Climate change is a daunting problem, about which humanity is doing far too little. While all the characteristics that make climate change a massively difficult thing to deal with are daunting, there are also numerous reasons to be hopeful about humanity’s future. Those who are alive now are likely to live to see the question of how much the climate changes decided, either in favour of unconstrained burning of fossil fuels accompanied by unconstrained warming, or shifted decisively toward zero-carbon forms of energy and a sustainable future.
That potential shift represents a major opportunity for humanity. For tens of thousands of years, human societies functioned using renewable forms of energy: primarily sunlight embedded in crops and biomass. Since about 1750, humanity has benefited from the massive burst of embedded energy accessible in fossil fuels. The evidence of that energy is everywhere: from highways to high rises. Now, we are obliged by pragmatism and ethics to swap out the unsustainable core of all our society’s undertakings and replace it with one that is compatible with the potentially unending string of human generations which could follow this one. If the generations alive now, and those that will be born soon, manage to achieve that transition, they will have effected one of the most importance changes in the history of humanity: a great shift from a global society built on the weak and threatening foundation of fossil fuels to one that can be relied upon indefinitely.
The rate of change in human societies is easy to underestimate, and yet the world has been transformed to an enormous extent in each of the past few centuries. Those transformations have largely been uncoordinated – arising from disparate actors making choices in response to the local incentives they face, as well as their worldviews and ideologies. Functional worldviews now must be exactly that: perspectives that are capable of taking seriously the bounded, finite, and interconnected nature of the world in which we live. If we are capable of driving the emergence of such worldviews, it seems as though the benefits could be numerous. Dealing with climate change requires that we act selflessly in anticipation of problems that science has uncovered, lurking out in future decades. If we can learn to respond intelligently to that threat – and press the emergence of a political and economic system that has that capability – it seems that humanity will be knit together in a newly intentional way. A way that includes the recognition of mutual interconnection and vulnerability, which appreciates how changes that unfold across long timescales can nonetheless require present and enthusiastic action, and which may be capable of addressing the many other problems which threaten humanity, albeit not as profoundly as climate change seems to.
In a way, the fossil fuel industry itself demonstrates the kind of human capabilities that are now required. Whereas extracting oil was once a comparatively simple matter, the global network of systems that extracts, processes, and uses fossil fuels is the product of a massive investment of resources and ingenuity across decades. Capabilities like deepwater drilling and the upgrading of heavy oils demonstrate what the combination of capital and human intellect can produce. Until now, most renewable forms of energy have been bit players from a societal perspective. As it becomes increasingly clear that the future of our energy system lies in the use of such technologies, it is fair to hope that some of those resources and intellectual capabilities will be turned to the project of their deployment and improvement.
The challenge facing us is an enormous one: one that requires a new level of global coordination across all continents and across the decades and centuries ahead. It is reasonable to see it as a test of humanity – whether we can behave collectively in an intelligent way, responding to a problem that is anticipated rather than immediately obvious, or whether we really are just a swarm which cannot be coordinated. While my reasons for hope may not be wholly rational, pressing ahead with the possibility of success in mind is surely preferable to despairing at the difficulty of the problem.