The alarm bells were going off 20 years ago at the Rio Summit but few of us were listening. Six years ago, Al Gore raised the volume much higher with his film and we started paying a lot more attention, but we still didn't do much about it. And now the evidence is mounting that we might, in fact, be too far gone already.
Climate change is happening much faster than we anticipated; feedback loops are kicking in everywhere, totally dwarfing any of our own greenhouse gas contributions. Skyrocketing property damage from climate volatility is obliterating livelihoods, panicking insurance companies, and draining government funds. And the OECD just released a frightening study this week, suggesting that our constant debate, dithering, and lack of real response are now setting us up for a severe economic and lifestyle nosedive in the coming decades.
Maybe some of the cynics are right: No matter how much we curb our emissions now, the damage is already done and the climate will continue to destabilize. Maybe that whole "mitigation" concept was pure fantasy and we were a few decades too late. But should we just give up, enjoy the irresponsible partying a little bit longer, and then simply brace ourselves for whatever comes next -- or should we refocus our attention and energy on the things we can still affect?
Here are the two areas where we can still make an incredible difference:
SMART ADAPTATION: Life will be remarkably different in a climate-changed, energy-starved, and food-destabilized world. Fossil-based energy will become much more expensive, no matter what -- and the same will happen to energy-intensive foods (which account for the majority of our diet today).
As a result, our definition of quality of life will begin to change quickly. Energy and food autonomy, for each of us as individuals, for our cities or and for entire nations, will become an increasingly large part of what we think of as "wealth." After so many decades of steady decline, the importance and value of physical distance will start to increase again, rapidly.
Travel will become more expensive; size and space and suburbs will become less desirable. Our kids will drive and fly a lot less than we did, our city cores will become much more expensive, and our diets will become more diverse and more restricted at the same time. Those of us who start to anticipate and adapt early, will definitely do much better in the long run.
LEGACY: We know we didn't cause (all of) this, but we now understand what caused it and how we're still contributing to it. We're now officially the first (and likely the only) generation of conscious climate-change contributors in the history of mankind. And, just like it happened to every generation that came before us, there will come a point before we expire when our legacy will matter more to us than just about anything else.
Even if we can't stop climate change anymore, we will ultimately be judged on how we responded to it. And chances are we will not want to be remembered as the villain generation, the ones who didn't respond at all and knowingly continued to contribute to lifestyle misery of our kids and grandkids.
Even if we can't stop the spiral anymore, we can definitely slow it down and make a huge difference on how we'll be remembered. Without a doubt, this is becoming the largest single challenge to the progress and perhaps the very survival of our species -- and, as the first ones to discover it, we don't even have the moral right to ignore it....
I am genuinely optimistic that our paralyzing debates are nearly over. We are among nature's most resourceful, competitive, and image-conscious creatures with a genetic bias for action, so it won't take much more scary evidence before we're pushed over the tipping point of decisive action. We may not be able to reverse the damage anymore, but we can certainly figure out how to thrive in this changed world and how to protect our future "brand."