It's a curious thing but I think that, as you get older, you become more concerned about what sort of world you're leaving for the future, well after you're gone. You reach a certain age and you realize there's a good chance you'll be around in ten years, a reasonable chance for twenty and just a slim chance you'll be breathing and even vaguely sentient in thirty. It sure does focus the mind.
I guess I worry so much about the post-Mound future in part because my kids seem to worry so little about it. They're at that point where they are caught up in building their lives, trying to put down roots. It's natural to be so absorbed in immediate concerns not to have much left over for future problems. Priorities, priorities.
I would feel worse about my children's complacency if I didn't see the very same thing in a lot of the established middle-aged professionals I've known. An astonishing number of them are oblivious to the mechanics and ramifications of climate change. Some really well educated and accomplished people are content to dodge the discussion altogether, even dismissing it as a hoax. When you explore that with them it very quickly becomes obvious they chose "Option B" without wasting precious time learning anything about it.
Sad really. Today's indifference and complacency is going to exact a high price in just a couple of decades for, when it comes to climate change, the future is being written today and it's being written indelibly.
I'm not saying I have any vision of how the future is going to play out. I don't. There are too many variables, too many extraneous factors that can come into play. If, as it appears, we're headed for runaway global warming then, as Gwynne Dyer notes in Climate Wars, it won't be climate change that does the West in, it'll be war. I've thought that through - for years - and I believe he's very probably right.
I dread the idea of those who follow me having to endure a cataclysmic war, one that would probably reshape civilization, but we seem to have forgotten the enormous destructive power of mankind. If we're going to defuze that conflict, if we're to avert it, now is the time we have to make that happen. Once that window of opportunity closes, it's closed for good. I'm pretty sure that window is still open but I'm not sure it will be in 20-years and, if it is, it will only be because we've accepted the need to make some fairly radical changes in our economies and our societies.
I may sound quite negative, apocalyptic but I'm really not. If you want the apocalyptic take on this read what James Lovelock or James Hansen think about what we're facing. They're the experts on this stuff. Check out Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren or Lovelock's Revenge of Gaia.
It's deeply discouraging to look upon the state of Canadian political leadership today. Harper's a dead loss. Ignatieff isn't much better despite his vaunted intellect. Even Layton's out to lunch. Two inveterate Fossil Fuelers and a goof. Great, perfect. Let's party like it's 1980. There's not one genuinely forward thinker in the lot. Oh they might pay lip service to global warming but not one of them has taken any realistic stand on the great global environmental challenges that are simply not going away no matter how hard these characters ignore them.
We've faced huge challenges before, maybe not of the complexity and magnitude of what confronts us today, but our leaders have risen to the challenge of calamities such as world wars. Even then, however, our leadership failed us. Our leaders failed to grasp the threat that fascism and nazism posed to the world. They ignored a lot, they minimized a lot and they dismissed the rest. From 1933 until 1939 it was always too little, too late - a losing game of catch up.
In today's New Republic, Bradford Plumer sees dark parallels between the Deepwater Horizon debacle and the way we approach global warming:
Climate change poses a similar dilemma. We know it's coming, but there's still a fair bit of uncertainty as to how bad it could really get. And, as Harvard economist Marty Weitzman has argued, policymakers tend to pay too little attention to the low-probability extreme outcomes that global warming could bring about. Case in point: A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there's a roughly 5 percent chance that rising temperatures could render vast regions of the planet—like the eastern United States or most of India—simply uninhabitable. Even if the odds of that are relatively low, that's a gruesome enough prospect that it's worth planning for. And yet most of the policy discussions of climate change tend to involve dry discussions of the median expected costs of global warming compared with the costs of reducing carbon. And, again, few people want to pay upfront costs to prevent problems that are decades away: Politicians keep fretting that families could face small increases on their electricity bills if the United States set up a cap-and-trade system, even though the cost of truly dire warming—say, 5°F or more—would make that electricity price hike look laughably minor.
Meanwhile, with both the oil spill and climate change, there seems to be a lingering sense that technology can come along and save us if things ever get too ominous. Some conservatives point to geoengineering as the great hope for climate—surely if temperatures ever climb too high, our brightest engineers will figure something out. Maybe we can shoot sulfate particles in the air to blot out the sun, or seed plankton in the ocean to mop up any excess carbon-dioxide. And yet, as we've seen with the flailing cleanup efforts in the Gulf, there's not always a technological solution. Nature, once despoiled, can't always be fixed.
... is there any reason to think that a major environmental upheaval would change minds in Congress? Just look at the Gulf. This is a region that only a few years ago was rocked by Katrina, the sort of massive hurricane that global warming could make more likely. And now, even though Louisiana is suffering a major blow to its fishing industry as a result of the spill, its junior senator, David Vitter, has been insisting that even a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling would be far more crippling than the spill itself. (And if Vitter's standing in lockstep with the oil and gas industry in the face of devastation in his own backyard, how likely is it that he'd change his stance if, say, an unprecedented drought hit faraway Africa?)
On global warming, there seems to be an unshakeable faith among many conservatives that things could never possibly get so bad, that the worriers are just being hysterical, that if worst comes to worst, human ingenuity and technological progress will get us out of any jam. And yet the Gulf spill really does suggest that that attitude can be badly misguided, especially when we're dealing with natural forces we don't fully understand.