Discounting the Future
The ability to plan ahead is one of the human race's prized abilities, but it has pretty clear limitations. When we are three, it can be hard to forego that marshmallow for 15 minutes to win a promised extra one. No doubt evolution has had good reasons for us to discount future events, especially if they happen to be fairly far in the future. That's doubly, triply true when that future depends on a whole lot of others cooperating too.
The New York Times Magazine has a long article, supposedly the longest it has ever published, on the history of global warming during the decade 1979-1989 arguing that we missed our chance to deal with global warming back then and thereby committed our planet to at least moderately catastrophic results.
I have to admit that I was a bit put off by the melodramatic and even hysterical title (Losing Earth) and introduction. The basic argument is that we blew it by not signing a supposedly binding agreement to limit carbon emissions thirty years ago. US objections by the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations were the proximate cause of the failure, but the NYT generously blames us all.
The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.
Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?
Several have argued, persuasively, I think, that a signed agreement would hardly have done the trick. Much of human history is the story of avoidable catastrophes foretold but not avoided, from Cassandra's warnings about Greeks bearing gifts to the drift into World Wars I and II. The problem, in the case of climate change, was that just too many people's medium term interests conflicted with long term avoidance of climate change, from Joe Schmoe's desire for cheap gas for that gas guzzling pickup to Exxon's desire to keep making a healthy profit to India and China desiring to catch up to the First World economies.Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.
So is the future really as grim as all that? Well, probably, at least so far as the changing climate is concerned, but I would not put climate change on the top of my list of threats to the human species or even civilization. Of course the prospect of the drowning of Holland and Bangladesh and numerous islands is pretty serious, as is the desertification of big chunks of the US, Europe, China, and India. Quite likely, the human population of the world will need to decrease by a significant factor.
Many of those who have fought hardest to prevent meaningful action on anthropogenic climate change are motivated by the not unfounded fear that the needed kind of regulation would damage the free enterprise system. Wait until they see, should they live so long, what coping with the catastrophe will entail.