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Is it too late? Perspectives on taking action about climate change December 26, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Sustainable Thinking, Uncategorized.
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I had a conversation with one of my cousins a few weeks ago that triggered a series of thoughts about differences in how we see climate change. I had assumed that most people were in one of three groups: ignorant of the climate change, in the camp of “climate change deniers” or were convinced that we must do something about slowing or stopping global warming. As the struggle between deniers and global warming believers has been at the forefront of debates, more nuanced and realistic views of climate change and what we can do have not gotten the play that they deserve. As we come to accept that climate change is a reality, we will begin to see the full range of choices available to us as individuals and as societies.

In our recent conversation, my cousin, who is environmentally conscious and scientifically literate, expressed the idea that, though he would do what he could, he felt as though it was “too late” to do anything major about climate change, that we are only now feeling the effects of carbon emissions from 20, 30 even 100 years ago. Scientists who estimate that greenhouse gas emissions have an exceedingly long “half-life” once in the atmosphere substantiate this view.

It occurred to me that all of us have different ideas about what climate change will mean to us and that the actions that we are willing to take will stem in part from our ideas about climate change. While, in the future, scientists may develop an extremely explicit and highly predictive model of how our climate will change, currently there are large areas of uncertainty about what will definitely happen and how much we can do now to avert which consequences. for the time being, our imaginations play some role in shaping how we think about what to do and what we can do. The dimensions of the problem seem to be related to how each of us answers the following questions:

1. Is it too late FOR WHAT?

2. How does the future look to me?

3. What role do I WANT to play in the future?

4. What role am I ABLE to play in shaping the future?

1. Too Late for WHAT?

Is it not too late to preserve the earth’s climate as it is now or has been over the last millennium? From my understanding of trends in the climate and in GHG emissions, I think so but some people may feel as though action is only worth taking if we can “keep it all”. Therefore action-taking is reserved only for what now looks like a utopian outcome: keeping all of what we have now.

Is it not too late to preserve the outlines of our currently climate system and climate zones only a few degrees warmer as well as the approximate levels of our seas and coastal outlines? I don’t know. Some scientists will say that it is still possible others will say that this is highly unlikely. I personally act “as if” this were the case, even though I am not certain that this will be the outcome of even radical changes on the part of how humans emit carbon and other GHGs.

Is it not too late to preserve a livable but much warmer earth of any description? Probably human populations in perhaps reduced numbers will survive in some form on a radically warmer earth. If you are strongly convinced that this is the outcome, you will probably prepare more for personal and familial survival than for action on reducing global warming. Still, there may still be an earth that is too warm even for climate survivalists.

2. How does the future look to me?

This is, in part, the old “glass half-empty” “glass half-full” situation: how optimistic are you? Usually people who are optimistic are more likely to take action to try to improve a situation but there is a difference with climate change. If you are very optimistic, you might be less inclined to even register the importance of the problem…you may be looking at only those aspects of the world which support your optimism rather than a fairly grim problem like climate change. Some climate change deniers seem to me to be either natural inveterate optimists or those who believe in a gospel of optimism…i.e. that it is a moral imperative to be optimistic. On the other hand if you are very pessimistic you may become depressed or at least inactivate yourself as there will be no point in taking action. In all probability some moderate optimism with a dose of pessimism is required to sustain interest in and focus on issues of climate change.

There is also a difference in types of optimism: Some people are optimistic about what can come to them in opposition to what they see around them. Those who feel optimistic about their own chances as opposed to those of the population as a whole are more likely to take a survivalist approach to climate change, while those whose focus is on society and the world in general will take more of a activist approach to trying to stop climate change.

3. 3. What role do I WANT to play in the future?

Some people want to be activists and doing things for the greater good while others want to take a more private role. Those who are more into activism and doing things for the world in general are going to be more likely to take action for the greater good. Those who wish to play a private role may be willing to be led and may make some positive consumer and electoral choices. Still others will be purely “apathetic” about climate change and will only do something when there are no other choices.

4. 4. What role CAN I play in the future?

Opportunity and circumstances will both expand and narrow choices that are actually available at a given time to any one person. There is a multiplicity of potential roles and activities in both public and private life that will effect how we individually and collectively deal with climate change.

Some individual and societal choices will be very difficult and it will be necessary for governments and private groups and corporations to provide support for positive decisions and reduce the number of potentially harmful choices available to people. For instance, the California Solar Initiative is just one step on the way to helping support action in concrete ways. What to do about mobility and automobility are areas where, at least in the United States, there are huge differences among different activist and industry research groups and concrete future-looking choices have not yet been put yet before either the consumer or the voter. The extent of government’s role is still controversial and will be hotly debated by both advocates of a regulated and advocates of a largely market-driven economy.

More on these issues in future posts.

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