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A guy gets a call from his doctor. “What's up?” he asks.
“Hey, the reason I am calling is to see how you're feeling,” says the doctor.
“Me? I feel great overall. Super productive, lots of energy. But now that you mention it, I am having occasional migraines. And I've checked my temperature, and I do seem to be running a bit out of my normal range. Like I said, though, I am doing great overall.”
“I see. But those headaches and that temperature issue—that's a concern. We think that could be a big problem.”
“A concern? Like I said, it is frustrating. But for the most part, I feel great. I'm getting a ton done and I feel like things are moving along. Well, most of the time. But really, who cares about some minor symptoms? Also…what do you mean be 'we?'”
“Myself, and all of the other doctors. We are confident that your diet is causing these problems. The migraines, the weird changes in body temperature…”
The guy takes a moment. “Okay…so? Am I going to die from this?”
“We don't know. It is going to get worse, for sure. Might get a lot worse, might even make you miserable. Maybe kill you. But we can't say for sure.”
“How much worse is it going to get?”
“We don't know.”
“Hmm. Well, you said it's my diet. What's the treatment?”
“We want you to radically change what you are eating. Cut back on desserts, eat more vegetables and less meat. Really overhaul your diet completely. Oh, and reduce the travel you're doing, stay home more, and avoid a lot of the activities you've been doing.”
“What? No way. These symptoms are annoying, but they aren't that bad. Why would I make all of those changes?”
“Because things are going to get worse if you don't. Maybe way worse.”
“But you don't know when? Or how bad they are going to get?”
The doctor pauses. “Honestly, no. It's definitely going in the wrong direction. But it's hard to say how fast it is moving and how far it will go.”
“Okay, well, uh, thanks doc. Doesn't sound like I need to do anything.”
“But wait, I haven't—-CLICK.”
A Real, Yet Nearly Impossible Problem
Basically every scientist who studies climate change believes it is real and serious. Because if you look at the data, two things are happening:
- Planetary temperatures are shifting: summers are hotter and winters are colder.
- Extreme weather events are more common.
There's another question about what is causing these things to happen. But as much as I want to wade into the debate about the reasons we are experiencing climate change, that doesn't matter. We are seeing it happen, so we need to get ready for what is next.
But that brings to the problem, which is the same one for so many political issues: perception is reality. Basically, almost everybody agrees that the planet is getting hotter . Also, almost everyone agrees that the government should “do something”—plant more trees, enact tougher carbon restrictions, and focus more on alternative energy sources .
Which is great, but experts—like the ones in my little parable—don't really know how bad things are going to get , or how much it would cost to stop climate change. Estimates range from $300 billion to $50 trillion or more .
Let's review where we are:
- Most everybody agrees climate change is real and that we should do something about it
- But there's not much agreement on how bad it is going to get, or what it would cost to address it
This is why we're stuck.
The Answer is Preparation
In 2018, Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to strike land in the United States since 1992. The event led to the deaths of 70 people and caused $25 billion in property damage. In Mexico Beach, Florida, the majority of beachfront properties were completely destroyed. Except for one house, built at roughly double the usual cost, which survived the storm almost completely unscathed .
Changing our behavior to try and scale back our use of natural resources does not seem viable. Nor is it likely we are going to drive less, eat less meat, buy fewer things, or fly less often to reduce our carbon footprint. Indeed, doing these things would be bad for the world economy, and we all depend on the economy to stay alive.
Nor is enhancing building codes in high risk areas—such as those prone to major storms—an instant fix. Nor is the proposal to plant a trillion trees . Nor are any other number of proposals intended to help us get ready for hotter summers, colder winters, and continued extreme weather events.
But actions that require spending rather than cutting seem a lot more feasible. We simply don't have the political will or the centralization to do much else.
Something is Better Than Nothing
The expression says “'perfect' is the enemy of 'good'. It's easy enough to find scientists who think we can still reverse the effects of climate change through dramatic governmental and industrial action, and also to find those who think we cannot. But clearly, the camps are going to merge into one of shared futility. Eventually almost every expert is going to say “we haven't done enough, and now it is too late.”
That might seem like a reason to get started soon on preventative measures. But I think we need to acknowledge the political reality. We're not going to slash the global economy. We are too short-sighted for that right now, even if it is a good idea.
More storms are coming. More blazingly hot summers with difficult growing seasons, more bitingly cold winters that are tougher to survive. We can prepare for what we believe is coming. But we're past the point of trying to stop it from coming at all.