If you’re not seriously scared by the current prognosis for climate change you haven’t been paying attention. As Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times (7/13/09):
…the consensus of the climate experts is utterly terrifying. At this point, the central forecast of leading climate models — not the worst-case scenario but the most likely outcome — is utter catastrophe, a rise in temperatures that will totally disrupt life as we know it, if we continue along our present path. How to head off that catastrophe should be the dominant policy issue of our time.
In another column (6/29/09), Krugman rightly says we are morally obligated to act on the basis of our best science:
…we’re facing a clear and present danger to our way of life, perhaps even to civilization itself. How can anyone justify failing to act?…the existential threat from climate change is all too real. Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.
The existential threat downplayed by recalcitrant Republicans was made vivid by ABC News in a TV special hosted by Bob Woodruff, Earth 2100. It’s a fictional but carefully researched, science-based story of Lucy, born on June 2, 2009 and her life thereafter. Through her eyes, we witness global economic and social catastrophe brought on by climate change, an extremely gripping and sobering tale. Have a look at the opening segment (Act 1 of 10).
As a credibility check, here’s a partial list of the scientists, psychologists and economists interviewed during the show, mostly in order of appearance:
- John Podesta
- Jared Diamond
- Thomas Homer Dixon
- Peter Gleick
- Van Jones
- Michael Klare
- Heidi Cullen
- James Howard Kunstler
- John Holdren
- E.O. Wilson
- Daniel Gilbert
- Stuart Pimm
- Eugene Linden
- Joseph Tainter
- Alan Weisman
- Stanley Feder
- Dan Esty
- Malcolm Bowman
- Dan Schrag
- R. James Woolsey
And here are my rough notes jotted down as I watched the show, a time line of how it went for Lucy and her family. It's likely how it will go for us and our kids (did you know there’s a new baby boom going on?) unless we get our act together immediately:
Earth 2100 Timeline
Basically, fundamental and total global collapse by 2100. Droughts, famine, plague, complete social breakdown. E.O. Wilson comments in Act 10: “A few hundred years down the line, they’ll look back and say the Dark Ages took place in the 21st century.”
Energy, climate, food, population, water, oil, land – all at risk, degrading, ending. Why did we let it happen?
- People are used to doing what they like
- Parents knew what was happening
- People were working on solutions
- People were beginning to understand
But: nature was one step ahead, we were too slow to respond.
The old habit of oil, cheap gas does us in. Suburbs become less desirable as gas gets more expensive. Ripple effect through global economy, e.g., rising food prices. Our lifestyle is unsustainable. But China and India want in on it. Eating meat, for instance.
American habits are hard to break, we think we’re immune to natural limits.
Protests over rising food and gas prices, so we went to coal, but the planet warmed faster.
All the worst predictions about climate change are coming true, but gradually. People need a shock in order change, so they didn’t, at least not soon enough.
Sustainability summit talks are role-played by international policy makers, pretending as if it were 2015 (this actually took place a few years back). Result: US not willing to accept 30% reduction in emissions, nor are China and India willing to limit growth unless US gives them technology, which it can’t or won’t since technology is privately owned. No agreement was reached in this pretend scenario, carried out in all seriousness. Mirrors current disagreements at the July, 2009 G8 conference.
Frog in gradually heating water – we’re in the same situation: can’t see/feel/appreciate that things are actually deteriorating. Hence the title of Krugman’s 7/09 column, Boiling the frog.
2030: Shortages and higher prices a major fact of life.
Scarcity of water by 2030, 2/3 of world population under water stress, glaciers disappear, food supply disappears since no water supply. Rain fall levels drop. US Southwest becomes literal desert, migrations to north and east begin.
2040: environmental refugees pour into Europe and US desperate for water and food. Police fire into the crowd – panic, death.
Commercials during the show model complacent consumption while the show itself predicts total disaster.
2050: Mass extinctions: end of the albatross, a bad omen for the rest of us.
Current signs of normalcy suggest that it’s inconceivable that our civilization could collapse, but it could say all the experts, including Jared Diamond, author of Collapse.
2050: virulent flu kills Lucy’s parents. Rising seas: now building huge water barriers outside NYC. Abandoned suburbs, golf courses turned to dust, Lake Mead gone dry. Not enough water, Las Vegas dead. Lawlessness. People migrating north and east out of the southwest. Crops failing, pests flourishing. Little genetic diversity in crops, so at risk for catastrophic failure.
Brilliant people everywhere were working to change our future, but it wasn’t enough. Sound familiar?
