The Biggest Problem of All Time

William A. Liggett — Mar 16, 2019

As more and more people are aware of climate change and its seriousness, doesn’t it seem our response is less about denial and more about deferral? We know that something needs to be done—by somebody, someday soon—but we rarely think, “I need to do something today.”

We may take comfort in knowing that scientists are busy identifying the problems. It may be reassuring that youth are protesting inaction of adults on climate.  We may take comfort in learning about the falling cost of solar panels and the increasing percentages of electric power coming from renewable sources. We may even take comfort in scientific progress toward more efficient batteries, removing carbon from the air, and making buildings more energy efficient.

We may find it reassuring that extreme weather will continue to deliver the message that something needs to be done. Unfortunately, many people don’t connect the increasing frequency of destructive storms, wildfires, and floods to climate change, so by the time climate’s warnings are unavoidable, it may be too late to escape the most severe consequences.

How can we make fighting climate change our number one priority? If we get out of bed every morning and plan to address climate change, does that mean we put aside all of our other daily activities? Common sense suggests that this will neither solve the problem nor lead to a meaningful and productive life.

Individuals can take a number of steps, such as eating less meat, taking fewer flights in airplanes, and installing LED light bulbs. If enough people do them, the response could make a difference. But these individual actions seem unaligned and inadequate to address the problem.

There are some problems that, given their magnitude, require collective action. An example is vaccination against disease. A single individual getting vaccinated may protect that person but does not lead to the herd immunity required to control the spread of the disease through a population. People have identified actions like this that individuals must take for the sake of the greater good.

That’s where the power of collective action, such as the Paris Climate Accord, is needed. The attractiveness of a worldwide solution is that it addresses the scope of the problem. The agreement establishes a large-scale collective response. It is a start, so if more aggressive actions are required, the agreement can be strengthened.

It is almost inconceivable that life of humans on earth may be extinguished because of our own inaction. The processes that could ultimately wipe out humanity are changing slowly and do not impact us frequently enough for us to imagine this dire outcome. But when the trendlines that scientists have identified and warned us about are put together, and they seem to be accelerating, they point in the direction of the collapse of civilization and ultimate extinction.

We don’t like to think in these terms, and we would much rather hold onto the hope that humanity will solve this problem as we have so many in the past. But so far, the evidence does not look good, and past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. We simply do not have a solution that adequately addresses climate change today.

So where does this leave us? We need to do what we can as individuals, while supporting efforts toward collective action that might produce a solution large enough and robust enough to save humanity. Let’s not give up hope even when faced with the prospect of the loss of our world as we know it.

Have you taken steps in your personal life to reduce your carbon footprint? How confident are you that humans will join together to solve the problem of global warming?

Bill Liggett writes fiction that blends behavioral and earth sciences in the new literary genre “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. In Watermelon Snow, his first novel, a long-frozen virus melts from a glacier, threatening a pandemic. His second novel, Panic Peak, (in process) entails a plot to geoengineer the earth’s climate. The planned third novel in the trilogy paints a hopeful future, based on solutions to global warming.

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