This is a post that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but have been somewhat reluctant to actually write. This is partly because maybe I’m wrong, partly because it is clearly going to be a bit too simplistic, and partly because I don’t want to suggest that issues other than climate change are not important; I think they are. However, I want to try to make an argument as to why climate change is a problem that is fundamentally different to many of the other issues we face.
You often see claims that people don’t regard climate change as a particularly important issue, or that there are other issues that are more pressing at the moment. Global poverty, inequality, healthcare, education, crime, to name but a few. It’s certainly not unreasonable that many people regard these type of issues as more important than climate change; something that they may regard as not (yet) impacting them, or something that will only start to clearly manifest itself in the future.
As a society we always have to make decisions about our priorities. Not everyone will agree, and in many cases we may well change our minds as to what problems we should focus on. Whatever we choose to do, some will benefit more than others and, in some cases, some people may suffer unnecessarily. However, in most cases, even if we delay addressing some issue, we can still do things in the future that will improve the situation. Climate change is something for which this is not true, and is why I think it is an issue that is quite distinct from many of the other issues we may wish to address.
Climate change is essentially irreversible on human timescales; whatever changes are induced by our emission of CO2 into the atmosphere will persist for centuries, if not millenia. So, the longer we take to address climate change, the bigger the change that we are committing ourselves to, and the more likely it becomes that climate change will severely negatively impact ourselves and natural ecosystems.
Even though we can’t easily reverse the changes that have already taken place, it is not technically impossible to stop it. Doing so, however, will require getting net emissions to ~zero. Since we can’t do this instantly, we will be committed to increasingly severe climate change, until we get net emissions to ~zero.
What I getting at is that, unlike many other issues we face, delaying action on climate change has very long-term implications. The more we delay, the greater the change to which we’re committing ourselves, and the more likely it becomes that this change will be severely negative. This is not, however, to suggest that we should focus on climate change above all else; there clearly are other important issues that we should be addressing. However, the implications of delaying addressing climate change are potentially serious and I think we should bear this in mind.
Additionally, climate change may well exacerbate many of the other issues that we regard as important. Therefore, it’s not a simple either or situation. Not only does delaying acting on climate change have long-term implications, addressing it now could have a positive impact on many of the other issues that we regard as important.
This is clearly a complex issue, and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but I do think that we should be careful of thinking that climate change is simply one of many issues that we need to address and that we can simply deal with it at some point in the future, when it’s more convenient to do so. What we might be dealing with then could be vastly different to what we would be dealing with today, and if we do delay action, we may well have locked in severely negative changes that will persist for many generations.
Something I’ve ignored is the possibility that we could address climate change through geo-engineering, or through negative emission technologies. This is, of course, a possibility. However, geo-engineering carries its own risks and negative emission technologies are as yet undeveloped. We could hope that we manage to develop reliable technologies for artificially drawing down atmospheric CO2, but there’s no guarantee that this will be possible, or that it will be easier than trying to find ways of generating energy that doesn’t also involve emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.