On Earth Day and over the weekend I was doing some thinking: as the evidence continues to mount and statistical models continue to more accurately model climate change, the truth becomes ever more convenient, to borrow Al Gore’s now somewhat clichéd phrase. Despite the warnings on warming backed by reams of peer-reviewed studies, many scientists and advocates are dismissed as “Cassandras” (despite that in the legend, Cassandra turned out to be correctdeclined lately in the United States
Thankfully, rather unlike the shrill “alarmism” of right-wing caricature, a sober and eloquent voice outlining the challenges and consequences of climate change already exists. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Researchrecent interview in Der Spiegel
The entire affluence-based economic model of the postwar era, be it in Japan or here in Germany, is based on the idea that cheap energy and rising material consumption are supposed to make us happier and happier. This is why nuclear power plants are now being built in areas that are highly active geologically, and why we consume as much oil in one year as was created in 5.3 million years. We are looting both the past and the future to feed the excess of the present. It’s the dictatorship of the here and now.
Prof. Schellnhuber was a keynote speaker at the 2010 Interdependence Day Celebration & Forum in Berlin
For those not able to watch the entire video (though I highly recommend it), beyond the hard-hitting facts and figures, I was most struck by Schellnhuber’s breaking the issue down to one of “very simple physics and very simple ethics.”
When I drive a car, burn firewood, or even exhale, I am putting CO2 into a global system, which will have consequences–however miniscule my personal contribution might be. This is the interdependence of physics. No matter how much we delude ourselves into thinking so, humanity cannot exist independently of the biosphere or atmosphere (though both could exist perfectly fine without humanity).
The simple ethics is a recognition of responsibility and reciprocity. Though we are all affected by climate change, not every individual, corporation, or nation-state contributed to the problem equally nor will suffer the consequences equally. For example, already in 2005, the World Health Organization estimated that climate change was already claiming 150,000 additional lives per year
When worrying about the consequences of climate change, it is easy to become overwhelmed, especially given the rancorous debate surrounding the issue. But I take heart when I hear Prof. Schellnhuber’s breakdown of the policy solution for mitigating climate change as simply physics + ethics. Interdependence can be incredibly complex, but there remain certain basic truths behind it.