Let’s say human beings figure out how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and derive the energy we need from renewable sources like the sun, wind, hydro, geothermal and waves out on the ocean. After we solve global warming, what comes next? Do we all breath a sigh of relief and go back to watching re-runs of Friends on cable?
No, says William Gail, the former president of the American Meteorological Society and co-founder of Global Weather Corp. in Boulder, Colo. In a new book, Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us, Gail suggests that the damage is already done and the consequences inevitable. That’s because the CO2 we have put into the atmosphere already will stay there for almost 100 years, warming things up another 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. Now matter how many US Senators bring snowballs into the Senate chamber to scoff at global warming, the only thing left to talk about is how to manage the damage that’s already been done.
We Were Warned
Gail says this is not the first time in history that mankind has created circumstances that could lead to the end of civilization. The first was the threat of nuclear annihilation following the end of World War II. We tamed that threat through “a fragile reliance on individual and institutional restraint,” says Gail. How fragile? Mutually Assured Destruction was the best we could come up with. And it worked, but it was a very close thing.
Then the threat of world wide famine caused by a sharp rise in global population was contained by applying technological solutions to boost harvests of staple crops. Better fertilizers and pesticides — derived from petroleum — were able to solve that problem, or at least delay its impact.
Finally, certain gasses were found to be eradicating the Earth’s protective ozone layer. The world’s nations were able to construct international treaties that required industry to shift to less pernicious compounds and the hole in the ozone layer was able to heal itself.
Have We Learned Anything?
Gail says the lesson we learned from these three challenges taught us the wrong lesson — that diplomacy or technology or self-restraint will always save us. “It won’t happen with climate change,” Gail writes. “The risk of global warming was first recognized many decades after industrialization committed us to a vast carbon-based energy infrastructure. Our opportunity for simple solutions was then, not now.”
Indeed the risk was known as early as 1957 when Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of America’s nuclear navy, made a portentous speech:
Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen – that everything turns out right in the end. But, prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity. I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendents – those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age.
Gail states his main thesis succinctly. “Antibiotic obsolescence may be the next. We will find that traditional tools for overcoming our problems — political, economic, social, engineering and more — seem to fail us. Critical decisions will be profoundly uncomfortable, such as weighing our financial welfare against our children’s, or one nation against another.”
“Benefits of action, and costs of inaction, could appear hopelessly ill-defined. Resignation to a known threat might seem a more reliable course than action involving sacrifices. There could be just one opportunity to succeed. We have encountered all this with global warming.” And, he might add, our institutions have failed miserably to deal effectively with the challenge of global warming. What does that say about our ability to successfully meet new challenges in the future?
Drought and access to clean water are already major issues that affect large swathes of the world’s population. Drought in Australia earlier this century led to a dramatic rise in food prices. Food shortages and hunger are blamed for some of the current uprisings in the Middle East. Drought in California may well lead to substantial increases in the price of fruits and vegetables that usually grow in that state’s lush Central Valley. What impact will those increases have on American society?
The Road Ahead
The road ahead for humanity will be fraught with difficult challenges. We cannot sit back and assume technology will swoop in at the last possible moment to save us again. “We must find new means to anticipate them, become adept at making wise decisions despite unknowns and ensure rapid action spanning political boundaries. None of this will be easy. We must begin facing up to poorly recognized aspects of society’s global-scale future — or risk being unprepared as each new problem arises.”
Gail is not a pessimist. He is a realist. The only question is, who will listen to his message? Our political leaders seem oblivious to the danger, having been bought and paid for by powerful and wealthy patrons who favor the status quo. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is a prime example. He believes his most important contribution to the future is stripping the EPA of its power to regulate CO2 emissions so his buddies in the coal industry can continue spewing their poisons into the atmosphere as usual.
Why do we end up with such intellectual midgets as our leaders? Part of the answer lies with the internet. When global connectivity first came about, many believed the internet would promote the free exchange of ideas among all people. Finally, people would be able to make decisions based upon the most reliable and best information available.
But quite the opposite has happened. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Where once we relied on trusted news sources like John Cameron Swayze and Walter Cronkite, now we can choose to get our information solely from sources that reinforce our beliefs and biases.
Many years ago, Dudley Field Malone, an American politician, made this observation: “I have never in my life learned anything from [a person] who agreed with me.” Since the internet allows us to pay attention only to those who agree with us and ignore the rest, what does that say about our ability to make the intelligent decisions demanded by the challenges of today and the future?
What Can You Do?
Clearly, people of good conscience will have to push, and push hard, for enduring and reasonable solutions. As voters, we must take responsibility for the choices we make at the polls. We must refuse to slavishly elect the candidate with the slickest ads or the one who spends the most money to get elected. After all, the old adage is just as true today as it was in generations past: “If the people will lead, their leaders will follow.”
We are the people. We can decide what is in our own best interests and that of our children. There’s much to do. Let’s get started.