The Inevitability of Radical Climate Change: A Short Assessment
Among those who are professionally qualified to make such judgments, there is virtual unanimity that human activity causes the earth’s climate to increase to the point when it will make far larger and more devastating changes than warming has so far. Dissenters from these predictions don’t put forward evidence refuting those claims, but simply assert “I’m not a scientist,” as if that dubious status entitles them to disagree with those who have actually studied the mechanisms of climate change. If things are left to go as they now are, the second half of the 21st century will see extended droughts, vast increases in deaths caused by heat, devastating flooding in coastal areas that will not be respecters of important cities, and much more, including undesirable effects on virtually all living things on land and sea. I feel sorry for my grandchildren’s grandchildren who will be living during the period when things get really bad. But surely, you say, these horrible effects can be forestalled. Just as it is known what horrors will be brought on by climate warming, it is known what needs to be done to sharply reduce if not eliminate it altogether. Moreover, that warming is not brought on by natural processes over which humans have no control, but by human activities that take place everywhere on the globe—to be sure to sharply varying degrees. Stop them or at least decrease them notably and those disasters won’t happen.
But there is a fateful wrinkle. What needs to be done is costly and where they are enacted virtually everyone is affected either by increased living costs or decreased income or both. This dual effect of countermeasures makes me totally pessimistic that very much will be done until the worst effects of warming have begun to make their appearance and when its effects, moreover, have become irreversible.
What is the basis of this gloomy prediction? To a greater or lesser degree—and nowhere to so small a degree that it can be ignored—those who rule are dependent on the good will of the populations over which they preside. How that is so in democracies—in Western Europe and the United States—is obvious. But it is equally true, just different, in China and Russia. Putin and Xi Jinping may certainly have considerably greater latitude than Obama in the treatment of the populations they govern, but they too must pay heed to the warning Machiavelli issues in The Prince: people will forgive you for killing their fathers, but they will not forgive you for taking their patrimony.
To take effective measures against global warming is to making present sacrifices for a future goal, indeed a goal that lies considerably beyond the lifetimes of those who would be paying now. People, some anyway, may be willing to give up something for the benefit of their grandchildren, but the more remote they are from such family beneficiaries, the less inclined they will be to make sacrifices.
Take just a single real life example. Mitch McConnell, a senator from Kentucky for thirty years and now majority leader, surely smart, professes to hold that there is no global warming and if there is, human activities are not a cause. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes; but what I do know is that he is the senior senator of a coal-mining state and measures to reduce future global warming would, with certainty, have a negative effect on the economy of the senator’s state and its citizens.
I’m pessimistic because today just about always trumps tomorrow and acting to save oneself surely trumps saving others—not to mention unknown others. In short, significant (and costly) measures will be taken when significant damage has already been done. I won’t be around when that happens.
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