Lately, it seems, Mother Nature has been trying to get our attention. Its signals are increasingly loud, strident, and hard to miss. Some have been lethal.
The year 2015 is poised to become the hottest on record. In October, Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded by meteorologists, produced winds that reached 200 miles per hour. Average temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing twice as fast as temperatures on the rest of the planet. This, in turn, contributes to the thawing of the ice-covered polar surface—ice cover that is shrinking by 9 percent every 10 years. Scientists expect polar thawing to raise sea levels to a point that will force the population of many highly urbanized coastal areas to move to higher ground. More relevant for Americans is the fact that the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica is melting as warm ocean water erodes it from underneath. Owing to the laws of gravity, this could elevate sea levels by at least 11 feet in the Northern Hemisphere; in the United States, sea levels could rise by 25 percent more than the global average. A recent study indicated that by the end of the century, some urban centers in the Persian Gulf will occasionally be afflicted with temperature and humidity levels “that are intolerable to humans”—a threat Southeast Asia also faces. In these studies, “intolerable” does not mean very unpleasant. It potentially means mortal danger to those who are exposed, even for a few hours, to these conditions.
According to the United Nations, the current number of storms, floods, and heat waves is five times greater than it was in 1970. Although this increase should be partially attributed to the fact that we have better data now than we did half a century ago, numerous studies point to the heightened frequency these days of extreme weather phenomena: abnormally high or low temperatures, torrential rains, mudslides, prolonged droughts, and fierce forest fires. The number of people displaced by the effects of climate change is now greater than ever before. The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than there are political refugees escaping wars and other forms of conflict.
After decades of intense debate, an overwhelming majority of scientists now agree that these changes in the earth’s climate are caused by an increase in the emissions of certain gases (especially carbon dioxide, or CO2) produced by human activities. There is still some residual skepticism about this conclusion, some of which results from honest and healthy disagreements among experts. Unfortunately, however, there are also plenty of biased “scientific studies” financed by corporations and other parties, which benefit from current patterns of energy production and consumption and fight any reforms bound to affect their interests.
But despite these various distress signals, humanity has hitherto been unable to alter its current, disastrous path toward a warmer planet. This lack of effective action is not just due to certain corporations and countries pushing their fossil fuel-oriented agendas at the expense of the common good. It is also due to human nature.
Put simply: Humans have a hard time changing their habits and routines. People who go on weight-loss diets tend to abandon the effort before accomplishing their goals, or to gradually gain back the weight they lost as they return to their old ways of eating. Tobacco smokers similarly struggle to break their nicotine addiction. A health scare is often the surest way to change behavior and renounce unhealthy lifestyles. Surviving a heart attack, for example, can do wonders to make people stop smoking, eat healthier foods, and exercise more often.
Will it take a devastating, large-scale climate incident to curb CO2 emissions and change the ways we treat our planet? So far, it looks that way.
After all, carbon addiction is rampant in today’s world. The way we light, heat, and cool our homes and offices; our means of transportation; the way our cities are built; the products we consume, from plastics to hamburgers—all require a high consumption of carbon that, once fed into the atmosphere as CO2, contributes to global warming and climate chaos.
The most obvious reason why breaking the world’s carbon addiction has proven so difficult is that doing so demands a collective and multinational effort, sustained in perpetuity. If sticking to a diet is difficult for a person, it is far more difficult for countries tasked with acting in concert with one another. Some countries will cheat. Others will demand that the diet followed by the rich and fat be more stringent than that adhered to by the poor and slim. Still others will request that the most onerous diet fall to those that have indulged themselves longest; developing nations like China and India, for instance, argue that they deserve a lighter low-carbon diet than countries that have been polluting the planet and its atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
In December, the UN will host a climate-change conference in Paris, one that promises—“promises” being the operative word—to yield more progress than more than two decades’ worth of such gatherings. But in this case, success has been defined downward; the agreements that will hopefully be reached in Paris, while welcome, will likely not achieve the goal of keeping average global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Curbing global warming is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, and so far humanity has shown little adaptability or foresight. Human inertia will continue challenging Mother Nature, without apparent concern for the fact that nature always wins.
To be fair, some progress is being made. According to a recent report by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, by the end of 2014 renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydro power constituted nearly 28 percent of global power-generating capacity, and prevailing trends point to an acceleration in this reliance on renewables (though the recent drop in oil prices has simultaneously inhibited the development of more expensive clean-energy sources). More dramatically, atomic fusion, after a long period of research and false starts, seems on the verge of major breakthroughs that could lead to commercial power plants becoming available by 2050, providing practically inexhaustible sources of clean energy. Stewart Prager, the head of the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory, calls this development “inevitable.”
In addition, governments and private institutions and individuals are starting to provide strong financial incentives for the development of cleaner sources of energy in the quickest possible manner. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Bill Gates spoke urgently about two essential components of this effort. One is a carbon tax, which he describes as the “pull” that would create lucrative enticements to invest in clean alternatives to fossil fuels. The other is research and development, which he calls the “push” that could generate a more efficient, permanent solution to global warming. (Before that permanent solution is found, humans will spend roughly $70 billion per year on adapting to the changed climate they have wrought—costs that will only rise if action against climate change is further delayed.)
Progress in curtailing CO2 emissions will come about not by human nature triumphing over Mother Nature, but through our collective realization that the survival of our species depends on how effectively we keep human nature in check—and heed Mother Nature’s warnings.
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