Thursday, November 1, 2012

Global Warming: A Matter of Scale

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, climate change roared back into the public consciousness. It seems that suddenly, something had to be done, even though the issue was barely mentioned in the election. As surely as the flood waters will recede, though, so will global warming in people's minds. We will go back to thinking about our jobs, our families, and our Honey Boo Boo.

People's fickle attention to big issues is maddening, but understandable. We don't do well with problems that extend well beyond the scale of everyday human existence. For millions of years, the human brain has evolved to tackle problems of immediacy: hunting for food now, escaping the predator now, feeding the crying baby now. The human scale of time is about seconds and minutes, maybe hours. Even planning for drought or famine next year requires vision and foresight that doesn't come to us instinctively. When confronted with the size and age of the universe, many people become uncomfortable, and for some, the idea that humans evolved from fish is laughable. The tools that we call common sense are best equipped to deal with the plainly obvious in the here and now.

By contrast, no issue in our lives is grander in scale than global warming. We began burning massive amounts of fossil fuels some 150 years ago, and the effects of doing so may continue for centuries. The atmospheric CO2 levels are like a giant locomotive that has been accelerating for generations, and continues to accelerate as industry takes over Asia and much of the Third World. All of this has happened effortlessly, as developing societies need lots of energy, and fossil fuels make that easy.

Looking at the big picture, it's hard to imagine slowing down and eventually stopping that locomotive based on our good intentions alone. Knowing about species extinctions and the bleaching of corals will motivate us only to a point. An immediate experience, like seeing the images of Sandy, is needed even to get people to be more than just intellectually "concerned" about climate change — that is, until the waters recede and a more pressing issue takes our attention elsewhere.

Part of the difficulty is our discomfort with matters of scale. When we humans see a problem, we want to fix it, and we want to see direct results from these efforts. If a room is dark, we switch on a light because we know this will help us to see. So when a Hurricane Sandy occurs, and we know that global warming is part of the equation, we intuitively seek an easy fix. To help us believe that global warming is within our control, we appeal to human-scale terms of cause and effect ("Plant a tree, cool the globe," one bumper sticker reads). Except there is no switch that will stop the Frankenstorms from coming. The Earth doesn't operate on a human scale, and given the complexity of the system — interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans, the methane-rich permafrost, etc. — even heroic efforts now may not stave off the effects of climate change in our lifetimes. The more ideological voices on the left cringe at hearing such discouraging news, but reality, like the planet, doesn't necessarily operate according to human-scale desires.

The only way to deal with climate change is to approach it on the same grandeur of scale as the issue itself. Over generations, we must shift our global mindset regarding energy and consumption. Clean energy, sustainable farming, and recycling should not be seen merely as ways to end global warming; instead, they must be seen simply as the right things to do. The 20th-century slash-and-burn approach to civilization is unsustainable, and a return to sustainability, at some point, will allow the planet to settle back into a healthier equilibrium. It's inevitable and has happened many times in the Earth's history.

Just don't expect to see results before the next airing of Honey Boo Boo