I’ve been trying to muster an interesting topic for this week, but it has been difficult to think in the heat. It’s Sunday, June 27, and likely to be the hottest June day on record to date. Tomorrow is another matter. People have different sensitivities to heat. For me, doing any physical work when it is 85 degrees or higher is like getting a slug to high jump. I can’t say that my intellectual capacities are similarly challenged (you be the judge), but, in trying to come up with a riveting and relevant topic while sweltering in record-breaking heat, I can only conclude that the heat is the topic I’m looking for.
For more than forty years, the consequences of our energy habits, i.e., fossil fuel depletion, pollution, and the dawning threat of climate change, have been part of our awareness. For most of us, this played very little part in any of our decision making in the early days, and I can’t say that has changed remarkably today. Whether convinced that we were causing climate change or not, it was still inconclusive and was far enough off that we didn’t feel we really needed to prioritize that worry. In fact, we voted Jimmy Carter out of office because he had the temerity to point out that our profligacy was a sign of a “moral malaise.” The “malaise” speech, as it is known, actually never mentioned the word malaise, but the malaise, that is, an uncomfortable feeling, was palpable, and we decided that we liked Reagan’s “morning in America” a lot better.
I remember keenly that the possibility that we were causing global warming was being studied. For that reason, I remember when it was finally decided. My friend Steve Hodge, a glaciologist, had talked about the research going on in the ’80s and a lot of it was happening in his field of study. It was in 1988 that he told me that there was now a consensus that human-caused buildup of CO2 in the air was in fact causing global warming. In 1989, Bill McKibbon wrote his first book, The End of Nature, which formally kicked off the social movement to end fossil fuel use.
In 1995, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held its first COP (conference of parties) annual meeting to discuss global strategies to combat climate change. As of COP 25 held last year in Spain, you may be aware that much has been discussed, but not a single binding agreement has ever been passed. The countries that benefitted most from the fossil fuel glut, the most industrialized countries, including the US, are the most recalcitrant members while those least responsible, and often the most impacted by climate change, were the most supportive of action. Nothing surprising there for the cynics among us, and no Nobel Prize candidates among the wealthy.
Why is it that we can’t invest in the future even though the payoff is large? Part of the reason can be attributed to the economic concept of discounting. The relative value of a $5 return sometime in the future for a dollar spent now is determined by discounting. If the waiting time is just a few years and the payoff is certain, there is very little discounting and the investment would be made. If the payoff is 10, 20, 30 years in the future, that $5 is not so enticing, and, therefore, is discounted. Even if it involves the quality of life of one’s grandchildren, the tendency is to worry about the grandchildren down the line and make a sounder investment now.
Well folks, the future seems to have arrived and much sooner than most expected. In my more cynical moments, I’m more likely to think that we will never make the necessary investments until the damage is done. I’m hoping the signs that the damage is beginning might be enough to spur investment to avoid worse results in the future. We will pay a far heavier price that way, but not as heavy as the price of doing nothing at all. Of course, that last option is not off the table either.
We humans appear to be unique in our ability to decipher nature’s plan and to put our thumb on the scale once in a while to make sure that nature’s plan can move forward. In the same way, we can plan ahead for the future. But this is a double-edged sword. Without wisdom, humility, and a devotion to service, we can use these same abilities to serve our greed and need for power and dominance as we have virtually our entire time thus far on the planet. Let’s hope that we are ready to grow up.