Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 10, 2021

Why we haven’t stopped global warming

First, let’s make the point clear that human beings are very probably “smart enough” to solve the global warming problem. Over the last couple of centuries, we have developed a very high level of understanding of how things work – including the details of the complex natural systems that populate our planet and how they have evolved over time in response to changing conditions. 

That store of knowledge is now sufficient as to enable us to maintain human friendly conditions on our planet for a very long time – if we decide to do that. In other words, it is not a lack of intellectual knowledge that will limit the duration of livable conditions for humans on our planet. It is another force that threatens to do that and it’s that other force that will be discussed here.

In an all-encompassing nutshell, the strongest force that prevents us from doing what needs to be done is what has been appropriately called ”the tyranny of the contemporary” (see my previous post by this name in the archives of January 2016). During the fossil fuel era in which we have lived since the onset of the Industrial Age, we have learned how to raise our standards of living immensely by use of the energy released when a fossil fuel, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, is combusted by oxygen thereby producing the seemingly harmless substances, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Over that period of use (or should I say overuse), so much fossil fuel has been burned that the carbon content of the biosphere (into which the released CO2 goes) has dramatically increased well above the natural level it previously had throughout the preceding 10,000-year period of the human-friendly era known as the Holocene.  One of the most important details of this is that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been increased by 45% and that number is continuously rising. This, in turn, is causing the retention of extra heat on Earth because atmospheric CO2 acts as a heat insulator making Earth’s temperature significantly greater than it would otherwise be. If we continue to live in this fossil-fuel-driven manner, we might be able to continue to enjoy the “good life” of the recent past – but only for a short period of time as our planet becomes progressively warmer and less inhabitable.

Our present dilemma is primarily a moral one – which generation’s welfare, that of the present or that of the future – will dictate the actions take today? That is, will we continue our use of fossil fuels for energy production – as many in the present generation prefer – or will we honor the obvious preferences of future generations whose very survival requires that we move on to completely different ways of producing the energy we need. An important and probably determining factor in making this decision is that many of those who will be living in future decades and centuries do not presently vote, of course, in our contemporary political system. In addition, a huge portion of our younger citizens today are not even mature enough yet to understand the global warming issue.

Thus, we can now understand the apt expression, “the tyranny of the contemporary” in dealing with climate change. This is, indeed, a tyranny in that the dominant preference of the existing inhabitants of the Earth has generally been to continue our business-as-usual ways provided by our still abundant fossil fuels. While we might acknowledge the problem of global warming and continue to “talk the talk” concerning it, when it comes to actually doing meaningful things about it, we have invariably chosen to kick that can down the road – for future generations to deal with at a later date when the problem will be even more difficult to solve. We have thereby shown that we have not been ethically “good enough”, so far, to take our intergenerational responsibilities sufficiently seriously as to embrace a more comprehensive plan of action that will effectively solve the problem for future as well as present generations. Instead, we have simply wished our future generations “good luck” in solving this problem at some later date which by then will be even much more difficult to do.

So yes, we are, indeed, still immobilized today by a “tyranny of the contemporary”, a fact that might very well turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the human experience on this planet. This is needlessly so because the fields of science and engineering have provided us with both an understanding of climate changes and the technologies required to combat them. What is needed for more appropriate actions to be taken is an adjustment of our ethical standards so that our intergenerational responsibilities are taken much more seriously than they have been so far.

So, the central question remains: will human beings suddenly and uncharacteristically become ethically “good enough” as to do the right thing for the preservation of their own species on this planet? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the time allowed for effective corrective action is almost gone and the tyranny of the contemporary continues.

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