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Climate Change IS An Existential Threat

March 20, 2013

Oddly, though, despite repeated warnings from the scientific and conservation community, it never seems to get elevated above all the other problems publics and governments face. And in the United States, I would argue, it is a lower priority than many.

And that’s despite the steady accumulation of data and research, like this, which indicates that every centigrade degree of global temperature increase could result in seven times as many Katrinas.

For anyone who wants to make the case for urgency and sacrifice, David Roberts has a really nice piece (explaining for the 545th time) that there are 2 big reasons that climate change really is a different beast from the many global challenges it gets lumped in with:

The public-policy implications are straightforward: Because CO2 is slow to drain, and the damages are cumulative, we need to reduce the amount of CO2 we’re spewing out of the faucet now, as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Yes, we’ll need new technologies and techniques to drive emissions down near to zero, and we should R&D the hell out of them. But we absolutely cannot afford to wait. There is no benign neglect possible here. Neglect is malign….

….The damage we’re doing now is something the next 40 to 50 generations will have to cope with, even if we stop emitting CO2 tomorrow. And the CO2 we’ve already released has locked in another 50 or 100 years of damage (because of the slow draining). There is no “reversing” climate change. There is only reducing the amount we change the climate.

Both these facts about climate change set it apart from other environmental problems. They also, for what it’s worth, set it apart from social problems like poverty, crime, or poor healthcare. All of those problems are serious; they all have an impact on public health. But they can all be measurably affected by public policy within our lifetimes. They are bad but they are not cumulative. They are not becoming less solvable over time.

Climate change, on the other hand, is forever.

Or at least a few eons. (Click image for full size)

To me, there are three existential threats we face: 1) nuclear war; 2) a highly contagious, drug-resistant, virus or bacteria; and 3) climate change. Those are the key problems humanity should be working on together, with climate change arguably being the most difficult to address, and requiring the most sacrifice.

But we are asleep. History will not, and should not, be kind. Our willful avoidance will be inexplicable. It is already inexplicable.

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