Physics doesn’t care about your politics (or profits)

Gavin Starks
3 min readApr 28, 2021

Some reflections on climate action based on dozens of meetings I’ve been in recently.

‘Decision-makers’ (who are, believe it or not, just regular humans) ignore systemic and complex risks. I suspect this is a mix of denial anchored in climate grief — on top of our basic desires to have things ‘not change’ so we can try and live a normal life.

I wonder if our collective experience of Covid will enable us to feel that change is more possible, or whether we’ll end up more resistant to change as we try and hold on to a sense of control around ‘what we think we have control over’?

Given our observations of the political swings to ‘take back control’ and then back again to a potentially more equitable sense of governance (in part due to Covid too), I’m really not certain.

However, I do observe in the meetings I’m in:

1. We need material action in 2021.

We need to make COP count this year. There’s still too much rhetoric and not enough materiality. If we mess this up (ie. are not bold enough) then we’ll miss the window, ‘politics’ will declare success and momentum will focus on things people think are solving the problem, but won’t. And waiting until the next COP will be too late.

2. Leadership needs to address cognitive biases

I sit in many senior meetings where I’d say there is a palpable sense that ‘we can do this’ but by the time group think and biases have woven their threads, I have no confidence that the things being discussed will create the material impact that we need. In a recent meeting, I asked the room if anyone could prove that their proposed interventions would lead to Net Zero and, if so, by how much. No.

For example, many financial incentives encourage moving portfolios ‘away’ from fossil fuels and, while this does have a level of impact, there is no ‘away’. Unless we actively invest in demonstrably zero outcomes, we’ll not solve the problem.

3. Physics doesn’t care about politics, business, humans

This is poorly understood. We have a belief in human supremacy that is, simply, wrong. Building on the first two points, we are at risk of politics-based-targets rather than science-based-targets. This is a cognitive bias in our human and social systems of governance.

Climate change has a different scale of impact that our politics and society aren’t really geared for: it’s not something we can patch later.

It’s not like WW2 where it can be ‘over’ after we fight. It’s not like Covid, where we can vaccinate and ‘beat it’ in a few years. It’s more comparable to if we had a global nuclear war — which is seen as absolutely unthinkable (and note, we still have them ready to deploy because of the genuine threat of supremacy). I draw this analogy because, unlike Covid, our climate can destroy all our infrastructure, not just our people.

Am curious — are there psychological learnings we can borrow from MAD (nuclear: mutually assured destruction) that could help us in really driving home the need to act?

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Image used

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840
by Benjamin Robert Haydon
oil on canvas, 1841
NPG 599