A couple of days ago, Dennis sent a link to Samadhisoft on ‘historical inevitability’, which I have duly read. Then, this thread appeared on RealClimate. At first glance, there’s no connection, but it was the comments by one or two posters which caught my eye, in the sense that they seem to evince a similar understanding of our current and future situations as those espoused by Dennis.
And these perceptions made me think. In both cases, the feeling is that, whatever we do now or in the future to mitigate against climate change, or even to prevent environmental degradation, is, ultimately, futile. The implication is that we have discovered the problems too late to prevent, as Dennis puts it, a ‘perfect storm’ of impacts on the world. Dennis’ explanation is that ‘…the problems arise from…the core of what we are..’ , to paraphrase; he feels that human nature being what it is, the chances of us escaping changes of ‘Lovelockian’ proportions are small, if not nonexistent.
The enquiries by the commenters on RC were in some ways more precise, asking about the implications of the recent findings about the global carbon cycle, but the underlying question was similar: are we (to be blunt) screwed?
This is important for several reasons. First of all, it represents a challenge to the people attempting to communicate the risks and prospects relating to climate change, to find a balance between adequately representing the nature and degree of the threats facing us and the environment, such that people understand the need for action, and painting a picture so laden with doom that readers are left with the feeling that action has no purpose.
Then there is the problem of understatement and overstatement. Ironically, this is almost more about the predisposition of the reader than the facts or the implications of the science. One person’s ‘risk’ is another’s ‘catastrophe’; the interpretation is not a function of the message, but of the recipient’s existing world-view.
Beyond this, there is the question of motivation, action, involvement and inertia. Human psychology is certainly complex, and what will excite one person to stimulate a change in her life, will leave another cold. Luckily, there are quite a few people who now take the challenges seriously, and there are plenty of signs that business, politics and society are at least staring to come to grips with the challenges; witness the rapid increase in environment-related employment, business opportunities and political regulation, for examples. But personal attitudes, especially those, as Stoat frequently observes, which require a decisive change of behaviour of some kind, still cover a very broad range, from indifference and scorn, to desperation or even nihilism.
But perhaps the main importance lies in the question itself. Now that awareness of the problems has reached a generally high level (as seen in recent polls), and resistance to certain strategic responses is being managed (though not always successfully) , perhaps the next challenge is to deal with the one adaptation which is not often openly discussed, but on which all efforts may ultimately succeed or fail; the adaptation of our behaviour patterns, now and in the near future, as a generic group (it’s an all-in effort, if it is to succeed).
My opinion, in answer to the implicit question, ‘Are we too late?’, is no. Not yet. We cannot prevent the world from changing (it would have happened anyway) , but we are still in a position to make changes happen which are, if not a guarantee of the preservation of all that we love, at least a step away from a number of precipices. We are still in a position to slow down the rate of global waming, by rapid reduction of emissions. We are still in a position to encourage the persistence and regrowth of many endangered and threatened species, by stopping the activities which are damaging or destroying habitats. We can still play a part in keeping future changes within manageable proportions, in minimising losses and saving what we feel must be saved.
But not for long.
Action now is the only viable answer.