From the New Yorker. Nicholas Thompson, on the crossing of the 400 ppm marker, tries to put our civilization's future in perspective, to show the moral collapse that we work so hard to ignore, and the brutal prospects we bequeath to our children and theirs. It's something of a pre-mortem obituary.
We’ve got more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any point since the Pliocene, when there were jungles in northern Canada. And the number hurdles ever upward, as ocean levels rise and extreme weather
becomes routine. Three-fifty was the old target; four-fifty is the new
one. But what indication is there that we’ll stop at five hundred, six
hundred, or even more?
We’ve failed collectively. As Ryan Lizza explained
in miserable detail in 2010, the United States government couldn’t pass
a tepid, eviscerated law. Activists have failed. We’ve all failed
morally: a problem created by the world’s rich will now crush the
world’s poor. In a grand sense it’s also a failure of the creators, and
deniers, of climate change: the Exxon-Mobils, say, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page. A victory isn’t worth much if your children and grandchildren will one day think of you with anger and shame.
How do we get out of this mess? The political system seems hopeless.
Yes, government regulation has done much to relieve us of acid rain and
smog. But global warming combines two intractable problems. Reducing
emissions mainly benefits people who aren’t born and don’t vote. And it
requires international coördination, which is hopeless, and
international law, which is toothless. We should do things like build
more public transportation, which helps people here and now. We should
design our cities for a future with terrible weather. But solving the
problem of climate change through the U.N. is like a small man with
olive oil on his hands trying to pull a whale from the water.
Asking for personal sacrifice is fine for the West. We should ride
bikes, turn off the lights, and eat less meat. But the number of people
in the world who want cars, lights, and meat increases every day—and
most are in countries that did very little to get us to four hundred. We
can ask that China do a little better; there are a million little
things that make emissions lower and our lives better. But the West
created this problem through gluttony; we can’t solve it by demanding
the asceticism of others.
Ultimately, we have to invent our way out. Everything we use that
emits carbon dioxide needs to be replaced with something that doesn’t,
whether a car or a cooking stove.
Many people are working toward this goal. Many more need to. And then
there’s the dangerous, fraught, and potentially essential prospect of
geoengineering. Can we suck carbon dioxide or methane down from the
atmosphere? Can we shoot something up there that reduces the
temperature? Every option is dangerous and complicated. But every option
should be studied and tested. Geoengineering, as Michael Specter wrote last year,
is the scientific equivalent of chemotherapy: it’s dreadful but it may
be the only way to prevent mass calamity. And that calamity becomes ever
more likely as the [greenhouse gas] numbers creep ever higher.