An Enlightenment Scale Opportunity

Part of the reason people tend to focus on tangible, individual actions like recycling soda bottles is that the scale of the climate problem is so large that those who do understand it are already half-inclined to give up. What does it mean to cut CO2 emissions by 90 percent? It's hard to fathom what that world would look like. So a key component of solving the problem becomes attitude. How do we think about climate change in a way that empowers us instead of scaring the pants off us?

First, we can't look at this challenge as the end of the world. Climate change is not the end of the world, but more important, Americans in particular can't be galvanized into action by "the sky is falling" scenarios, even if they're true. We tend not to believe them because we have a compelling history of overcoming predictions of doom with technology or luck (overpopulation, Y2K, and ozone layer destruction, for example). Most problematic, we can't imagine the scope of a challenge like this. The Black Death killed off one-third of Europe, but that was in 1348; we don't have the experience, or social memory, of real catastrophe.

There's another way to look at climate change: As an opportunity on the scale of the Enlightenment or the Renaissance, a rare chance to radically change the face of society forever. Such wholesale societal change is within our ability because we have done it before.

When Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, it moved from a period of irrational superstition—mythology, not reason, ruled people's lives and fear, not optimism, was the operating principle of the day—into an age of reason and rationality. The movement was traumatic, but ultimately it improved every aspect of people's lives, from medicine to law, science to government. Like the Enlightenment, tackling climate change will require a century-long and revolutionary mobilization of society's intellectual resources, finances, mores, vision, government, and technology.

On a highly efficient planet running on clean energy (which is a world that has solved the climate problem), most existing pollution will be gone and many of the obstacles to solving other problems—poverty, starvation, access to clean water (or water at all), disease—will be significantly reduced. Wars will be less likely without the need to fight over scarce resources like oil and water. The health risks associated with contemporary energy generation and usage—mercury in our blood, acid destroying our lakes and forests, diesel fumes in our lungs, toxic smog in our cities—will vanish. And the environment, on which much of our wealth is based, will be able to rebound and flourish when mining, drilling, and clear-cutting are replaced with cleaner, less stressful, renewable options.

When faced with an especially difficult section of river, whitewater kayakers scout the run, examining all the obstacles from the riverbank to plan a safe route through the rocks, holes, and churning waves. At some point, however, most boaters get tired of scouting; anxious to tackle the challenge, they want to get in their boats and go.

We have scouted this climate problem to death. Yes, we are frightened by the immensity of the undertaking. But this is the opportunity of a lifetime, maybe of a species. Like the leaders of the Enlightenment, who viewed themselves as courageous, able, and hopeful, Americans are ready to engage climate change frontally, right now. Because addressing climate change, and the associated work we need to do on energy, is what's for dinner for the rest of our lives, we might as well relish—even enjoy—the battle.

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