Written by: Connor Stangler
We are in serious trouble.
Unemployment worries me. The national debt troubles me. Poverty disturbs me. But the prospect of a gradual apocalypse, of an indiscriminate global crisis does not seem to frighten me like it should. The climate change crisis does not lack in significance, but I can’t seem to grant it as much as it deserves. Why?
In the December 2010 issue of The Atlantic, journalist James Fallows wrote about the “inevitability of coal” as a, if not the, solution to our aggravated global climate crisis. For someone as comfortably unaware of this problem as I am, the first few pages of this article will leave you gasping for increasingly precious oxygen.
The problem is not a lack of solutions. Brilliant scientists, wealthy corporations, and even innovative citizens have conceptualized creative means to curb the destructive human effect on the environment. But these solutions are at best piecemeal. What we lack is a sense of scale. The vastness of climate change escapes the reach of our mental faculties — for now.
Fallows explains that though controversy surrounds the connection between the build up of greenhouse gases and subsequent climate change, enough anxiety centers on the problem of “positive feedback,” which means the warmer the Earth gets now, the faster it will get hotter in the future. For example, as the polar ice caps melt, there will be less white ice surface to reflect the sun’s rays and more blue water to absorb them. Thus, the warming process will accelerate. The effects will include severe heat waves, more frequent and deadlier hurricanes, longer droughts, and rising sea levels, endangering such coastal cities as Miami, New York, and Shanghai.
We are environmentally disoriented. At times we seem content with plugging the holes in the damn even when we know the flood is coming. We hope that an incoherent mix of solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear power plants, and biofuels can stall our fate. Granted, not one of these energy forms alone will save our planet. But it is also not just a matter of turning off an unnecessary light. Legislators and innovators talk of a more comprehensive, coordinated solution to the crisis. We certainly need something like it, but are we ready for that?
Before we can appreciate the severity of the circumstances, this country’s citizens need a fundamental overhaul of the way it thinks about the problem. I cannot grasp the immensity of the problem because 1) my mind cannot conceive of a figure like 37 billion and 2) my sequestered existence in northern Missouri does not allow me to see the immediate effects of such a phenomenon. It seems pretty hot in the summer, but because I do not witness the melting of glaciers, I put “fixing the environment” on tomorrow’s to-do list. Until the Netherlands no longer exists or water starts making its way up to the Empire State Building’s doorstep, I will remain insufficiently cognizant of the problem.
In order to reach a level of cognizance that will ensure the future safety of the ecosystem, I will have to alter the way I think about climate change. I will need to begin to comprehend the scale of the damage and its effects. This is not just a matter of acknowledging the statistics or filling the blogs and the nightly news programs with frightening stories of cataclysm. It will require a break from my default setting. My normal mindset encourages me to pass the responsibility to future generations. But future America is not home to infinitely more sensible or far-sighted people. They will be just as greedy and complacent as we are today. If they are any more aware than us, it will be because they will witness the first globally destructive consequences.
This change will not come in a thirty-minute orientation session. It will require a tangible education as well as a more abstract alteration of our consciousness. It will be much harder than any political obstacle we may confront. We may find climate change to be one of the most scientifically and mentally defining crises of this century.