Why We Are Naively Optimistic About Climate Change : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Unfortunately, we are failing in the goal to make our children's world better than our own — and those who deny it won't have to see the consequences of their choices, says blogger Marcelo Gleiser.
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Why We Are Naively Optimistic About Climate Change

S. Guisard/ESO
Sunset at Paranal Observatory in northern Chile.
S. Guisard/ESO

There is comfort in distance, especially when the distance is in time.

Things that will happen far in the future seem not to bother us much, given that we will, most likely, be out of the picture.

This is certainly true when I put on my astrophysicist hat and talk about how the sun will turn into a red giant star in about five billion years, engulfing Mercury and Venus in the process, swelling up to almost Earth's orbit. Clearly, such cosmic cataclysm will mark the definitive end of our planet as we know it. A roasted chunk of stuff will remain, but nothing like we see today.

But who cares, right? It's so far away in the future, that even if I say that changes in the sun will turn Earth inhospitable for life much earlier, perhaps under a billion years from now, people will still shrug. A billion years? I can't comprehend that kind of time.

Fair enough. But if we could bring the cataclysmic clock a bit closer to us, what would be the timeframe that would make people start to care, hopefully fear, the horrendous oncoming destruction of our way of life? One million years? Too far out. One thousand years? Still, not really relevant. One hundred years? Okay, here it starts to get uncomfortable. Seventy years? Now we are within the lifetime of most people under 10 years old.

So, if the world as we know it would cease to be in 70 years, people should start to take notice now. I have an 11-year-old and a 5-year-old. Barring unforeseen catastrophe, they will be around in 70 years. I would want their world to be better than mine, not worse. That should be the legacy of our generation. Unfortunately, we are failing, and those who deny it won't have to see the consequences of their choices. How comfortable.

Seventy takes us near the end of this century, when predictions from climate models describe terrifying scenarios. We tend to focus on the rising of the oceans, and the forced displacement of tens of millions to the interior. Miami, New York, Rio, Bangladesh — How is that going to work, exactly? Where will the people go? How are they going to eat, find shelter? Are we, or the government, doing enough to prepare, even for a just-in-case scenario?

Last month, a trillion-ton iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the Western coast of Antarctica, part of the Larsen C shelf. (Make sure you watch the video too.) The geographical change is so dramatic that maps of the continent will have to be redrawn. Although it's hard to attribute a particular weather-related event to climate change — scientific modeling of global warming describes the relative statistical possibilities of different scenarios, not sure-shot predictions — the cumulative effect of this event and others that preceded it in Larsen shelves A and B add up to a radical change in Antarctica's landscape.

As David Wallace-Wells pointed out last month in an important article for New York Magazine, even if we enjoy watching movies and TV series about dystopian futures, such as Mad Max, The Hunger Games, and Black Mirror, we tend to dismiss such scenarios as a realistic possibility in our lifetimes. Unless, that is, things begin to crumble. As Wallace-Wells remarked: "It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency." We will react under pressure, even if, by then, it will be too late to reverse or even slow down, in any relevant way, the warming trend.

According to the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), over the next decades the sea level will rise gradually anywhere from 0.2 meter (0.67 ft.) to 1 meter (3.3 ft.) by 2100. In their assessment, scientists working for the IPCC use words like "highly likely" and "high confidence," and only rarely "virtually certain," which are not dramatic enough for the general public or politicians. Models show that temperatures will fluctuate more widely, with heat waves increasing over time. The planet is already warming up, as recent decades have been the warmest on average over the past 150 years. Heat waves impact food production, increase disease, and affect those in need more directly. A European heat wave in 2003 killed 2,000 people a day, with more than total 35,000 dead. As Wallace-Wells summarizes from interviews with many professional scientists who have spent their careers studying the weather and climate change: "No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster." This is a runaway train.

The list of horrors is long. Widespread famine leads to massive migration, making what's happening in Europe today pale in comparison. As the temperature rises, the Arctic permafrost (land that is permanently frozen, or should be) has started to melt, potentially releasing enormous amounts of trapped carbon in the form of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with an impact that can reach 34 times that of carbon dioxide by century's end. If the melting accelerates to two decades, the impact is 86 times as powerful. While the temperature rises, diseases spread, some of them from trapped ice in high latitudes, ancient bugs we have no antibodies to fight. Even if many of these bugs may die during the thawing process, many will survive, carried by air currents and infected people to overpopulated latitudes.

Meanwhile, the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the oceans to acidify at an alarming rate, compromising corals and fisheries. Coral reefs supply about one-quarter of marine life and feed more than half a billion people today. The dead zones spur the growth of oxygen-eating bacteria, making it impossible for fish to survive. Decomposing organic matter generates hydrogen sulfide, a highly poisonous gas that shuts down the nerves regulating breathing, killing in seconds even at low concentrations. Hydrogen sulfide played a key role in the most severe of all mass extinctions in Earth's past, when 97 percent of all life died 252 million years ago.

Interestingly, as Wallace-Wells remarks, many climatologists remain optimistic, believing that we will find technological mechanisms to sequester the excess amounts of carbon that are slowly chocking the planet. This trust in science as savior is understandable: If we engineered this mess, we should be able to fix it. But it is also very dangerous. To trust human ingenuity alone is a risky wager, one we can't afford to lose. The mindset needs to change, and scientists can only do so much to promote this change. People are not getting scared, and scaring tactics often backfire.

Perhaps it will be those who are now 10-years-old that will fix this, knowing that their elders messed it up for them. Shame on us.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser