Tuesday, January 06, 2009

No Pause in the Climate Crisis

We've got big economic challenges, and a massive amount of Bushite damage to fix. We need universal health care, state governments are going broke, schools are crashing. Everything is a priority.

So the Climate Crisis, which isn't obviously affecting a lot of people (though in fact it is winnowing away at the life support of all of us) and which doesn't do its apparent worst for decades, doesn't seem like it should be high on the To Do list.

But the Climate Crisis doesn't pause for holidays, ceremonies or even an entire list of other crises. In fact, what's happening in the Arctic and Antarctic is really scaring scientists. Most indications are that global heating is happening faster and is likely to end up being worse sooner than the scientific consensus just a year or two ago.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is aware of this, and there is pent-up public interest and support for paying attention to the Climate Crisis, as well as a lot of scientific and public policy ideas and organizations out there ready to go.

That also means that the meaningful debates are just beginning. What are the best policies, and at what level are they best applied? Do we concentrate on carbon--what about methane? Cap and trade, or some kind of carbon tax? And so on.

It gets technical, and the technicalities are important. It's going to take individuals and families and communities doing relatively small stuff, along with bigger regional, national and global efforts. It's going to take simple conservation measures, and startling innovations. Some of it is going to sound harder than it will turn out to be, and vice versa.

We can expect some positive action soon. There will probably be money in Obama's economic recovery package to jump-start green energy and energy conservation measures. An end to official Climate Crisis denial will unleash scientific and diplomatic efforts to confront the issues. I believe moves to a clean energy economy will be popular--so much so that it will surprise a lot of people. But reasonable proposals like the kind of carbon tax James Hansen supports probably won't get anywhere for at least a few years.

So in the near future, we're probably going to move in the right direction along a number of promising paths at varying speeds. The Climate Crisis will be taken seriously. The question remains how soon its effects in the present will be large enough to require attention, and whether we will acknowledge these phenomena (floods, droughts, epidemics, etc.) as effects of global heating. Then we will face the need to distinguish between cause and effects, acknowledge both and resist the (political) urge to choose action on one and not the other.

It's a good thing that the Climate Crisis will soon become part of the normal mix of public concerns. Because in future decades, it's pretty inevitable that the Climate Crisis will become the major public concern.

Worldchanging has a story on the 2009 Edge Question of the Year: "What Will Change Everything?" And, more specifically, "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" (The Edge is an online forum run by the not-so-late John Brockman. (That's an almost private joke.)) A couple of participants said it was the Climate Crisis. I'm not sure I agree with that their reasons are definitive: I'm more of the Bruce Sterling school, who thinks it simply will dominate what people will be doing and coping with, and what science will be grappling with--what, in fact, everyone will be grappling with, when coastal cities face flooding, all kinds of public emergencies and public infrastructure are constant issues, and climate has made life more difficult and even unlivable in some places. And all of that will inevitably affect how we feel and see the world, personally and culturally. It will affect everything, including philosophy, the arts and religion.

In other words, I think getting overwrought about problems like genetic engineering of human beings, etc. is wasted energy (although they are interesting to think about.) Most of the world's economy is more likely to be devoted to dealing with the Climate Crisis, and there's not going to be a lot in the way of excesses resources even for the very privileged.

I don't expect I'll be around to see much of this (although you never know), but some folks now alive probably will. Because the Climate Crisis is not waiting for us to fix it. We know that it's inevitably going to get worse--we just don't know precisely how and when. Our task is to not make it even worse than that, and prevent if we can the truly catastrophic, civilization-ending effects in the farther future, with even more life species lost forever. Our task will also be to recognize and deal with its effects, without giving into the temptation to let up on attacking its causes.

Starting now.

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