Perspective | Climate change is real, and it’s permanent

Newspaper Published Source
The Washington Post 2021-08-10 Link

In the spring, inspired by the coronavirus pandemic, I taught a course titled “ The End of the World and What Comes After ,” about the myriad ways that modern civilization could come to an end: financial collapse, pandemics, cyberwarfare, thermonuclear war or more exotic possibilities. Strange as it might sound, it was a fun course to conceive, prepare and teach. One of my biggest takeaways from teaching “The End of the World” was that the paramount threat facing global civilization was climate change — the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that accelerate the warming of the planet. It was, by far, the threat best suited to exploit all the frailties of human decision-making. Decisions made today will not have effects for decades, making it easy to defer solutions to future generations. Concerns about free-riding make it easy for countries to pledge concerted action — contingent on buy-in from other countries. For individuals it is easy to assume that half-measures, like the Paris climate accords, will solve the problem. So it was sobering to read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The summary headlines are a particularly depressing read: This report received plenty of media coverage, and those headlines were equally apocalyptic: At the risk of incurring the wrath of my Post editors, kudos to the NYT’s headline editor — because it offered the most accurate headline without triggering the futility response. In “ The Rhetoric of Reaction ,” Albert Hirschman identified three reactionary responses to needed reforms. One of them was “futility,” the argument that any effort to promote social change will barely make a dent in the problem. Climate change is such a massive, complex, existential challenge that more sensational headlines are quite likely to trigger the futility response among reactionaries. If the Earth is going to get warmer anyway, why bother? That reaction would be a mistake. As the New York Times’ Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain write , “Not all is lost, however, and humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter.” Indeed, the IPCC report itself notes , “Scenarios with very low or low GHG emissions … would have rapid and sustained effects to limit human-caused climate change, compared with scenarios with high or very high GHG emissions.” The other thing I learned when teaching about the end of the world is that civilizations are better at warding off catastrophes when the threat is well-defined. As the IPCC report notes, climate modelers have gotten better at defining the scope of the problem. This gives the world’s governments more precise targets to meet. They need to get to work on achieving those targets sooner rather than later.