The Grand Challenge

By Keith Kloor
Feb 10, 2011 12:45 AMNov 20, 2019 4:47 AM


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It's amazing to me that someone can lay out the complexity of the climate problem so well and then follow that with a simplistic, facile call to action. Here's the set-up by David Roberts at Grist in a post that otherwise compares the differing vantage points of climate scientists and economists:

Humanity has never had to grapple with a problem that measures itself in centuries, threatens our very existence, and requires global cooperation to overcome. We are fairly beset by gaping uncertainties. We know it could get really bad, but we don't know exactly how bad it will get, or how fast, or where. We don't know how much it will cost to re-engineer the world along sustainable lines, or how quickly we can do it, or even whether we can do it at all. We are stumbling around in the dark, in an area where scientists tell us some very, very nasty beasties dwell.

So how do we extricate ourselves from this devilish bind? It's obvious, concludes Roberts:

In that situation, it seems to me the overwhelming bias should be toward action -- getting lean, mean, and nimble enough to handle ourselves no matter what slouches our way.

Ah, it's so simple and self-evident, especially if you live a comfortable life, where perhaps your greatest immediate concern is which school will best nurture your child's intellectual growth. Speaking of growth, let's go to Thomas Homer-Dixon for the rest of the complex equation to the climate problem (beyond those projections of impacts) that Roberts leaves unaddressed:

Humankind is in a box. For the 2.7 billion people now living on less than $2 a day, economic growth is essential to satisfying the most basic requirements of human dignity. And in much wealthier societies, people need growth to pay off their debts, support liberty, and maintain civil peace. To produce and sustain this growth, they must expend vast amounts of energy. Yet our best energy source -- fossil fuel -- is the main thing contributing to climate change, and climate change, if unchecked, will halt growth.

Homer-Dixon goes on to frame the larger challenge to humanity in equally paradoxical terms:

We can't live with growth, and we can't live without it. This contradiction is humankind's biggest challenge this century, but as long as conventional wisdom holds that growth can continue forever, it's a challenge we can't possibly address.

Whether you agree with that last part or not, at least Homer-Dixon acknowledges the reality (billions of people seeking a better life through economic growth) that remains one of the main obstacles to global action on climate change. And until the imperative of a better life for billions of poor is squared with the imperative for climate action, well, to paraphrase Homer-Dixon, that's an we're left with an equation we can't possibly solve.

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