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Progress Report

Progress Report

For six months I’ve done this blog, and a results report is due. My goals have been:

  1. to publicize the facts of human-caused climate change and its dangers
  2. to examine what we can do to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change
  3. to persuade people to act effectively.

I must report that climate-change action is tough to sell. Climate scientists agree that humans’ burning massive amounts of fossil fuel hydrocarbons has increased the “greenhouse gases” in earth’s atmosphere by more than a third, that increased CO2 has heated the planet, and that more dangerous global warming lies ahead.

One obvious response is to decease hydrocarbon consumption starting now. I’ve suggested a carbon tax which would make all hydrocarbon fuels more expensive, using higher market prices to discourage burning fossil fuels. Responses have been mostly negative, such as: “higher gasoline prices will hurt working people,” “a carbon tax will make the U.S. economy less competitive,” and “I can’t be bothered thinking about it.” I’ve done posts looking at the psychology of avoidance and at the difficulty of getting people to see what they don’t want to see, which helps in understanding why climate-change action is a tough sell. In one post I quoted Larry King’s dictum about the environment: “Nobody cares about fifty years from now.” I would modify King and say that few of us pay attention to what may happen to the world in 20 years, even when there is strong evidence that we are heading into a train wreck.

As an illustration, I share parts of my exchange with a man in his mid-20s. He read my post arguing that Social Security is stacked against young people, then emailed me as follows:

Very true points. This factor, among many others, has driven my age demographic to become the generation of “me”. We all sort of understand that the era of putting in your quality 40 hour weeks at the same company for 40 years are gone. Most of us aren’t even looking toward the future, yet we understand given the current job climate that it’s turning into a dog eat dog world.

I replied and suggested that the job market is less important to my young friend’s future than climate change, and sent him the following news clip:

China spurred a jump in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to their highest ever recorded level in 2011, offsetting falls in the United States and Europe, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Thursday.

CO2 emissions rose by 3.2 percent last year to 31.6 billion tonnes, preliminary estimates from the Paris-based IEA showed.

“When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s chief economist told Reuters.

Scientists say ensuring global average temperatures this century do not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is needed to limit devastating climate effects like crop failure and melting glaciers.

My friend’s life expectancy goes beyond 2050, but the projection of bad things by 2050 did not impress him, and he responded:

True, but at the moment if you don’t have work, are up to your ears in debt and are living at home the rising temperature seems like the least of your concerns.

Human beings, especially those reared in modern Western societies, generally have a me first/right now mentality. If things are bad right now, most people are focused on helping their immediate needs vs long-term.

I certainly know people, including some who read this blog, who do not have a “me first/right now mentality,” and I would argue that our civilization rests on shared values which emphasize altruism and service. The “me first/right now” worldview is real, is not going away, and must be respected. At the same time, we know that America has produced millions of individuals, starting even before the Founding Fathers, who got their own fulfillment by building a future which was good not only for them, but also for their neighbors and for their posterity. But the headlines in this morning’s newspapers about slow job growth – “Economy: Fears of slowdown rise with jobless rate” – suggests once again that the public favors immediate economic growth over longterm environmental protection, that my young friend’s viewpoint is mainstream, and that our blog’s progress report is an “incomplete.”

Image by Aburk018 at en.wikibooks [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (1)

  1. Dave Pennington Sunday - 10 / 06 / 2012
    All too true unfortunately. The other underlying truth which is seldom referred to is our society's great religiosity. Most religions preach that this life is but an illusion, and that another waits. This alone will (IMO) keep many if not most people from even seriously contemplating what the planet would look like in the +6C scenario. They simply do not believe that God (however they define that concept) would allow that to happen to their children (or them). This is not an all-encompassing answer, the Europeans who are largely atheist are also having a very hard time meeting the carbon challenge (although they are light-years ahead of us).

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