2060: worst case scenario seems to be playing out, but cities like New York trying to model viable response. NYC is now the big “green” apple. Sense of purpose of being part of the big green effort. Self-sufficient buildings, biking lanes, electric vehicle. A moment of optimism, but…
Sea levels still rising, water barriers still under construction. New York becomes a population magnet because it seems to have solutions, be viable. Diseases spread into temperate zones. Virus hits New York, contained this time…
2070: Sea levels up 3 feet, Bangladesh gone, Everglades gone. Sea level rise not gradual now, but sudden. Climate change abrupt, a tipping point: methane release from tundra, making global temperatures soar. Non-linear change. Greenland ice sheet threatens to collapse. Response: SO2 sprayed into atmosphere, but there are unintended consequences of the so-called “cosmic shield”: ozone layer being destroyed, so have to stop. Sea levels continue to rise quickly, New York hit by Nor’easter with 20 ft storm surge, barrier gate sticks open. New York is flooded, many sections become unlivable, breakdown in all services.
2080: Wealthy move up town to higher ground. The poor starve, tap water contaminated, infections come in. Epidemic worldwide: the “Caspian” virus. World shuts down, billions on verge of starvation. People give up, services end, no Internet. Power finally goes out, data network goes down. No communication. Looting rampant, police abandon their jobs. No authority. Government had failed. Feds not taken seriously anymore. Substantial die-off of population, most of civil society has degenerated. Very much like Mayans, Easter Island and other collapses documented by Jared Diamond in Collapse.
2100: Fights just to keep what you have. Cities are now walled fortresses. Enclaves of affluence surrounded by masses of those barely surviving. Living in hell: we realized the truth too late.
Other Times contributors have recently echoed ABC’s and Krugman’s warnings. Based on interviews with psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Jonathan Haidt, Nicholas Kristof writes that we are psychologically ill-equipped to take climate change seriously: “In short, we’re brilliantly programmed to act on the risks that confronted us in the Pleistocene Age. We’re less adept with 21st-century challenges.” This puts it mildly. Tom Friedman points out the egregious foot-dragging on climate change by the minority party: “How could Republicans become so anti-environment, just when the country is going green?” But it isn’t just Republicans in Congress. According to Cornelia Dean, “Only about half the public [in the US] agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.”
The problem is salience - the lack of it. Unless you’ve seen direct evidence of rapid climate change, or been scared straight by reading the latest scientific reports (see here also) or by watching Earth 2100, the chances are that you’re complacent about global warming. Given what the science says, if you’re not taking at least some action on a regular basis for the sake of the planet, you’re part of the problem. Environmental activist Bill McKibben, initiator of 350.org, says we’ve got about four years to turn things around, so time is of the essence. All of us have to make action on behalf of sustainability part of our routine right away, otherwise our efforts in non-climate related domains are essentially for naught. All our future-oriented actions, personal and collective – educating our children, advocating for human rights, championing naturalism or our preferred brand of enlightenment – all these assume sustainability, having a future in which they bear fruit. But we’re not motivated to act on the future’s behalf since the threat isn’t sufficiently salient. We know about it intellectually, but not viscerally, so comparatively little gets done. Moreover, even many of those convinced of the threat, myself included, haven’t taken steps to incorporate action for sustainability into their daily or weekly routines. Hats off to those who have.
What to do? Below are some steps that will increase the salience of climate change and help translate that salience into action. I estimate the time spent on behalf of sustainability at between 2 and 4 hours per month, not counting habitual behavior like recycling, with a startup investment of about 4 hours. Given what’s at stake, this doesn’t seem unreasonable, and of course you can choose to do more. It will make you part of the solution, doing the right thing along with millions of other concerned citizens around the globe. Solidarity never had it so good.
- Read at least one recent science-based article or report documenting the current consensus on climate change, e.g., here. Then see, for instance, The Catastrophist by Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker on climatologist James Hansen: “Unless immediate action is taken—including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades—the planet will be committed to climate change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with.”
- Watch Earth 2100. Lucy’s first-person story, combined with credible talking heads, makes this very effective since it hits at all levels, concrete and abstract.
- Listen to someone like Bill McKibben talk about the urgency of taking action for strong climate policy.
- Put a sustainability icon or picture on your computer desktop as a daily reminder of the largely unseen and unfelt planetary shift now underway.
- Join and donate to at least one national group working on sustainability, such as 350.org.
- Join or start a local sustainability group and attend a meeting at least every other month. See also the commitment group concept.
- In collaboration with the group, your household, or on your own, develop a personal environmental action check list, including political action for sustainability, for instance the 350.org’s October 24 event. Make it as concrete and customized as possible, so that it’s realistic. You will know exactly what you or your household needs to do on a regular and one-time basis to fulfill your action goals.
- Make a public commitment to taking action - to your group, to friends, to family, to your spouse or significant other - so that your reputation is on the line. This is the crucial step since it invests you personally, making action psychologically salient to you in way it otherwise wouldn’t be.
