‘But we can’t afford to change our ways.’

People who say we can’t afford switching to a low-carbon economy almost never consider the cost of not making that transition.     This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite cartoons. (1)

Yes, moving to a low-carbon economy will be difficult, bumpy and entail costs.    Yet by almost any measure it will be far, far more costly to continue blindly on our present course, burning fossil fuels willy-nilly and scrambling the world’s climate for generations to come.

For a different metaphor on costs, seeToo costly?  is fixing your car brakes too costly?

Also, Richard Alley in EOM’s  “How to talk to an ostrich:   “We can’t afford clean energy.”


The “can’t afford it” argument brings to mind yet another analogy.    Riding aboard the Titanic, White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay reportedly kept urging Captain Smith to go faster, declaring:

Bruce Ismay (1862-1937) Chairman of the White Star Line, which built the Titanic.

  “‘We shall beat [sister ship] Olympic‘s time to New York and arrive Tuesday night!’   It would be a terrific publicity coup for the White Star line. . . arriving ahead of schedule. . . in time to make headlines in the Wednesday morning papers.” (2)

Needless to say, the speedy Titantic did make headlines, but of a different sort than Ismay intended.

Subsequent analysis suggests that, if Captain Smith had heeded ice warnings from other ships and slowed down by even a few knots, the Titanic could have turned in time to avoid that iceberg. (3)

And what about us, aboard Planet Titanic?     We’ve been warned repeatedly about the hazards ahead.    Will we “turn in time” to avoid a climate wreck?     Or listen to those who say, “We can’t afford to slow down.   Full steam ahead!”


For more on the Titanic metaphor, see “That iceberg looming just ahead. . . is global warming.”


(1) Kudos to blogger Gillian King at Thisness of a That for connecting this classic ‘toon to the climate debate.

(2) Butler, Daniel Allen.   Unsinkable:  The Full Story of the RMS Titanic.   (Da Capo Press,  1998).  p. 58-59.

(3) Butler 137.


5 thoughts on “‘But we can’t afford to change our ways.’

    1. Tomtest

      Thanks Don, good to see you here! I lapsed for a few weeks while consumed with other matters, but a new contributing author got me fired up again. . .

      As John R. stressed long ago….interaction is the key to motivation.

  1. Eve

    I am not convinced of any upcoming “iceberg” However, the planet may run out of fossil fuels at some point. At last count we have around 300 years left. All countries that have the technology should be using hydro and nuclear. Why then has the US stopped building nuclear plants? Why has Germany closed theirs, building gas plants instead? Why has the US spent 70 Billion since 2004 on climate propoganda and studies. Am I the only one who sees that all “climate” money should be spent on R&D to find new sources or energy?

    1. Tom Smerling Post author

      I have a lot of confidence in our entrepeneurial ability to keep finding and substituting new sources of energy. Look at the current boom in natural gas. The question is “at what price,” both the direct costs and the externalities (e.g. pollution)?.

      New energy industries always need help getting off the ground, because they require major capital investments and until they are brought to scale, they are uneconomical. To help get oil “over that hump,” the U.S. subsidized oil heavily, starting over 100 years ago. Unfortunately, those subsidies are still in place, and now they are hurting us. Nuclear too is heavily subsidized.

      A no-brainer first step — that both libertarians and progressives should be able to agree on — would be to end government subsidies for fossil fuels. In one step we could free up the market, level the playing field for other energy sources, and free up a lot of $ for R & D and infrastructure.

      Something interesting is happening with wind power. Check out.
      http://climatecrocks.com/2012/04/30/new-video-us-wind-energy-at-the-crossroads/. Also, the price of solar is plummeting fast.

      If we are smart, we’ll keep substituting and won’t run out of energy. But we are already “running out of” the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to recycle our waste products, notably CO2 and other GG’s. That’s the near-term limit we’re bumping against.
      Species that deplete or poison their environment usually suffer a population crash. Will be be smarter than that?

    2. John Russell

      You’re dead right, Eve, that resources should be spent on R&D. However 30 years ago, when I was involved in filming fusion research — which most scientists see as likely to be the most fruitful solution to our long-term energy needs — I was told that it would be 50 years before they’d crack the problems. Today they still say success is fifty years away.

      So the problem lies in putting all our eggs in any one basket. The solution to the energy and environmental problems we face is to act seriously on all fronts. We need to reduce fossil fuel consumption through efficiency, reduce emissions by burning less, while substituting with every viable renewable alternative at our disposal. And at the same time we need to use our remarkable inventive capacity to research alternative power sources that do not pollute our planet.

      The worst possible thing we can do it think that ‘business as usual’ is a viable option.

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