The projected economic cost of moving to a low carbon economy lies between 1% and 4% of global GDP. Assuming a global growth rate of about 2%, that would translate into a delay in global development of between six months and two years over the next few decades. That’s not a high price for saving the planet. So why do we need yet another UN Conference on climate change? And why does it seem likely that the Paris conference will allow more fossil fuel extraction that will push temperatures through the 2-degree limit we promised we wouldn’t exceed?

The answer, I think, is that our turbo-charged monkey brains are wired up in ways that make it easy to see shooting neighbours as a vicious act, but much harder to understand that burning fossil carbon and the patterns of international trade and social exclusion these carbon-burning activities engender are not only vicious, but potentially catastrophic.

Hold that thought; here comes another.

A few weeks ago Tony Blair admitted that destroying the Iraq regime was partly responsible for the rise of ISIS. Mr Blair, apparently, was not expecting this and neither, it seems is Mr David Cameron who is currently bombing Syria in the expectation that further instability will make Europe safer. I therefore propose an anthropological law, which I name in their honour:

  1. When institutions collapse, they create power-vacuums that quickly fill with something nasty and unexpected.

If the First Blair-Cameron Law is true, then our carbon-reducing efforts must be managed in a way that prevents a chain reaction of institutional collapse. So let’s think a while about the ecology of institutions.

Institutions use a mix of coercion, reward, propaganda and repression to protect themselves from criticism and reform. This is true of all institutions - big or small; religious or secular, so we can formulate a second Blair-Cameron Law:

  1. Institutions punish people who suggest they are behaving irresponsibly.

Smart economists and technocrats understand Blair-Cameron II and negotiate symbiotic relationships with their institutional sponsors that work very well right up to the tipping-point. Institutions come close to collapse, Blair-Cameron I kicks in and the nasty surprises start happening.

In the early years of the 21st century, for example, borrowing levels were clearly too high and the unregulated trade in financial services was quite unsustainable. Unfortunately, conventional economic models had stabilising assumptions built in to them that prevented them exploring the possibility of institutional collapse. Most economic advisors were predicting more or less stable trends. Whoops!

After the crash, policy makers began to think the unthinkable and there were demands for scientific modelling tools that could provide an early warning of catastrophic system-crashes. I have the honour of co-ordinating an international research consortium called COMPLEX that is developing models of rapid systemic change. One of our research groups has been building computer models of institutional receptivity and using these to explore policy options.

By the time our work was underway, two political factions had emerged. The austerity faction thought large financial institutions would collapse if we didn’t nationalise their debts. They advised governments to increase borrowing, and central banks to print money to pay off international creditors. They expected prices to fall and markets to adjust spontaneously. The alternative, ‘Keynesian’ faction believed financial institutions should carry a much greater share of the losses they had incurred. They too wanted banks to print money, but thought it should be used to stimulate commercial and economic development.

The austerity faction won out, but employers (also key institutional actors) refused to make big price cuts and chose instead to make redundancies. Large institutions rallied, but small ones, particularly in the south of Europe, started collapsing in a way that created a ripple of bad outcomes.

My modelling colleagues suggest that the Keynesian approach should not have been neglected. The study, published in Nature (Geoscience) suggests that some institutional conflicts of interest could have been resolved by focussing strategic investment on low-carbon alternatives to conventional economic activities. They advocate a “Green Marshall Plan for Europe” comparable to the strategic investment that lifted us out of the doldrums at the end of World War II. The Green Marshall Plan would help rebuild confidence in the political process, generate employment, enhance social cohesion, heal the political tensions between north and south in Europe and facilitate the transition to a low carbon economy.

The Green Marshall Plan wouldn’t solve the problem of international terrorism, of course - that one is going to take years of patient diplomacy to unpick. However it might ease some of the economic problems we currently face, take some of the pressure of planetary life-support systems, give people who are currently unemployed the dignity of a worthwhile job and provide delegates at the Paris conference with an incentive to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Background info

Original Paper: 'Commentary: Free-riders to forerunners' Nature Geoscience.

The DOI for this paper will be 10.1038/ngeo2593.

Nick Winder is an applied anthropologist who works at Newcastle University (UK) and the Sigtuna Foundation (Sweden). He specialises in the study of human / environment interaction and the management of cultural and natural life-support systems. Nick co-ordinates the COMPLEX project on pathways to a low-carbon economy.