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Saturday, February 01, 2014

A Driverless Civilization

Human civilization has made a huge transformation, yet few realize it. It's a transformation larger than the driverless car. We've become a driverless civilization—and one with huge risks.

Before a few decades ago, nothing man did could endanger our entire society. But, since the middle of the last century, we've had the power to destroy our habitat two different ways.

  1. The first was obvious: nuclear weapons.
  2. The second was not obvious: climate change.
We've worked hard to eliminate the possibility of a global nuclear war. So far, we're winning.

But, climate change is a much harder problem, simply because it happens at so slow a rate that most people simply can't see it. Of course, if you live long enough and have retained a good memory, you'll notice just how much the climate has changed in your own lifetime. You're an exception.

Climate change is very real, James Hansen, who's been sounding the alarms for several decades, writes:
Despite knowledge that all the coal cannot be burned and carbon- rich unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands and tar shale, should not be developed, our governments have allowed every fossil fuel that can be found to be extracted. Governments even encourage and subsidize growing fossil fuel extraction.
Okay, if we burned all of the fossil fuel in the ground, we're dead. Along with every other lifeform on the planet. It was such a nice world, wasn't it? It's such a shame we had to blow it up.

But, is it deliberate that we're making no headway on stopping climate change? According to Hansen:

Is this a simple story of chicanery? The fossil fuel industry and governments are the villains? An oft-repeated accusation is that the fossil fuel industry mimics the tobacco industry, which decades ago used unscrupulous means to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is easy to find examples of fossil fuel industry denial of climate change. Also there are obvious cases in which people made wealthy by fossil fuels try to maintain their fortune by lobbying governments and buying or influencing media or the courts.
However, the analogy of tobacco with fossil fuels is not even close. Tobacco is a luxury and an addiction. Energy is essential to humanity. Fossil fuel energy aided elimination of slavery and lifted half of the world out of poverty. Abundant affordable energy is essential to eliminate remaining poverty and reduce humanity’s heavy footprint on nature. What science tells us is that the energy must be carbon-free, if young people and nature are to have a bright future.
Our “captains of industry”, including the fossil fuel industry are hugely talented. They are part of the solution to the energy and climate problems, but our political system needs to give them the proper incentives instead of hamstringing them or pointing them in the wrong direction.
The story of why we have floundered and wasted 22 years has not been accurately reported. A large part of the blame for complete policy failure rests on the shoulders of people who recognize the reality of climate change and claim to be supporting needed actions. This is a story that needs to be told, because until it is understood we likely will continue to flounder.
Politicians, elected to serve the people, bear a large part of the responsibility for failure so far, and the blame falls heavily on both sides of the political aisle. Scientists, too, bear a large responsibility. It is not most of the individual scientists who are at fault, because they work in specialized fields – rather the scientific community as a whole and those scientists in a position to see the broad picture, but who have failed to communicate the situation well.
Hansen goes on to point out that it's the young people of today who will have to change things. He doesn't say so, but the conclusion is that the Baby Boomer Generation will turn out to have not only not stopped climate change, but created much of it themselves by burning fossil fuels in such large quantities.

How does it feel to be riding in a driverless civilization? A driverless civilization would be nice if it always made the right decisions. Unfortunately, our driverless civilization is being driven by drunken teenagers, not sober and wise adulats.

Wouldn't it be nice if we wised up and passed a law forbidding the burning of fossil fuels?

But, you say, that would destroy civilization!

Sometimes the patient must be given strong medicine to recover. We've reached that state where we either decide to live or to die as a species. And, we must halt the burning of fossil fuels in order to survive.

Now, realize, even if we brought fossil fuel burning to a halt by, say, 2020 (a very unlikely target), we would still suffer continuing climate change that's already in the pipeline. Younger people should realize that their choice is either a bad climate or simply an unliveable climate.