Climate change poses a tremendous scientific, economic, diplomatic, and ethical challenge to the human race. Fossil fuels have been a great gift – but as the greenhouse gases produced by burning them accumulate in the atmosphere, our continued dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas poses a grave threat to the climate on which all life depends.
Today, many citizens in developed countries produce at least 10,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide each year. Some of these gases will still be in the atmosphere thousands of years from now. This means that climate protection is our mutual responsibility. Working together at the household, local, national, and international levels, our task is to redesign the energy basis of our civilization, while simultaneously adapting to the warming we have already caused. Our species has never faced a challenge quite like this. In a sense, it is the greatest journey we have ever faced.
The science is clear: Global warming and climate disruption will continue to accelerate until we stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It is critical to understand that delay and denial don’t make the problem go away, or make it cheaper to solve. On the contrary, they make the problem worse, its solution more expensive. Resolving the climate challenge will take decades, but we must get started, since some additional warming is already “locked-in” due to inertia in the climate system. Wise choices can limit future warming, preventing dangerous disruption to the climate system. But if we stay on our current path, a climate crisis is all but guaranteed. One reason is that energy infrastructure, like carbon dioxide, is long-lived. A typical coal-fired power plant will operate for 40 to 60 years. Likewise, buildings designed today will be consuming energy long past mid-century. Because today’s decisions will outlive us, it is critical that we begin to move to clean energy and low-carbon solutions immediately.
Given the very nature of this problem – that it only gets worse the longer it is ignored – it seems inevitable that humanity will, sooner or later, act to reduce its influence on climate. If that is the case, why not get started now? If we continue to procrastinate, future generations are likely to look back and ask, “What were they thinking? What took them so long?”
If, on the other hand, the world comes together to reduce emissions, end deforestation, and build a sustainable clean energy economy, our children and grandchildren will offer us their gratitude, for by vanquishing the threat of climate change we will have given them a precious and enduring gift.