It's Time to Stop Predicting the End of the World

Columbia University earth scientist Peter Keleman is sick of hearing that we're doomed to suffer horrific climate disasters. And it's not because he doesn't believe in global warming — it's because he does, and he understands it a lot better than the doomsayers do.

Over at Dot Earth, Keleman writes, in part:

Climate catastrophe is not inevitable, let alone irreversible. Of course, it could happen. It is logical to expect that, as atmospheric greenhouse gases increase and the world warms up, the extra energy in the atmosphere and oceans will move things around in unusual ways for which we are not prepared. The costs will likely be very high. We should work to avoid this, for simple, practical reasons. Avoiding emissions now will be far less expensive than capturing carbon dioxide from air in the future. But the future is unpredictable, our mistakes are correctable, and there is plenty of reason for optimism about what people can accomplish in the face of necessity.

Throughout the past 10 to 20 years, despite many obstacles, worldwide wind and solar energy generation have grown exponentially, at more than 24 and 33 percent per year, respectively. They still constitute a small share of total energy production – not surprisingly, since they still cost more than other sources. A carbon tax would help to even the playing field, factoring in the likely damage due to greenhouse gas emissions. This is overdue. But my point here is that, despite the obstacles, some segments of society are sufficiently farsighted to invest in the future, even at a present-day premium. It is happening . . .

As the costs and dangers of present trends become clear, people will react. Virtually the entire oil and gas industry was built in a century. Half of it has been constructed since 1980. Think of what we, and our children, can accomplish in the next century, starting with the next 30 years. I am optimistic about this. Climate, energy, and resource problems have solutions, and we can solve them when we muster the resolve to do so. This requires a costly commitment, which will only be made if most people believe a positive outcome is both attainable and worthwhile.

Therefore, the climate that worries me most is the climate of fear, the belief that our current trajectory leads inevitably to total disaster. This belief discourages constructive action, and can result in irrational acts by people in despair, individually, or as nations, willing to do anything to derail the juggernaut we are told is carrying us, inevitably, to destruction.

Imagine if you went to the doctor, and she told you that your lifestyle was unhealthy and you're liable to have a heart attack. But instead of recommending ways for you to get your cholesterol under control, she just threw up her hands and said, "Well, it will take so long to fix this problem, and it's so scary to contemplate, that we should just give up and let you die." Keleman isn't saying we're not facing a possible disaster. He's just arguing that there are a lot of remedies and therapies we can use to mitigate it and lessen the odds of calamity. Doom is not inevitable. There's still time for us to slowly start bringing our bad carbon habits under control.

You'll want to read more of what Keleman has to say at Dot Earth.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Annalee Newitz is the author of the forthcoming science nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.