Climate change policy focuses on constant attempts to make guesses about the future: about economic development in rich states and poor, about patterns of technological evolution, about climatic responses to radiative forcing caused by changes in the gas mixture of the atmosphere. One cannot always evade the feeling that too many uncertainties are being layered. Consider, for instance, the possibility that hydrocarbon fuels will peak in world output within the next few decades. If that happened, most of our ‘business as usual’ economic projections would be badly wrong.
An even more ominous consideration relates to global conflict. When the world is generally doing well, it is devilishly hard to convince states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions for the universal good. Imagine how hard it would be in a geopolitical environment based around rising tensions and the growing expectation of great power war. We make projections for 2100 without acknowledging that making it from now to then without such a war would be a historical aberration.
In the end, I suppose, cynicism does us little good. The vast majority of ordinary people – and of powerful people – will not believe in the disastrous potential consequences of climate change until they start to manifest themselves visibly. As such, agonizing about them just makes you more marginal to the debate that exists among those not kept awake by fear about the possibility for self-amplifying positive feedbacks in the climate system. We must do the best we can, avoid confusing engagement with the mainstream debate with genuine complacency, and hope that humanity possesses more wisdom than it has ever demonstrated before.