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Does The Reality Of Climate Change Preclude Hope?

August 30, 2013

David Roberts (hey, I thought he was unplugging!) is not hopeful, but tries to make the case for holding onto hope:

Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory. For all our sophistication, we remain terribly inept at the simple task of predicting what will happen more than a few years out. All our models fail. That means those who predict a steady extension of the status quo will be wrong, too.

The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear. We forget this; our instinct is to think the future will look like the recent past, only more so. We don’t anticipate the lateral moves, the lurches, the phase shifts. Because of this, the Very Serious thing to do is always to predict that things will not substantially change. If you say, “There will be a series of brilliant innovations that make clean energy cheap,” or, “There will be a sea change in public opinion on climate,” or, “Young people will take over and revive politics,” you sound like a hippie dreamer. Those aspirations are a matter of faith, a triumph of hope over experience.

And yet: things change! History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)

We do not know what those perturbations will be or when they will emerge, but we know from history that Don Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” are inevitable. The North American natural gas boom, the precipitous decline in solar PV prices, the financial crisis — none were widely predicted. And there will be more like them.

Will unexpected, rapid changes in coming decades be good or bad, positive or negative? That depends on millions of individual choices made in the interim. Some of those choices, if they happen at just the right moment, could be just the perturbations that spark cascading changes in social, economic, or technological systems. Some of those choices, in other words, will be incredibly significant.

Personally, I don’t have much hope. I think that climate change is happening faster than humanity can develop wisdom, or make the political, economic and cultural changes that will blunt its impact on the Earth. We are by evolution a self-interested species, and that is not something that is easy to change. Sure, a miracle is always (remotely) possible, so why utterly abandon hope. And, in any case, because doing more to mitigate the full impact of climate change is better than doing less, we do have a responsibility to keep learning and to try to find ways to live that are more in harmony with the planet and all its other species.

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