Most of us will never suffer a house fire, but over the years we spend tens of thousands of dollars insuring our houses against that disaster (we also spend huge sums of tax dollars paying for fire stations and equipment). Most of us will never have a serious accident, and yet we all spend even more money insuring our cars, just in case we do.
As a nation, we are extremely unlikely to suffer a germ-warfare attack, and yet at a cost of billions of dollars we have stockpiled smallpox and anthrax vaccines. We also spend countless billions of dollars on research to find cures to diseases like AIDS and bird flu which most of us will never contract. (For that matter, we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars fighting an alleged "terror" threat which at its worst might threaten a few hundred or thousand people, and that also might never occur.)
We spend our hard-earned cash to insure against all of these things not because they are likely to happen to us but because in the unlikely case that such things did come to pass, it would be such a personal, or a national calamity, that we need to be prepared.
So why are we, as individuals and as a nation, doing nothing or next to nothing about global warming--a disaster which is potentially worse than anything else imaginable, including nuclear war?
Even if the darker scenarios being drawn--which range from global draught, lost coastlines and a northward march of deadly tropical diseases to the collapse of civilization and the virtual extinction of the human race--are unlikely, the reality that they actually could happen should be leading us to take out some kind of insurance policy, and should be driving us to start taking steps to prepare, just in case.
In fact, however, we are ignoring or denying the problem--and in fact are actively increasing the risks. Even though we know that the polar ice caps are melting at an accelerating rate, and that the vast regions of permafrost north of the Arctic Circle are melting, we are not even requiring that automobiles meet strict fuel efficiency standards. As a nation, we continue to promote a society based upon the personal automobile, and as citizens we continue to buy earth-killing SUVs and muscle cars. As a nation we keep heating our homes at 70 degrees in winter and air conditioning them at 65 degrees in summer, adding ever more generating capacity that keeps pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere.
As a nation, we refuse even to contemplate a policy that would actually significantly cut emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As individuals, we refuse to alter our lifestyles to reduce our carbon footprint.
Are we nuts?
What would we call parents who refused to buy life insurance, or who refused to carry health insurance when they could afford it? What do we call people who drive their cars without having insurance? We call them selfish and stupid, and in the latter case, even criminal.
So what should we call a society that is risking the future of civilization, of humanity, for the selfish reason that its people just don't want to be discomfited in the slightest?
I would say it is madness. Someone who refuses to recognize reality, who refuses to see disaster ahead, who refuses to act on the basis of self-preservation, but instead does things that are likely to cause self-inflicted injuries or death, is certifiable.
That's us--certifiable, both as individuals and collectively as a nation.
In a sense, we're lucky--our house hasn't burned down yet. We can still act. Maybe the better analogy is the person who didn't buy life insurance. If we'd bought it when we were young, it would be cheap to pay the premiums, but because we're nearly at retirement age now, it will be a lot more expensive to buy--if we can get it at all.
That's how it is with climate change. The die has been cast. The polar caps are melting, setting in motion a raft of irreversible changes. The permafrost melt, for example, is creating vast swamps with unimaginable amounts of organic material which, under water, will rot anaerobically, releasing not carbon dioxide, but methane, a gas that has 24 times the global warming effect of CO2. The loss of the north polar cap, and of the vast snowfalls in the arctic north, is reducing the reflectivity of a large portion of the earth's surface, increasing the sun's heating effect. Forests in temperate and tropical zones are dying or shrinking because of decreasing rainfall, and falling river levels.
Like an insurance policy purchased at an advanced age, the available remedies to climate change are getting more and more costly.
Just cutting car and power plant emissions to 1990 levels will not be enough anymore. Even if we cut emissions by 80-90 percent, we will still likely see catastrophic sea level rises this century, and massive global crop failures, and starvation on an unimaginable scale. But that grim prognosis is no reason not to act. If we don't take action--serious action--the catastrophes will be even worse.
Living in China in the early 1990s, I marvelled at how the government there was trashing the country's environment in the name of development and industrialization. It is clear that for the ruling Communist Party, the short-term interest of staying in power by keeping people happy with jobs and rising incomes trumps longer-term concerns like gallopping desertification, life-threatening pollution and global warming. But how different is our capitalist society and government, really? In the name of ever-rising profits over the short-term, we too are putting survival the nation and of the human race in jeopardy. In fact, since Americans, 5% of the world's population, produce 25% of the world's greenhouse gasses, we are actually worse than China, by far.
We must, as human beings, as a society, and as individuals, snap out of it, and take dramatic action.
If we don't, we're all just plain crazy.