Daniel Orenstein

A climate change paradox: What’s a nice way of warning that we are about to drive off a cliff?

When you are a parent, you want your kids to know that things are going to be OK. They have enough stress in day-to-day life and enough adolescent worries to keep their minds occupied. They shouldn’t have to carry the weight of humanity’s missteps on their shoulders. So how do we talk to our children about climate change? How do we relay the stark implications of current greenhouse gas emissions and their potential to lead to catastrophic climate change within the next 30 years, which is described in a new scientific study from researchers at the Scripps Research Institute? Therein lies a parental paradox, and I face it every time I try to convince my kids (or myself) to walk instead of drive, opt for lentils instead of meat, or to sweat instead of turning on the air conditioner.

When you are an environmentalist, you want to create an optimistic vibe that draws people to your message. You want to be smart, charismatic and enthusiastic. The proverbial bearded, “end-is-nigh” sign-toting, street-corner prophet can tell you that gloom-and-doom messages do not motivate people to action. But what if your message is that the most fundamental of human activities – our energy, food and transportation systems – combined with a burgeoning population size, are driving humanity off a cliff.  Therein lays an environmental educator’s paradox. Presenting the fact of anthropogenic global warming is as gloom-and-doom as it gets, but we want to motivate people to action.

As the Scripps research suggests, we don’t have time anymore to sugar-coat the message. We don’t have time to continue endless coffee-shop discussions about whether the free market will respond fast enough to emerging environmental challenges. We certainly don’t have time for the cadre of politicians and pundits from Donald Trump to Scott Pruitt (EPA director) to Vladimir Putin who, through their climate denial and reckless policies, are accelerating our approach to the cliff.

There is no doubt that humans have increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by more than 40% since the beginning of the industrial era. There is no doubt that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and its accumulation in the atmosphere, which has made human life possible on the planet, may seriously impinge on current and future generations’ survival. It cannot be overstated that over a century of scientific research and the overwhelming majority of the scientific community support these conclusions.

Yes, there are doubters – people who are ideological or religiously opposed to accepting the possibility that humans can change the course of planetary climate, people who are terrified at the prospect that their economic well-being is responsible for planetary destruction (e.g. the fossil fuel industries, the automobile manufacturers, or the beef industry), or people who simply revel in being the intellectual mavericks that cast doubts upon scientific consensus. There are even a small amount of climate scientists (around 3%) that propose alternative theories for 21st century global warming. That is certainly legitimate, but those alternative theories are all over the scientific map, they are unsupported by the broader professional community, and – as recently shown – several of their published studies might defy the conventions of the scientific method.

Unfortunately, deniers continue to retain political and economic clout and decision-making capacity. The current US administration is comprised almost completely of climate-change deniers, and they are doing their best to not only cast doubt on the science, but defund it altogether so that the science is effectively censured.

We don’t have the luxury of time to engage in this faux debate. The thousands of scientific articles, the numerous temperature records pointing to warming atmosphere and sea, and the dozens of recent climate-related natural disasters won’t prove anything to someone who, a priori, doesn’t care about the facts. But global climate doesn’t care about your opinion. It is responding to rising greenhouse gas concentrations almost exactly as the scientific theory would predict (most of the debate is around how much greenhouse gas will cause how much atmospheric heating). We and our children need to know this.

I conclude (perhaps paradoxically) with a note of optimism and a message for our children. The answers – the technological and policy solutions – are all in our hand. Since they touch on every aspect of our lives, from our electricity to our diet to our family size, they won’t always be easy to implement, but with collective will, we can do what has to be done. Humans have already proven to be adept at addressing real and immediate challenges, from space travel to defeating tyrants to global food provision to disease mitigation. We can reduce our environmental impact on the planet. We have to do so, and we have to do it now.

With thanks to Joel Pett, USA Today


About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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