Can we create a climate for hope? Try a reboot

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(1200 words)

The city of Istanbul lies astride one end of the Bosporus, a long, narrow, yet deep neck of water that flows in two directions at the same time. On the surface, freshwater streams southward from the Black Sea toward the Mediterranean. The denser saltwater of the Med forms a northward countercurrent that rides well beneath the surface. If this hidden salty river flowed overland, it would be the sixth largest river of the world. [1] The Ancient Greeks knew of it, and they would hitch a ride by dropping large sacks filled with rocks as a kind of bait, fishing for that dark momentum that could carry them forward toward new adventures, past the legendary clashing rocks of Jason and the Argonauts. [2]

Adapting to climate change, and mitigating its worst effects, will also require navigating dimly perceived currents of social transformation. What we are faced with is a need to reinvent human civilization, a thought that can make the heart quail until we remind ourselves that every generation reinvents what comes before it. Climate change isn’t a problem that can be fixed in one or two election cycles. It can’t even be ‘fixed’ in one or two generations. Instead, climate change is now, always has been, and always will be the constant companion of our civilization. What’s different now is that the observed pace of change has accelerated, and this acceleration is understood by climate scientists to be due to human activity.

The climate news can be depressing at times. Attempting to sail against the strong headwinds that currently blow out of Washington, winds that resist meaningful and direct forward movement to deal with the climate crisis, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that there are always countercurrents beneath the surface, pushing in the other direction. By riding those counter streams we might still get where we need to go.

While rigid political ideological systems can dictate policies, at least for a short time in historical terms, they have a tendency to become gradually less relevant to the world evolving around them. Liberal democracies should have a greater capacity for reinvention and renewal over the long term, because on principle they do not claim there is only one right solution to any given problem. In theory, democracies are well suited to respond fluidly to the evolving challenges presented by climate change, so long as citizens support policies that will make a big difference over the long haul. But we can’t realistically expect those same citizen voters to sustain a sense of urgency over the generational time scales that climate change requires.

What to do? Time for a reboot.

Although I’m a scientist, I usually avoid invoking the computer as a metaphor for humans and society because it’s an overused trope. But it’s apt for the point I’m making here because it encourages us to think about what we might call the ‘default settings’ for our civilization’s ‘operating system’. In a computer, the system default settings guide the decision paths the computer follows when it boots up. Change one default setting and your background changes color. Change another and you have a different pre-selected WiFi login. In this manner, the default settings guide the information flows in your computer.

Because of advances in technology and changes in social mores, each generation effectively ‘reboots’ our civilization. And so, if we want to understand what strategic moves we should make to put our civilization on a more humane and resilient path, one that has a better chance of lasting centuries, and is far more benign in its effects on the non-human world, we should attend to the default settings for our civilization’s operating system.

What are some examples? A few are well known: A carbon tax, properly applied, would be a kind of default reset to the economic operating system, as would the rapidly emerging renewable energy economy. In some markets, solar and wind are already the cheapest form of power for utilities. Smart grids and improvements in batteries, and other energy storage technologies, will also dramatically reset the defaults for how we generate and distribute power in coming decades. The mix of government-funded R&D, tax incentives, and direct subsidies that encourage commercialization, have a proven track record for delivering huge returns that benefit everyone if and when they are adopted globally at scale.

But there are many other examples of default options, and they are not always in obvious places.

Resetting defaults involves the greening of forensic accounting, financial risk analysis, and insurance underwriting. This means insisting upon rigorous audits of companies to understand how investors and insurance companies are exposed to climate risk, not only the effects of climate change itself, such as increased risk of fires, storms, and floods, but also regulatory risk in the event of carbon taxes, and market risk due to those rapid advances in renewable energy technologies. If a company has no meaningful climate risk strategy investors should take their money elsewhere, and insurance companies should decline coverage. This would enforce market discipline.

Resetting defaults involves things like creating new curricula for the civil engineers and architects who will design, build, and maintain the infrastructure we will need in coming decades. Where previous generations could assume a stable background environment, this will not be possible going forward. For example, the lifetime of a bridge or a major highway designed today now stretches until the end of the century when sea levels along the East Coast are projected to be over four feet higher than present, and still rising. Students need to know they will be designing for a changing world.

Resetting defaults also means upgrading design guidance and codes for buildings, homes, and facilities. For example, the Governor of Virginia recently signed an executive order requiring all state agencies to do a climate resilience audit, and to upgrade design requirements on all state buildings using the best available climate projections. While things are stymied at the federal level in the US, strategic planning like this for climate adaptation is moving forward in those regions already hit by sea level rise, like Hampton Roads, Southeast Florida, and the Mississippi Delta. These actions are based upon direct experience that accelerating climate change is already happening here and now to us, and not in some ill-defined future to someone else.

Moving farther afield into the humanities and law: Resetting defaults also involves revisiting the foundations of our ethical and political philosophies, and then pursuing the implications for our legal systems and government institutions. Philosopher Stephen M Gardiner has argued that climate change is fundamentally an ethical problem, and that it presents us with a ‘perfect moral storm’: It is intergenerational, interspecies, and truly global. These are areas where historically the Western tradition has had serious blind spots.

Taken together, these examples suggest that our civilization is reinventing itself and rethinking its basic assumptions in light of climate change. This work is important because while human society is not perfectible it is improvable. Such work can be deeply unsettling, because it calls into question hidden assumptions, habits of mind and behavior, and it asks us to reflect upon our deepest values. Ultimately, however, I believe such work can be a source of climate hope because it taps into the creative energies of our entire society to meet the climate crisis. It allows us to ride those deeper countercurrents that are always present, even when stiff headwinds are blowing on the surface.

[1] Moskvitch, Katia. “Rivers under the sea: Earth’s vital waterways are also the strangest.” New Scientist 221.2957 (2014): 42-45.

[2] See, for example, Ryan, William, and Walter Pitman. Noah’s Flood: The new scientific discoveries about the event that changed history. Simon and Schuster, 2000, pps. 61-66.

Photo: Old Route 1 causeway, Florida Keys. Photo by author, May 2018.

Copyright © Eugene R. Tracy. All rights reserved. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it, while respecting the Terms of Use.

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