- Fulfill your commitment: Take action; chart your progress using the check list and know that you’re doing your part. Compare notes with others in friendly competition; feel free to give people grief, and be prepared to take some yourself should you, your household, or your group fall short on your action goals. The commitment group concept is one way to track and reward altruism on behalf of the planet.
Talk is cheap, action difficult. Here are some common reasons for not making a commitment, or not following through, which need to be addressed:
- Skepticism. You’re skeptical about climate change. OK, but in the unlikely event the vast majority of climate scientists are completely wrong in their models, the steps necessary to avoid planetary catastrophe are good policy anyway. They put us on the road to renewable energy, new technologies, new jobs, population control, species and resource preservation, and the development of global mechanisms for collaboration in service to common goals. As collective insurance against the worst case, making climate control a top priority is simply commonsense, and indeed, insurance companies are adjusting their policies in light of the anticipated effects of warming. At the very least, global warming skeptics should be skeptical of dogmatic skepticism. Even Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptics Society, changed his mind about global warming. See his Scientific American piece, The flipping point. 
- Competing priorities. You’ve got other more pressing priorities than climate action. So do we all. But it doesn’t have to be your top priority to deserve attention; this is not an either/or situation. A small but regular monthly commitment will help assure that your long-term projects, should you have any, not to mention your children, and their children, all get a chance to flourish. This is the necessary tithe you pay to the future, to the planet. If you’re interested only in the short term, you haven’t read this far.
- Being wrong. You don’t want to look like a idiot for signing on to a possibly mistaken and hopeless cause. Same here. But at some point the evidence gets too strong for these kind of misgivings. Once salience takes hold, there’s no doubt about the necessity, moral and practical, for making the commitment to sustainability. Skeptics will continue to yammer on, but science shows they are deeply mistaken. And if it turns out they’re right, no problem. You’ll still have helped to reconfigure culture, technology and policy in some desirable directions.
- Being a sucker. You don’t want to be taken for a ride by free riders. Quite understandable. But the fact that not everyone will heed the call, in effect taking advantage of your efforts, isn’t a good reason not to commit. You pay taxes, don’t you? So you’re already being taken advantage of by some lawless libertarians. Climate action, like paying taxes, is arguably a moral obligation you have to yourself, your children and others; it’s obligatory regardless of how many abide by it.
Despite my efforts to increase its salience for you, the threat of global warming will still seem relatively remote, so it won’t command your attention and shape your behavior in the way your everyday concerns do. It’s likely that urgent calls for action such as Krugman’s will still seem alarmist and over the top, since everything still feels perfectly normal. You’ll want to discount everything that’s been said above. But don’t let your own short-term psychology, based as it is on the immediate evidence of your eyes, fool you. The evidence coming in from the scientific establishment paints a very disturbing picture of a planetary process that, left unchecked, will make life impossible or precarious for much of human kind, not to mention other species. Keep that picture in mind; incorporate it as a recurring theme in your representation of reality so that it gets reflected in your behavior. Help prove that we can exert collective self-control in service to our long-term flourishing. Increase salience, put your reputation on the line, and you will act. If we succeed, later generations will thank you; if not, at least you did the right thing.
TWC, July 2009
 From the report The Cost of Inaction: Climate Change in the Commonwealth:
Rachel Harold, an insurance specialist at Ceres, testified how climate change impacts the insurance industry. Basically, insurance companies’ business is to manage risk and climate change is making these risks “more severe, frequent and unpredictable.” Throughout the country, “weather related insurance losses rose to $50 billion in 2005 from less than $10 billion a decade earlier.” In Massachusetts, more and more homeowners are finding their home insurance policy cancelled, despite having never filed a claim. In 2006, more than 9,000 coastal homes in Cape Cod were not insured due to increased risk. According to a Standard Times article, several insurance companies have chosen to leave Massachusetts all together because of the high risk to coastal property. The “insurance industry is an incredible litmus test for economic health,” warned Harold. “The risks to the insurance industry and its consumers should be a big wake-up call for policy makers.”
 Here’s Shermer on books that changed his mind:
Four books eventually brought me to the flipping point. Archaeologist Brian Fagan's The Long Summer (Basic, 2004) explicates how civilization is the gift of a temporary period of mild climate. Geographer Jared Diamond's Collapse (Penguin Group, 2005) demonstrates how natural and human-caused environmental catastrophes led to the collapse of civilizations. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006) is a page-turning account of her journeys around the world with environmental scientists who are documenting species extinction and climate change unmistakably linked to human action. And biologist Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006) reveals how he went from being a skeptical environmentalist to a believing activist as incontrovertible data linking the increase of carbon dioxide to global warming accumulated in the past decade.