We really are finally taking the climate bull by the horns
If you’re worried and wearied by the tone of climate change soundbites in the GOP primary, or have been worn down by decades of wholesale neglect to make the changes we’ve long known are needed, this recent article by Jonathan Chait will lift your spirits: The Year Humans Got Serious About Climate Change. He acknowledges that “the weight of looming catastrophe (is) so soul-crushing that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds.” Yet for the first time, despair is not the only game in town:
But guess what everyone’s been missing in the middle of their keening for the dear, soon-to-be-departed Earth? There is good news. And not just incremental good news but transformational good news, developments that have the potential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change to a degree many had feared impossible. Those who have consigned the world to its doom should reconsider. The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win.
Chait goes on to look at the recent shifts in China, where coal production and consumption were down in 2014, a trend that appears to be continuing this year, an unexpected turnaround that conservative analyst Derek Scissors calls “an economic and social sea change.” No climate change story can avoid the global elephant in the room that is the American conservative movement’s intransigence on the issue, and Chait does offer up another survey of the embarrassingly wrong-headed pronouncements coming from congresscritters and candidates alike, but he also stresses that the rest of the world is adapting its approach and aiming to put decarbonization policies in place in ways that the US alone can’t derail.
He concludes by pushing back on the black-and-white framing that hobbles both the right and the left on climate:
…(M)isleading metaphors have dominated our thinking about the problem. Is it too late? Have we reached a point of no return? All-or-nothing thinking can be a useful tool for communicating urgency to the public, just as one would communicate the urgency of a war or a clarifying indication of political commitment. But it has also become a trap into which many of us — especially environmentalists — have fallen. In truth, the fight to save the Earth from climate change is not something that will be “won” or “lost.” Climate change is a problem of risk management, albeit on a planetary scope. . . . The predictions of what happens if humanity cooks the planet entail high levels of uncertainty. Scientists guess that failing to control emissions poses about a 10 percent chance of creating a rise in global temperatures that would make human life as we know it unrecognizable. Americans would rightly consider a 10 percent chance of nuclear war unacceptably large. Even if all the Paris talks do is simply eliminate the risk of the all-too-thinkable worst-case scenario, it would constitute a monumental achievement in the history of human civilization, like the development of modern medicine.
This last point echoes a truly exciting idea that Adam Frank recently fleshed out:
Landing on the moon. The development of relativity theory. The discovery of DNA. We rightfully hail these accomplishments as testaments to the creative power of the human imagination. We point to them as the highest achievements of our species, calling them milestones in our collective evolution.
But climate science is no different. It, too, belongs in that short list of epoch making human efforts.
Here’s why: Just two centuries ago, humanity barely understood that a planet’s climate could change at all. People were still digesting the idea that Earth was a whole lot older than 6,000 years. But by the 1870s, most scientists accepted that our planet had experienced prolonged climate shifts — in the form of ice ages — dating back tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Explaining the causes of the ice ages was, however, far beyond the capacities of science at the time. That meant humanity would have to build those capacities.
Across the latter half of the 20th century, an effort worthy of multiple Manhattan Projects unpacked something entirely new and entirely remarkable: a science of planets in all their complex glory. Wind, oceans, ice and rock: All of it had to be accounted for if the story of Earth and its climate was to be told.
Frank goes on to briefly honor several of the key breakthroughs that gradually built to create our just-in-time dawning awareness and understanding of the ways that the planet’s climate system works—including contributions made by studies of other planets, deployment of earth-orbiting observation satellites, and the 1981 paper that introduced the first, rough climate model and showed that it appeared to be tracking the start of a warming trend that correlated to the history of fossil fuel use. Frank’s tale is a refreshingly celebratory angle on the social and political issue of our time.