Fossil Fools: Is it Too Late?
With the world on the brink of change, we can only hope that this current sense of urgency is enough to reverse generations of damage.
For 250 years now, our economy has mostly been about one thing: figuring out more ways to burn fossil fuel. That’s what we do; that’s who we are. If an alien landed in the United States, they’d doubtless send word back to headquarters that they’d discovered a race of flesh-colored devices for combusting coal and gas and oil.
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The year 2009 is such an interesting moment because after 20 years of thinking and talking and worrying about global warming, the world is finally edging closer to actually doing something about it. In December, the world’s leaders meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a new climate treaty. Since “doing something” about the climate can only be defined as weaning ourselves off that coal, gas, and oil, any effective treaty will in essence reboot civilization. If all goes well, 2009 will be the watershed year—the year the planet begins to turn its back on one way of doing business and starts to finally embrace a new way.
Does this sound like overstatement? It almost certainly is, at least in the sense that we won’t notice huge shifts immediately. The built infrastructure can’t change overnight, but if the political system manages to actually stick a real price on carbon, then our sense of the future will alter. Anyone building a new house or factory will suddenly have to imagine a world very different from the past or present: a future where the design will need to make sense for the world 40 years hence. The force of economic gravity will shift. What used to sink will suddenly float. Even our sense of identity will shift. Look at what happened in 2008 when the price of gasoline briefly skyrocketed. All of a sudden, millions of Americans discovered that they weren’t forest rangers after all, and maybe didn’t need 18 inches of clearance and a winch in order to get the groceries.
Which is why it’s fine to be optimistic—but only cautiously. Because just as human assumptions are finally starting to change, so are basic physical conditions. We used to think that climate change was going to take a while. Twenty years ago, when I wrote the first book on the issue, we thought it would be mid-century before we really saw big shifts. We underestimated how finely balanced the planet is, an illusion that finally had to crumble in the summer of 2007 when Arctic ice suddenly melted, decades ahead of schedule. Since then, we’ve seen the rapid spread of drought across Australia and the Southwest, the sudden destruction of western Canada’s pine forests, the acidification of the oceans and worse. We’ve learned that climate change is not a future problem, not something for our kids to solve. It’s a current crisis, one that our parents should have foreseen.
In essence, we’re running a race. Will we change fast enough? Can we shift our economies as quickly as science demands? Everyone can see where we’ll need to be in 100 years—a world of solar and wind power. The question is, will it take that long? If it does, global warming wins. Instead of a clean energy future, we have a future filled with disaster and tragedy.
Humans too often imagine that they’re living in historic times, that their moment is special. Ours actually is—which means we better rise to the occasion.
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