At this point, it’s probably fair to say there are few people in the U.S., indeed in the developed world, who haven’t yet heard about global warming. It’s probably also fair to say that there are few people, other than a few far-right wingers and oil company executives, who think it’s nothing to worry about. However, there is scant agreement about what to do about it, and there’s the rub.
The well-accepted scientific analysis of global warming is that the earth’s average temperature is increasing rapidly — far more rapidly than at any time in the earth’s history. An increase of 3-5 degrees F. in the next hundred years is considered quite probable. Much of the discussion centers on the likely effects of this rapid increase, including sea level rise, loss of endangered species habitat (e.g., polar ice floes for polar bears), and direct effects on human populations (e.g., in various places, drought, floods, and threats of permanent inundation). Less attention is being payed to the impacts the Earth’s long-term ecosystems.
Most of us acknowledge that humanity is a major cause of the recent rapid increase. For one thing, such a rapid increase is unprecedented in geological history, at least so far as geologists can tell. For another, the recent rapid increase in human greenhouse gas production (especially CO2) correlates far too well, in theoretical modeling, with the increase in global temperatures. These same models also indicate how much human greenhouse gas production must be reduced, and in what time-frame, to avoid the most drastic effects of climate change.
Using climate models, scientists have also identified a number of elements that are likely to produce a “tipping point” in global warming — a point beyond which the synergy between global warming and its effects will result in an acceleration of the process, even without further greenhouse gas production. That tipping point is fast approaching, giving an even greater urgency to the need for drastic action.
The Kyoto Accords represent an impressive and near-unanimous accord among world government that something must be done. However, the agreements in the Kyoto accords are not even close to sufficient to address the predictions from the scientific models. Even more unfortunate, some of the most important producers of greenhouse gases, most notably the United States, China, and India, either aren’t signers or are unaffected by the Kyoto Accords’ provisions. As a result, the human contribution to greenhouse gases has continued to grow, with little effect from these agreements.
It is my observation and prediction, that, based on human politics and human nature, humanity will not react in time to avoid catastrophic results, both for humanity and for life as we know it (and not just human life!). One can see this unfortunate dynamic on a small scale in the recent congressional debate on a global warming bill. Never mind that most scientists agree that the provisions of the bill were almost laughably inadequate. Even so, many legislators were unwilling to support the bill because it might hurt some of their constituents or political supporters. Such is the nature of “zero-sum game” politics, where, for every winner, there is also a loser. Legislative action works poorly unless it can be converted from a zero-sum game to a “win-win” situation. Unfortunately, climate change is not easy to convert to a “win-win” type of game. Addressing climate change is almost certain to hurt some people. It may be possible to ease some of that hurt, if there’s the political will to do so, but that will only be done by spreading it around — for example, providing assistance to those hurt. That will, however, in turn result in either increased taxes or cuts in some other programs.
Our political system doesn’t do well at accepting hurt — at least not unless there’s a crisis. Global warming isa crisis, but it’s an invisible one. Even when we reach the tipping point and further warming impacts become inexorable, most people won’t realize it has happened. This distinguishes global warming from many past crises, such as wars and natural disasters, where rapid political action occurred. The closest analogue is probably the gas shortage caused by the 1973 oil embargo. There, some responses did occur, but President Carter’s call to consider the situation the “moral equivalent of war” and embark on a crash program of energy research aimed at oil independence went unheeded.
Likewise, my expectation is that, at both the national and international levels, humanity will not have the united political will to make the changes necessary to avoid drastic consequences until it is far too late. Unfortunately, the resulting catastrophe will affect not only humanity, but all life on the planet. Biologists are already aware that the speed of climate change is rapidly outstripping species’ ability to adapt, either physiologically or evolutionarily. Species habitat would have to shift in a manner that simply cannot be accomplished. As a result, we are likely looking at a massive species extinction event on a par with what happened with the end of the dinosaurs. Litlerally tens of thousands of species are likely to go extinct in a matter of a few hundred years. The remaining ecosystems will almost certainly be far simpler and more primitive. It’s an open question whether civilization, and indeed humanity itself, will be able to adapt. However, I think it’s unquestionable that human life in the year 2500, or even 2100, is going to be far less comfortable than it is now. Those living then will probably look back and curse us for our blindness and ineffectiveness. The only answer will be to say that it wasn’t our fault; we were doomed by human nature.