A couple of years ago I wrote a post where I tried to explain why I thought climate change was a different kind of problem when compared to most of the other issues we might face today. I find it a tricky argument to make, because I don’t want to suggest that the other problems we face don’t matter, or that there aren’t consequences to not addressing them now, but the essential irreversibility of climate change does make it a somewhat unique issue.
You can put rules back in place that clean up the air and water. But climate change doesn’t work like that.
Yes, in many situations, if we were to implement processes to address our impact, then we can reverse that damage that’s been done. Climate change doesn’t really work like that. A significant fraction of the CO2 we’ve emitted will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time.
This is illustrated by a figure from a very nice paper on how [p]ast climates inform our future, by Jessica Tierney and colleagues. The figure shows past, and potential future, atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The key thing is the x-axis, which shows a period of over 600000 years. On our current trajectory, atmospheric CO2 will remain above 400ppm for thousands of years, and won’t return to pre-industrial levels for 100s of thousands of years.
Additionally, we’ve already increased atmospheric CO2 to levels comparable to that of the Pliocene (a few million years ago) and could increase it to levels not seen for 10s of millions of years.
What I’m getting at is that what we’re doing is unprecedented and has extremely long-term consequences. This isn’t to say that we should ignore everything else and only think about addressing climate change. I do think, though, that it’s worth being aware of how climate change is likely different to the other kind of problems we may face and should bear that in mind when thinking about how to work towards a better future for all.