Back in the day, addressing Climate Change on a scale and time frame that will matter was possible. We might have been able to keep carbon emission to a 1.5C above pre-industrial rates. Now? Not so much. What when wrong? Will our paralysis continue?
This coming week, The New York Times Magazine will devote an entire publication of the Sunday magazine to the issue of climate change. The single-themed edition called "Losing Earth," will look at scientific discoveries and decisions made on climate change from 1979 to 1989 through the story of a former NASA scientist. Nathaniel Rich, who authored the edition, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more. (July 29, 2018) [more on in our area]
Though heartbreaking, Wednesday’s New York Times article “” offers a ghoulish hope that a reflection on our past failures to address Climate Change might, as a drunkard bottomed out, redeem ourselves by changing course immediately. Instead of allowing our past dismal behavior towards our environment, our inclination to preoccupy ourselves in the present, and our inconsistency in the face of long-term problems to keep us paralyzed, we can change. Clearly, we haven’t yet:
“More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it. In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. By 2017, the figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons, a record. Despite every action taken since the Charney report — the billions of dollars invested in research, the nonbinding treaties, the investments in renewable energy — the only number that counts, the total quantity of global greenhouse gas emitted per year, has continued its inexorable rise.” ( August 1, The New York Times)
We won’t have the world we could have had if we had acted sooner. But scientists tell us still that we shouldn’t abandon hope.
We will adapt to Climate Change because we must. Survival, unless overridden by our will, is hard-wired into our species (all species for that matter or there wouldn’t be any species). However horribly and relentlessly the flames from a wildfire come licking towards us, most of us will try to escape.
I found “Losing Earth” one of the most profound articles on Climate Change I’ve ever read. It reveals how the political side of our nature might do us in completely if we don’t somehow get it under control. That is, we must somehow shape our collective will towards solutions for the long-term problem of Climate Change, so our survival is not thwarted anywhere along this existential plight.
Some will many of the players who fought against doing something significant about Climate Change from 1979 to 1989. But there is a larger point to be made. Such condemnation will not do the rest of us much good as we race for answers. Blame is a matter best left to the courts. We are now near a baseline of 410ppm of CO2 that will continue to rise unless we change. (About 280ppm of CO2 was the baseline just before the Industrial Revolution and about 10,000 years before that.)
Humanity could have done better. We’ve been treating our environment, our life support system so badly for so long that taking it for granted is what we do—despite the centuries of warnings (pollution, killing off entire species, destroying land and water). We are disinclined to monitor the health of our environment regularly no matter what we do to it.
As we go further into the Climate Change Bottleneck, where our past environmental abuses get cooked on a warming planet, there are solutions that will no longer be possible, consequences that are inevitable, and losses that will have to be cut. There are some coastline cities and regions we won’t be able to prevent from flooding. Some of the consequences will be environmental restrictions that will come down hard on those predisposed to fight all attempts to curb their behavior. There will be loss of species that, even if stored in a zoo, will not have an ecosystem to return to. A quickly warming planet choked with pollution offers far less than an environment robust and resilient from constant care.
As Earth’s air, land, and seas heat up more, our attempt to survive will trump our ideology. We will learn to live with limitations never thought possible.
“Losing Earth” reminds us that climate denial is not new, nor is it soon to be eradicated because it offers those whose worldview doesn’t mirror reality the fantasy of short-term benefits.
Sometime soon, maybe now, many will be asking for more time, a larger carbon budget perhaps in which to rid ourselves of unsustainable behaviors. But we may have squandered what we had, and ours will be a much hotter, more uncomfortable world, regardless of what we do.
Perhaps our best hope is a nurturing of our best inclinations, while being mindful of our worst.