Facing the Climate Crisis Without Hysteria
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability," was released last week to the usual fanfare, hype and alarm. The New York Times headline summarized the report by stating, "the worst is yet to come".
According to the Times' Justin Gillis:
The report attempts to project how the effects will alter human society in coming decades. While the impact of global warming may actually be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace, the report said. It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations...The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly.
What the media reports fail to mention is that deliberately slowing down the rate of economic growth to avert climate change could have similar, if not greater, negative health, displacement and other violent impacts. Unlike the media summaries, the IPCC report acknowledges the complexity of the threats posed by climate change, along with many other factors. For example, the IPCC's "Summary for Policy Makers" states that:
Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large...This motivates exploration of a wide range of socioeconomic futures in assessments of risks. Understanding future vulnerability of exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts. International dimensions such as trade and relations among states are also important for understanding the risks of climate change at regional scales.
I know that both the global academic community and the science media find it frustrating that the facts of climate change are still subject to question. The ongoing attacks on proven science are beyond absurd. Paradoxically, these attacks tend to cause us to overemphasize climate change, since it is only one of many environmental stresses pressuring the planet. Ecological damage, toxic releases of all kinds and every manner of sustainability mismanagement is damaging the planet. I think the questioning of science by the American right wing and the political assaults funded by their rich benefactors are proving to be a distraction to those interested in moving the planet to a path of sustainable economic growth. It is turning analysts into advocates and advocates into hysterics. The IPCC report focused a great deal of attention on solutions, but the media accounts of the report focused on the possibility of food shortages. Here we go again: Chicken Little's sky is falling in. Climate and ecological impacts are creating deep problems in agriculture. While there is no question that these are real problems, as in the past these will likely be addressed by new technologies and new techniques that will overcome the problems we now face.
The glass is either half empty or half full. I choose to believe it is half full. The history of the technological age we are in is that technology both creates unforeseen problems and then sets about solving them. My bet is on human ingenuity. Maybe the U.S. federal government was not capable of building a website to handle the traffic generated by the Obamacare deadline, but Amazon's website copes pretty well with the massive traffic it generates in the days before Christmas. Maybe we can't stop the sea waters from rising, but we can place our utility rooms on the second floor instead of the basement. As for agriculture and the food supply, it is always a bad idea to bet against the technology of food production.
I suspect we will survive, because we are not suicidal. Decades ago, Robert Heilbroner asked the profound and slightly cynical question, "What has posterity ever done for me?" Heilbroner admitted that rational economic thought does not lead to a concern for the future; nevertheless, he maintained that he was:
...hopeful that in the end a survivalist ethic will come to the fore--not from the reading of a few books or the passing twinge of a pious lecture, but from an experience that will bring home to us... the personal responsibility that defies all the homicidal promptings of reasonable calculation. Moreover, I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war, and the threatened life-carrying capacity of the globe, may be given just such an experience. It is a glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I must rest my ultimate faith on the discovery by these future generations, as the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them. (Robert Heibroner, 1974, Postscript to An Inquiry into the Human Prospect)
In my view, the problem we face is more subtle and even more profound. What impact will environmental damage have on the quality of our lives? What kind of world will our children inherit? Will we learn to care about the future and the quality of life that our children will be able to experience? What if our summer by the sea shore no longer involves sitting by a real beach and instead we sit by an indoor ocean with simulated sea breezes and fake sunlight? What if we can no longer ski down a mountain but instead simulate skiing on an elliptical ski machine surrounded by virtual skiing conditions? How far down the road to an all-technological world have we travelled and how far do we want to go? Think about the holographic recreational facilities on the science fiction spacecraft in Star Trek. What if that was all we had left and, in our carelessness, had destroyed our home planet?
The issue we face is not our survival, but our willingness to accept the final triumph of technology at the expense of the planet we are biologically and emotionally connected to. Currently, we do not have the technology to supplant nature. For that reason, and possibly others, the IPCC's projections do not consider the possibility that natural systems could be replaced by artificial ones. But what if we could supplant nature? Would we want to? How do we balance the needs of the planet's systems against human needs and do we have an ethical responsibility to balance them?
Because we do not have the technology to survive without functioning ecosystems, we need to manage the planet and its resources in order to survive. The ethical issue need not arise because we are still too technologically primitive to face it. I believe that we will learn to do a better job of understanding the planet's conditions and we will learn to sustainably manage economic growth on renewable resources. I confess that I do not base this conclusion on an analysis or even a projection, but on a gut feeling. That gut feeling is not unreasoned; it is founded on technological history and Heilbroner's read of human society.
But predicting the future is a dangerous business. It doesn't matter if the IPCC relied on "A total of 309 coordinating lead authors, lead authors, and review editors, drawn from 70 countries... [with] the help of 436 contributing authors, and a total of 1,729 expert and government reviewers." The IPCC is an impressive collection of the world's experts, and their analysis of the climate crisis is the very definition of a world class piece of scholarship. However, a close read of their report indicates that they are providing a warning, not a prediction. They know they cannot predict the future. No one can.
Photo Credit: Climate Change Rationality/shutterstock
Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is also Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Director of the
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