This will not be a very scientific post, but it is also not a rant. I am trying to understand something: why is there so little large scale planning and discussion about the inevitable and grave consequences of climate change?
There is a surprising amount of optimism to be sensed in the discussions of the Anthropocene and climate change. But is it justified? Can humanity pull it off again and solve a problem right before it becomes devastating? In the past human ingenuity and creativity has helped us avoid disasters. One example is the invention of artificial fertilizers to feed an ever-growing population. Let’s ignore for the moment all the negative consequences, because fertilizers undoubtedly allow us to produce unprecedented amounts of food.
So, can we deal with the massive carbon dioxide emissions that we are producing? Increasing concentrations of this gas are a primary reason for globally rising temperatures. Can we stop this trend by mustering the political will or by using technology to bring down the rate of CO2 emissions? Right now the answer to both questions is a resounding no. In my opinion the political attempts to reduce carbon emissions are too little, too late. Experts are discussing technical solutions which involve capturing carbon, and even suggesting engineering the climate by means of massive manipulations–with equally massive ethical problems. For example, seeding oceans with iron can in theory stimulate algal blooms, which in turn would sequester carbon as they grow. Legal and illegal tests of this idea led to a significant controversy. (See Lynn’s post on this topic.) Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology is available in some developed countries mostly as pilot projects and not anywhere near to being of practical importance.
This offers a bleak outlook on the future. It is thoroughly depressing to read the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Nobel laureates working on the IPCC are providing the public and decision makers with solid scientific assessments of climate change. Among the things we can find in their latest report are predictive models of scenarios accounting for various levels of reduction of CO2, the main gas responsible for heating up the globe. Here is a quote from page 10 of the summary for policymakers:
Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.
These are very clear words and only one conclusion seems possible: some change and largely negative consequences are already completely inevitable. Period. And the timeline is also important. This is happening now and will likely get worse over the next few years. We can probably influence precisely how bad things are going to be, but it will be bad.
Now I know that many individual institutions are planning ahead in some way. A US Navy website features (in addition to the Kid’s corner) a tab on Climate Change which reports on the activities of a Task Force on climate change that was started in May of 2009. Obviously rising sea levels are a real concern for the Navy. The city of Miami has issued a plan that addresses the same issue (Climate Change Action Plan – Miami-Dade County). Losing the current coastline to sea-level changes will have devastating consequences for that area and will likely become a test case for how large, prosperous communities respond to climate change.
But this leads me back to my initial question: given the dimension of the problem, which means that practically everybody will be affected, shouldn’t there be a nationwide effort to respond? Shouldn’t there be more coordination among isolated groups that are trying to tackle issues locally? Does the absence of these reflect a form of mass self delusion? Or is the problem just too massive? It seems that an adequate, rational approach to what we know about climate change would involve our whole society. The fact that we don’t seem to be able to organize a response equal to the challenge might show us something about our society that is very hard to face.