Earth and galaxy

Slow burn

The hardest problems for us to solve are those that aren’t immediately pressing. We want things now even if we know, deep down, they will cost us later (or, better yet, they’ll cost someone else later). We see this with underfunded pensions, infrastructure decay, and the biggest “slow burn” problem of all, climate change.

Climate change first made the front page of a major U.S. newspaper in 1988. We’ve known climate change is happening for 40 or 50 years. And the science has been clear for several decades. Yet we’ve done very little. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t think much about it until my sons were born the last few years. I may have 40 or 50 years left but they could reasonably live to see the 22nd century.

I started digging into this more after reading Jeremy Grantham’s the Race of Our Lives Revisited in late 2018. In short, this is not a drill. Per the IPCC, climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.”

So, why should we care? If not for us, at least for our children and grandchildren? Because climate change is existential for us as a species. Because we are already seeing the impact of climate change through more frequent extreme weather – wildfires, droughts, hurricanes. Because the costs of action today are far lower than if we continue to kick the can for even a few more years.

What do we know?

  1. Global emissions of greenhouse gases are still increasing.
  2. The world is already 1° C warmer and the rate of increase is accelerating.
  3. Climate change has severe knock-on effects on water supply, agriculture, etc.
  4. Some of the changes already set in motion are irreversible over our lifetimes.

Even if we make drastic changes starting today, it will be a closely run race. To mitigate against the worst outcomes, we must decarbonize the economy and do so quickly. This is a fight we must – collectively – take on now…not next year or next decade.

If we don’t act, we know that things will get bad. Just how bad, we won’t know until we get there. That’s the nature of feedback loops and nonlinear effects in a complex system such as climate. As with many things, the affluent (countries or individuals) will be (mostly) fine. Those that will be the worst-affected by climate change are also, sadly, those that will be least able to handle the consequences on their own.

Per Jeremy Grantham, climate change “is the ultimate Tragedy of the Commons: so it can only be dealt with by government leadership and regulation.” In the last 1-2 years in the U.S., there’s increasing recognition of the problem. But, so far, that has translated into more talk and token changes than real action. Real action takes time and costs money. If it were easy, we’d already have solved the problem. I plan to do my part. Will you do yours?

We will need all the leadership, all the science and engineering, all the effort, and all the luck we can muster to win this race. It really is the race of our lives.
– Jeremy Grantham

For more, see Grantham’s The Race of Our Lives Revisited (PDF).

Share this post
Scroll to Top