Beth Ward

Even if we completely stopped producing all carbon dioxide today, there would still be enough in the atmosphere to feel new impacts for years to come. It’s a scary thought that motivates some and paralyzes others. So what do we do with this information? Shrug our shoulders and accept (or deny) our fate? Pay a steep price to halt all CO2 emissions ASAP? My answer is neither. We ignore black-or-white thinking and examine more nuanced approaches to preparing for climate change.

Here’s what got me thinking on this: an article by Vox Editor-in-Chief and self-described “climate pessimist” Ezra Klein, titled “7 reasons America will fail on climate change.”

“This is the awful math of climate change now: the question isn’t whether we’ll fail,” Klein writes. “It’s how badly we’ll fail.”

Here’s why we’re doomed to failure, according to Klein:

1)      We’ve waited so long that what America needs to do is really, really hard—and maybe impossible: To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius — the level of warming scientists predicted in the 1990s that the world could safely endure—the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to be reduced on average between 1.3 percent and 3.1 percent for the next 40 years.  But, as Klein points out, “The world isn’t going to sharply cut emissions this year. It isn’t going to sharply cut them next year. And every year we wait the adjustment gets more violent—and more impossible.”

2)      The people most affected by climate change don’t get a vote: “Carbon emissions disproportionately benefit the U.S. and disproportionately harm countries that are not the U.S.”

3)      We’re bad at sacrificing now to benefit later: “The structure of the problem doesn’t mesh well with the strengths of the American political system. Major policy changes tend to happen in American politics when the pain of inaction dwarfs the pain of action at that moment.” But Klein points out that the worst effects of global warming won’t be visible for a long time. Inaction wins.

4)      The effects of global warming are not easily reversible: Once the glaciers are in the ocean, the carbon is in the air, and the oceans rise, we don’t have a rewind button. “As tremendous as our mastery of nature often appears, we are outmatched on the geologic scale.”

5)      The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change:  Despite previously sponsoring and co-sponsoring legislation to combat climate change, including a cap-and-trade bill, the GOP has shifted its stance completely. “They’ve abandoned their own legislation and even begun to question the very fact of climate change.”

6)      The international cooperation required is unprecedented, and maybe impossible: Klein argues this is because growth in places such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Sub-Saharan Africa is going to require carbon-intensive technologies. It’s what Klein calls “climate change’s ugliest tradeoff”—better quality of life requires more energy.

7)      Geoengineering is nuts: “Not to be a killjoy, but it’s hard to believe that the consequences of the huge unpredictable changes to the global climate can be safely reversed by further efforts to make huge, unpredictable changes to the climate.”

But we Americans hate the word “failure.” Climate Progress’ Joe Romm came up with his rebuttal titled “7 Reasons America Should Succeed On Climate Change.”

“I think it is important for climate and policy experts to be realistic,” Romm wrote. “But as politically difficult as serious climate action may be, there’s no doubt it’s something we could do, and I don’t see how anyone can know we won’t.” He gave a few key reasons why:

  • The declining cost of solar and wind technology is expanding deployment, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • As a rich nation with infrastructure and wealth near sea level, the U.S. has “the most to lose in an absolute sense.” As we begin to grasp what’s at stake, we’re more likely to act.
  • “The choice is not between inaction now and inaction forever. [While] aggressive action will always be the best action,” we can still make an impact even if we’re slow to start. We might miss the boat on avoiding some serious consequences, but it’s not now or never.

It’s that last point that resonates. Klein throws out excellent arguments with a healthy dose of reality. And sure, by his yardstick—that we’re unlikely to stay under the 2 degree Celsius threshold—we will fail. But I hesitate to give anyone a reason to throw up their hands in the face of climate impacts.

Here’s a better takeaway from Klein’s facts: we’re not out of time to act—but the time to act is now. Klein argues that we’re on track for an “unmanageable failure,” but it’s still possible that we can achieve a “manageable failure.” I agree. We’re not doing enough to combat climate change and we need to take action now, not later.