Now to Then. Capital is on the sidelines because it fears a drowning, not a drowning of the many, but of the self, very few have the altruism for self-sacrifice and almost none of the gravitate to Wall Street or Main Street.

So let us not only create technologies, supply-chains and financing structures. Let us make a path for capital to come in off the sidelines and get into the game.

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