Doomsday Arguments in Context: Global Warming and The Consequences of Inaction

It’s a bit odd the degree of cognitive dissonance one encounters when trying to explain what’s happening due to global warming. When trying to explain a range of bad possibilities, you’ll often easily find yourself pigeon-holed in one of two slots: ‘normal’ or ‘Chicken Little.’

‘Normal’ is the slot people ignore because they’re too comfortable and the pace of change is seen as too slow to be of immediate concern. ‘Chicken Little’ is discounted because, well, the sky can’t really be falling, can it?

When confronting this level of cognitive dissonance, it’s helpful to look at other major problems we’ve managed to deal with by communicating and managing effective responses. For example, the ozone hole was a problem that would have resulted in terrible damage, had we not responded. Also, unfettered nuclear weapons becoming more and more widely available would have resulted in terribly increased risk the weapons would actually be used. These are both problems we managed to varying degrees of effect. Both are problems we staved off through responsible action.

Often, people think in terms of ‘the end of the world.’ But in the powerful modern age, where technology and massive civilizations can do severe harm without even trying, this possibility is a simple fact of the power of human civilization. Is the end of the world a global nuclear holocaust? Is it an unchecked ozone hole? Is it run away global warming? A Venus syndrome that James Hansen reminds us is certainly possible if fossil fuel emissions aren’t ramped down?They are the risk cost of a powerful human civilization. But, if we act well, these risks need not be outcomes.

When looking at these potential emerging threats, it’s not really a question of what’s inevitable. It’s just a question of what can happen if we don’t respond. If we don’t act with grave respect for both the power that is ours and for the way in which our living, dynamic world is now so fragile to the forces we can unleash.

So, ‘end of the world,’ is really a false characterization. A better term for the whole issue is the terrible consequences of a failure to act. Of a failure to plan well for the future. Of a failure to husband those fragile systems we rely on so much for our prosperity, well being, and survival. These are the problems of all civilizations, great or small. Ours have just grown to fill the scope of an entire world.

Responses to problems, on the other hand, have powerful and lasting effects, taking seconds, minutes and hours off any doomsday clock’s countdown to midnight. They help ensure the path for our civilization’s continuance and toward hope and progress for future generations.

As an example, if we responded to global warming back in the 80s, we wouldn’t be suffering as much in the way of extreme weather and rapid sea ice melt. We would have likely stabilized CO2 at below or near 350 ppm. No end of the world in this scenario.
If we respond now, we likely have substantial heat and sea level rise for about a century or two. We likely have moderate food trouble and we likely have some dislocation due to changing world climates and coastlines. But we probably avoid most of the very bad consequences. If we respond soon, things will probably be worse — a very difficult but manageable period of a few centuries if we work together. If we respond late, starting in the 2030s, say, things are very, very bad for hundreds of years. But we probably manage to survive. Hopefully.

But if we don’t respond at all? If we reach 1000 ppm CO2? Well that’s the climate equivalent of launch all missiles. At that point it doesn’t look tough. It looks a lot like a doomsday scenario.

The urgency of climate change is that after a certain point, change is locked in. If you start trying to change once the really bad consequences start to occur, then it may well be too late. And that is one reason why the people who are advocating response to climate change now do so with such great urgency. We know that the responsible thing, the most prudent course, is to deal with the problem now and not wait until things get much worse.

As for what’s locked in now? Well, as mentioned above, it’s not doomsday. But, it does knock a few more chunks out of the sky, so to speak. To say the least, things are bound to get much more chaotic and difficult to manage before they get better. And that’s with a rapid response taking place today. This was not the situation 30 years ago. So there is serious cause for urgency. For establishing the responses yesterday. And there is even more reason to be irate at the foot-dragging and destructive delays that are happening now due to fossil fuel influence on politics. Each delay does bring the doomsday clock that much closer to midnight. And watching that clock wind down is not a pleasant pass-time, to say the least.

As for Chicken Little? Well, those of us who keep an eye on these things can point out a few places were the sky has already fallen. So it’s probably a good idea to make certain the rest doesn’t come tumbling down.

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