A frequent letter writer to our local paper is consistent in his certainty that the climate is not changing, or is changing within the context of normal climactic cycles extending over the eons. He is equally consistent asserting that humans have nothing to do with it. He’s not alone, but his fellow true believers are small in number, and growing smaller, finding themselves in company with young earthers, flat earthers and their ilk. There is something to be said for a man willing to stand defiantly alone in an unfriendly crowd. Great leaps forward in humanity’s ascent have come from courage like that. But not always. Sometimes they have been the last man insisting that Copernicus was wrong, cars would never replace horses, Malthus was right, etc. It’s a long list. I suspect he is among them, at least on this issue.
What bothers me more is his apparent indifference to the suffering and damage already caused by a changing climate, and his dismissal of actions that can help prevent more suffering and damage. In that, he is not alone. Indeed, he is amid a multitude. Among them are those who claim moving away from reliance on fossil fuels will cripple the economy. It’s a double sin. On one hand it shows a heartless disregard for human suffering in favor of economic profitability for a few. On the other it fails to recognize where economic opportunity is heading. The future of economic growth is precisely in the direction of new technologies applied to energy production and distribution, not just here but all over the globe. They are changing almost as fast as the climate, and with them the possibility of doing something useful to mitigate climate change suffering and damage. That should be celebrated and encouraged.
Our local letter writer can’t see that. He worries about economic damage caused by shutting down carbon heavy industries in favor of new age fads fighting a climate change battle he believes doesn’t exist. He has a point, or at least a half a point. When infrastructure changes in dramatic ways, there will always be economic dislocation. An electrical system that relies on central generating plants feeding into a nation wide grid of towers, wires, substations, and all that is needed to operate and maintain it, is a big economic player. As the nation weans itself from total dependence on it, companies will have to shift, downsize, reorganize. It’s already happening. In 2015, two years ago, there were more jobs in the solar power industry than there were in either traditional electricity or coal. Both of those were in years long decline, while solar and wind were in years long growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has data you may find interesting. Look it up.
What is true for electricity is also true for petroleum. It’s not going away, but with a growing market for all electric and hybrid cars, improved gas mileage, and renewed interest in plant based packaging, gas and oil demand is likely to decline, and perhaps stabilize. That doesn’t mean an end to it. Old systems never go away altogether. Even the Erie Canal has found new uses. Horses still roam the countryside. The railroad is still in business. My Subaru Outback has years of life in it. None of it is going away forever, but change driven by concern about climate change, new economic opportunities, and a desire to reduce dependency on centralized power sources, mean economic dislocation for some. It’s a reality of life in a world of rapidly changing technologies. Dislocation in one area means relocation in another. It’s not a zero sum game.
I’ve tried that line of argument in coffee conversations, and got nothing back but blank stares of incomprehension. It comes from a combination of skepticism about the volume and acceleration of climate change, disbelief that small changes made locally can have an effect on a global problem, and anxiety about the impact of old jobs declining in the face of increasing demands for mysterious, poorly understood new jobs. Consider what happened when cars and tractors became common. Demand for stables, farriers and blacksmiths declined. Demand for gas stations, garages and mechanics increased. Something like that is going on today at a more complex technological level.
Maybe it would be more persuasive to try another tack, one that appeals to our shared values about responsibility, accountability, and stewardship. Look at it this way, our island home, careening through space in the company of its life giving sun, is the only one we have. At no other time in it’s long, long history has it been populated by enough people with enough technology to do it great harm, or to care for it as responsible stewards. Originating with the industrial revolution and advances in human longevity, it’s something new in the last two hundred years of its four and a half billion years of existence. Suddenly, we have before us the possibility that we humans can so abuse our home that it will become uninhabitable – for humans. With or without us, the earth will go on. Which it will be is up to us. Climate change skeptics could use their gifts of skeptical reasoning in more constructive ways that may contribute to the well being of us all, and even more, to the well being of those yet to be born. In like manner, those who are concerned about economic good times should stop defending a dying past, and turn to a future in which the economy can do well while doing good. Finally, we all need to recognize that the accumulation of small steps taken locally all over the globe add up to major shifts on a global scale.