Fear of the Future: Climate Change

I don’t think I’m the only one worried about the future. Is the world spinning out of control?

The U.S. president is the laughingstock of most of the world, and is causing unprecedented damage to American democratic institutions and to the environment, while polarizing the nation. In Brazil, where I grew up, the leading candidate for presidential elections is an ex-army captain who wants to castrate sex offenders and institute the death penalty. He is also a homophobe, a xenophobe, a hardline politician that brings back memories of the military dictatorship of the 60s and 70s. Still, there and here in the US, fear motivates people to support such leaders, hoping they are the cure for all evils.

But it’s not just politics. Hurricane season has started with a bang, flooding the Carolinas; that’s Hurricane Florence in the image at the top of this page. Meanwhile, devastating typhoons are hitting Japan in sequence, leaving a trail of death and destruction. In Indonesia, the situation is horrifying. Still, many refuse to believe the increased strength of hurricanes is related to global warming, despite mounting scientific evidence.

I’ve been asking friends and colleagues about this reluctance to accept the inevitable. Why is it that so many well-educated, well-informed people, when faced with clear information about an issue of such magnitude as global warming or the violation of democratic rule, are still unwilling to change their ways?

Granted, there are those whose financial interests act as a blindfold, and many of those are U.S. politicians and billionaires with vested interested in the fossil fuel industry, such as the Koch Brothers and Paul Singer. De-emphasizing the obvious scientific nature of the global warming discussion and making it into a political issue works in their favor, and this line of propaganda has served them well.

Although I don’t presume to have an answer, there are a few things we can say. People will more readily change their ways under acute pressure, real or imagined. The stronger the pressure, the faster the change. Historically, large-scale social mobilization happens when a nation or a group fight a common enemy. When political leaders invoke patriotism, they do so with a very clear intent: to unite people behind a common cause, to fight against a national threat, real or invented. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to launch the U.S. into World War II, even though it had been raging on in Europe since 1939.

The missing link

There is thus a disconnect between large-scale social mobilization and climate change, and the missing link is pressure. Many people, even those aware of the evidence for man-induced global warming, dismiss it as a future event, as if there’s no real pressure for decades to come. So, why bother? Why bother saving water, protecting the environment and sea-level areas, using alternative or cleaner energy sources, especially as these are often costly, if there is no reason to rush?

Miami is an interesting exception. The city is becoming increasingly vulnerable to weather disasters that incur sea-level rising, and is taking measures to protect itself. Roads are being elevated, sea walls are being rebuilt, pumps are being installed, and drainage systems are being improved. Why? Because citizens have had enough scares to realize that things are changing, to the point that the pressure mounted above the threshold for action. The costs of inaction can escalate well beyond those of the works being undertaken now.

“It’s really important for us to take this long-term planning perspective,” Amy Knowles, Miami Beach’s Deputy Resiliency Officer, told Business Insider. “In the past, I don’t think cities looked 100 years off and said, ‘What can we do now to make sure we’re as prepared as possible?’ And I think that’s a really unique perspective. If we just take those steps now, we can reduce our risk. If we wait, we may be experiencing much more costly events than if we had just taken action.”

Add to that the very real possibility of social unrest and major population displacement during a large-scale flooding event, and what Miami is doing now should be the international norm for all sea-level communities.

Global warming is clearly not the Nazi invasion, but the threat of social catastrophe is real. The problem, as opposed to a clearly-defined enemy during war, is that in global warming we are our own enemies, and each of us plays a role. When it comes to pollution there are no borders or cultural differences. The atmosphere, the oceans, the rivers—we all share the blame and the consequences, although some are more to blame than others, of course. (The baffling U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change wasn’t much help, either.)

If millions are displaced from coastal areas, where will they go? What would the losses to the economy and the environment be like? The more the media addresses this issue, the more scientists get engaged in the public sphere to clarify the real evidence for global warming, the more the pressure for change will mount.

The question is how much pressure and evidence will be enough to really promote global change in the way we need, even if this change will be uncomfortable to most of us?

The first in an occasional series where Gleiser addresses different sources of fear we will face or are facing as a species.

Templeton Prize winner Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.