I've been contemplating recently the astounding fragility of contemporary society. One walks through the streets of New York on an ordinary day and the place seems geological in its permanence: the great buildings, the ordered streets, the lights and amenities. And then a little wind, and little water and it becomes barely habitable. New York seems to have done a remarkable job of cleaning up after Sandy, although the City's confidence appears to have been shaken. Leaders are now discussing spending real money on surge protection and many have drawn an association between the damage and global warming.
I still find it odd that the people who make a living from fossil fuels have fought so hard to trash the science on which the theory of global warming is based and how strongly so many people throughout the world have been able ignore a fairly simple set of well-established facts. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and the more of it that gets into the atmosphere the warmer the planet will be. That's as solid as anything in science. The problems come with determining how much CO2 is attributable to us, what the planet will do with it, what the immediate results of the proliferation will be, as well as the timing of such results. We rely on models for this information and the models are subject to some error. What does not appear to be subject to error are the brute facts that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity.
It may be that this phenomenon will not yield to the normal political process. People throughout the world want cheap power and the life that cheap power provides and they will continue, I believe, to burn coal and oil at present and even increasing scales--in China and India, for example--until the whole thing plays out. It could get very bad indeed. We had the big Asian tsunamis and Katrina and various earthquakes over the past decades, but we have no experience with a world in which weather-related disasters are a constant. People in immense numbers may move away from the shore, and since probably a third of the world's people live in coastal regions, along with many of the world's great cities, it is not a pretty picture. No one really can get this into their heads, which is why our policy apparatus is paralyzed, not that we have the sort of world-spanning authority we would need to cope with a planetary-scale event. The earth is one, but the world is not, as we used to say in the sustainable development movement.
There is one cure for global warming that requires no intergovernmental cooperation, however, and that is nuclear war and the nuclear winter that will result from it. Is there a more frightening concept?
Absent that, I suspect that this will be one of the epochal changes and will affect humanity like the Neolithic, the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions did. For one thing, I don't see how national sovereignty can survive in its present form. In fact, maybe the last act of sovereign nations will be to cooperate to stop global warming from doing its worst.