The key thing that is required for dealing with climate change, and which our society does not yet possess, is seriousness. Seriousness of the kind that accompanied winning the Second World War – far more seriousness than we are displaying now in Afghanistan. We can afford to effectively lose that war, watching control pass back to the Taliban, but we cannot afford the consequences that would arise from decades of additional unmitigated emissions.
The threat certainly justifies an effort on the scale of winning a world war. The business-as-usual outcome of more than 5°C of temperature increase would cause enormous disruption. It is quite probable that it would disrupt global agriculture to such an extent that the global population would drop significantly, amid a lot of bloodshed and suffering. Preventing that requires replacing the energy inputs that run everything with carbon neutral ones: a process that will cost trillions and probably require converting areas the size of states into renewable power facilities.
Where could the necessary seriousness come from? The scientists have already given us a vivid and well-justified picture of what continuing on our present course will do. Some political parties and entities have accepted the direction in which we need to travel, though they don’t really understand how far we need to go along that road, or how quickly we need to begin. In the worst case, seriousness will come with the first concrete demonstration that climate change is a major threat to civilization. By then, however, even action on the largest scale and with the utmost urgency would probably be more of a salvage effort than a save.
Something needs to prompt us, as a global society, to take action on an environmental issue at a scale and a cost never previously borne. Rational scientific and economic analyses are already urging that, but don’t seem to have the psychological motive power to make people stop dallying. Finding something to provide the needed push into serious thinking must be a major task for the environmental movement.