Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 04, 2014

A reflection on the climate change problem

Specifically, not climate change itself, but the failure of the political system to respond to it. Eric Chivian, one of the founders of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has some thoughts about this in BMJ. (Not sure if this is open access.)

He makes the usual points: scientists are always cautious and hedge their conclusions -- "high degree of confidence," that sort of thing -- whereas the denialists speak with what sounds to lay people like greater clarity; the media finds that controversy sells so they give the denialists equal time and stature; and there's big money behind denial.

But he embeds the deepest point in another -- burying the lede, I would say:

We were, and are, up against the richest, most powerful, most rapacious adversaries on the planet, who since the industrial revolution began have controlled what powers almost everything we do, whose products are the engine for the economies of all industrialized countries and the fuel for the rapid growth of developed countries.
The real issue is not the powerful, rapacious adversaries. They are a by-product of the fundamental reality. Our world, our entire civilization, exists only because of fossil fuels. The human life span, the conditions of life for the overwhelming majority of the world's people, the accumulation of wealth and the pace of technological change were essentially stagnant since the first ape that spoke. Then came James Watts steam engine in 1781, fueled by coal. Everything since then would have been impossible without it. The human population would be maybe 1/50th as large. Maybe. We'd still need more pasture for our horses than farmland, which would absorb the daily, grinding labor of 90% of us. It would take two months to cross the Atlantic, and the only way to get a message across would be to carry it.

We can't undo this world, but finding acceptable ways of fueling it is the hardest thing we will ever do. It's like chewing your own leg off to get out of a trap. But, chew we must.  


Daniel said...

I don't think we are prepared to take the bite so to speak. It's a bit ironic that the very fuel that powered our climax as a species is likely to end it.

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