As a civilization we're having enormous difficulty coming to grips with climate change in its full dimension and all of its aspects. Part of that is because, while it truly is a global problem, its impacts are not globally uniform and the impetus to deal with it even less so.
The scope of the problem poses its own problems. Science tells us that even best efforts solutions won't really fix the problem for centuries. At three to four generations per century times three to four centuries, you get the idea. What reality is there in the notion of your family sixteen generations hence? Where is the return in making sacrifices today for benefits that won't be reaped for a century or two by people unknowable, unforeseeable?
It isn't easy for us to make the world better for civilization two or three centuries from now. It is, however, very easy to make the world a much worse, tougher and more dangerous place for them.
Much of the argument (no, there is no legitimate debate) over climate change is fundamentally flawed on both sides. That's because the argument is staged in a vacuum. It's a nice little intellectual exercise that is detached from reality.
Global warming is just part, albeit one of the major parts, of a matrix of problems that confront civilization. If we are going to achieve tangible improvements in global warming, they will come from our approach to the entire matrix of our challenges. Fortunately (for both of us) I can rattle off a pretty comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive, list of these troubles.
1. Climate change and the associated impacts of severe weather events of increasing frequency and intensity; sustained and cyclical flooding and droughts and disruption of precipitation patterns vital to agriculture; polar ice loss and sea level rise resulting in coastal retreat, increased storm surge damage and sea water inundation of coastal freshwater resources; heat waves again of increasing frequency and intensity; the loss of biodiversity and species migration, including pests and disease.
2. Consumption challenges associated with increasing populations and per capita ecological footprints leading to overpopulation and population migration; desertification (the exhaustion of arable farmland and its transformation into desert); deforestation; the depletion of non-renewable resources; the exhaustion of renewable resources, especially the freshwater crisis and collapse of global fisheries; plus air, soil and water contamination of all sorts.
3. Security challenges of expanding dimensions including food insecurity, water insecurity, and inequality destabilizing nations and regions; the rise of failed states; religious fundamentalism and terrorism; regional arms races especially in south and east Asia; and nuclear proliferation.
This is the matrix, three tiers of challenges, inter-related to varying degrees and all of them civilizationally based. We pollute too much, we consume too much, we fight too much. This is fueled by the way we, as a species, are ordered - locally, nationally, globally.
We need to get off this carnival ride even as it is increasing in speed. There are solutions but they tend to elicit the self-fulfilling prophetic "over my dead body" responses. If you insist.
The argument is well made by Tim Flannery in "Here on Earth" and others that mankind is at a epochal juncture at which, over the coming generation or two, we will choose a wonderful future for our species and the planet or the potential ruin of our civilization.
We can either decide to constitute our civilization to meet the circumstances that confront us, that we cannot change, or we cling to the modes of organization that have brought us to this point and may lead to our destruction.
As an aside, one of the theories of why, in this vast universe with potentially billions of habitable, earth-like planets, we have not received any visitors holds that civilizations inevitably evolve into instruments of self-destruction. It's an interesting theory and one that should not be lightly dismissed because, even though it is theoretical, it offers guidance into how we might ensure our own intelligent life doesn't self-extinguish.
If you make the focus, the priority of your policy and planning, the development and continuation of the best-possible civilization and subordinate everything else to that then we can handily resolve each and every one of those three-tier challenges listed above. Every one of them. If, however, we elect immediate self-interest as the paramount consideration, then we will, at best, approach these challenges in a haphazard or piecemeal manner in which case we probably will fail to solve any of them.