Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that serious climate change is happening including rising temperatures, acidification of the oceans, continued mass extinction of plant and animal species, reduced crop yields, water shortages, and air pollution. Let’s also assume that, along with the normal variability of the weather, human activity is driving these changes in one direction and that ultimately these changes could drastically change life on this planet. If it gets too warm, it could extinguish human life, or even all life itself on this planet.
That’s the worst case scenario. It could happen. The Doha round of climate talks has just concluded with what seems to be a positive spin on promises for the future without any painful commitments. I suspect the chances of a global political agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions before the earth’s climate reaches a tipping point of no return are close to zero.
Many governments are sincere in their worry about global pollution and an urgent need to stop it. The problem is that even voters who are concerned about the environment are more concerned about the economy today, about putting food on the table, heating our houses, driving our cars, sending our children to good schools. Governments that put an economic recovery at risk for the sake of future climate change are going to be voted out. It seems possible to me that the discovery of shale gas and oil, which can reduce the cost of energy as well as our dependence on foreign sources, could make the matter worse rather than better. Why put money into expensive renewables when we can pump it out of the shale for a lot less?
So is there any hope at all, short of hoping that the scientists’ predictions are wrong, that we won’t walk blindly into our own destruction?
I think there might be.
First of all, every expert who studies the problem believes that the solutions to climate change must be multiple. Wind and wave farms, solar panels, nuclear plants, clean coal technology, and switching to cleaner gas instead of oil all together might be essential but they will not be enough.
Individual households and companies also have to use less energy. This can be achieved in part simply be being less profligate – turning off lights and appliances when they aren’t being used, through better insulation, and judicious travel. Americans on average send 16 tons of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere per person per year. That’s ten times more than China per person, 90 times more than Kenya per person, and even more than fully developed countries like Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
America, all by herself, could do a lot to reduce global emissions. There are many individuals who are already doing it, and are putting pressure on state and federal governments to accelerate the changes.
The great unknown, however, is human ingenuity. The history of human evolution suggests that innovations are often driven by need and the desire for a better life. It is not foremost driven by governments. It is most often sparked by creative individuals looking for a better way to do things. That’s how the electric light bulb was invented, and the steam engine, and the water wheel, the telephone, the car, and probably even the first stone tool.
So I do not think that human inventions are a naive or insignificant hope. Already hundreds of processes and products and ideas have emerged. The footfall of pedestrians walking on the sidewalk outside office buildings is being used to generate light Germany. A plastic light is about to be marketed in the U.S. that could save the output of 600 power plants worldwide. Oregon has just planted saplings of trees with a life expectancy of 2,000 years to help reverse climate change. Virgin Airlines has developed a plane that will fly on bio-fuel, and electricity plants are experimenting with recycling human sewage.
The list of ingenious ideas is very long. Will they save the planet? I think they might.
I’m not suggesting it will be ideal, or even that we have nothing to worry about, or that there will not be a high cost to be paid.
But if the past is the predictor of the future, we might just dig ourselves out of this.
After all, we did survive the Black Plague when as many as 60% of the population in Europe died. We did survive when the human population was reduced by the Toba Supervolcano to several thousand people for 20,000 years. We even survived the 20th century.