In terms of climate change: Game over, we lose
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 22:09
It wasn’t that long ago that Americans believed not only that something needed to be done about climate change, but that we could and would do something about it. Only six years have passed since the release of the documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” perhaps the seminal moment in the recent rebirth of a popular environmental consciousness. The film was so successful due to the sense of empowerment it left its viewers with – a sense that if we take action in our own lives, we will be on our way to carbon neutrality and maybe the slowing and even reversal of climate change. “The will to act is a renewable resource,” Al Gore said, and his documentary did much to temporarily renew that will.
But now it is 2012, and we have largely run out of time to act. The world’s nations continue to giddily emit almost five metric tons of carbon dioxide for each of the planet’s seven billion people. Even if all human carbon emissions were to come to a halt at once, the damage already done will reverberate through this world for centuries. And the political will to institute cap-and-trade policies and carbon taxes, the most economic and politically viable of solutions to climate change, is melting away as quickly as the Arctic ice sheet. The time has come to not only prepare for life in the brave new world that we have created for ourselves, with all of its forthcoming crises of ecology and demography, but also to come to terms with mankind’s failure to meet one of the great challenges of its history with all the ingenuity and courage that it is so capable of mustering.
Yet in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence, which warned us of our critical role in the transformation of global climates, I cannot bring myself to blame the so-called “skeptics” or “deniers” who question the anthropogenic nature of climate change for our failure to appropriately respond to the crisis at hand. Doubt is characteristic of our nature. Without doubt or uncertainty, there would be no inquiry, no induction and therefore no science. Science, after all, will never permit us to know that anthropogenic climate change is an absolute fact, just as it cannot decisively confirm for us Einstein’s theory of relativity or Newton’s theory of gravity. Science is always open to new hypotheses, whether they turn out to be right or wrong. Such is the nature of human knowledge – there always exists the possibility that, despite our pretensions, we know nothing.
According to public opinion polls, 70 percent of the U.S. population believes that climate change is caused by humans. But this may be because the majority of the country is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. During the brutal winter of 2010, only 50 percent of the population believed humans were the cause of climate change. Not only does belief in scientific theory vacillate with the weather and the seasons, but it is also very strongly linked to the name of the party Americans vote for each November: Republicans harbor far more skepticism of anthropogenic climate change than Democrats do. Perhaps it is no great wonder that we lost our battle against the changing climate. It would have taken not only an unalloyed confidence in our human knowledge, but also a detachment from the biases of political life and from our reactions to the changing weather.
Portraying the debate over climate change as a lost battle may be too much of a dramatic flourish. Though we cannot curtail them entirely, we can still mobilize to limit the effects of rapid climatic change and ensure that our worst-case scenarios do not become realities. Eventually, however, we will have to decide as a species whether we should take action when we are 99 percent confident in our scientific knowledge, or when we are 99.9999 percent confident.
And, if we don’t feel rage, fear, agitation or the will to act in response to the climate we have so dramatically changed, then we richly deserve the miserable future hurtling toward us.