State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Why We Will Meet the Challenge of the Climate Crisis

I’ve been aware of climate change since 1980 when as a junior EPA staff person, I was given an assignment of drafting a preliminary policy on sea-level rise for federal facilities. It was a strange assignment, and I don’t think my draft went anywhere, but it was my first exposure to something called the greenhouse effect. I read some articles written by a fellow named Wallace S. Broecker, who studied oceans and was warning about something called “global warming.” In a few years, we would be colleagues on the Columbia faculty and later at the Earth Institute. Wally, Mark Cane, Robin Bell, Jim Hansen, Peter Schlosser, and scores of other Columbia scientists were studying every aspect of global warming, and by the time we reached the 21st century, they and their colleagues around the world had clearly demonstrated that humanity was facing an existential threat.

Our global economy is the foundation of our political stability, and it is built on a wide variety of technologies ranging from the internal combustion engine to industrial farming. Many of these technologies emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Our planet is getting warmer, and that heat is changing ecosystems and weather patterns. We continue the practice of introducing new technologies before we understand their full impact. We will be doing that even more often as we cope with the impact of the threats to environmental sustainability that will only increase with time. We saw rapid emergency technology development in the past year with the near-miraculous invention of COVID-19 vaccines. We have seen what we can do with our backs to the wall. But as happy as I am to be fully vaccinated, I know that the long-term impact of these vaccines is unknown because they have not been around for the long term. But we are studying and testing the impacts, and if we find some that are harmful, we will develop technologies to deal with those harms. Technology solves problems and creates problems, and then new technology is needed to solve the problems created by earlier technologies. It’s an endless cycle.

So, given the daunting task of addressing climate change, why do I believe that we will meet the challenge? It comes down to some fundamentals about our species as a whole: Generally speaking, we do not want to die, and are not suicidal and we are creative and ingenious. We can also be stubborn and selfish, and so the path to meeting the climate challenge will not be direct. My colleagues in the physical and natural sciences are often frustrated by public policy because they expect it to solve problems. They problem-solve in their own work. They study what they seek to understand and gradually get their arms around the problems they are studying and often solve those problems. Public policy is different. We don’t solve problems — we make them less bad. As Charles Lindblom and David Braybrook posited decades ago when they articulated incremental public policy theory: public policy is remedial, serial, and partial. We seek to move away from the problem and make progress in small, discrete steps. There are no magic bullets or quick fixes. It is a long slog through the mud of trial and error.

I frequently use homicide in New York City as an example of making a problem less bad without solving it, and it is even more the case now that crime is spiking up. In 1990, we peaked at 2,262 murders. In response, Mayor David Dinkins and City Council President Peter Vallone created the “Safe Streets Save Cities” program adding 10,000 cops and millions of dollars for youth programs, and by the time Dinkins left office, murders had declined to 1,927. In 2018 it hit its low point at 289. Much less bad, unless you were one of the 289 murdered or their families and friends. In 2020 homicides spiked to 468, and this year we have already recorded 181 homicides as compared to 166 at this time last year. We will probably top 500 this year. It’s not 2,200, but clearly, we are heading in the wrong direction. Something has changed and our approach to public safety must also change. What does this have to do with climate change?

We should expect to see a similar path as we address the climate crisis. It will be decades of trial and error. We need to develop and utilize measures of success that chart our progress towards reducing global warming and reducing its impact on people and the planet. Global temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations are good outcome measures. But we should also chart the growth of renewable energy use, electric vehicle use, electric grid modernization, changes in agricultural and manufacturing processes and similar steps in the right direction. We should also measure spending and actions that reduce the number of people in the pathway of climate-induced damage. From sea wall construction to ecological restoration projects to the safe and positive resettlement of climate refugees: All these steps will make the climate crisis less bad.

The goals are to (1.) Adapt to a warming planet and (2.) Prevent it from getting any warmer. When that is accomplished, or we are well on the way to meeting those goals, we should turn to the goal of reducing the concentrations of greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere. It may take a while before carbon capture and storage is financially viable, but it is the only long-term approach that will restore some of the ecological balance we’ve lost.

I have a high level of confidence that we will progress gradually toward making the climate problem less bad because we have already done that with other environmental problems. The air, water and land in the U.S. are cleaner today than they were in 1970. Pollution remains, but our environment is cleaner. We have more people, more motor vehicles and more electric power generation today than we had 50 years ago, but technology has enabled us to continue to grow our GDP while reducing pollution. We need to approach climate change in the same way we approached those other forms of pollution. We need regulation, enforcement, incentives, research, and new, innovative technologies. We need government subsidies and private sector investment. We need determined leadership from governments around the world and from global corporations. The good news is that we understand the problem and know what is needed to address it. Other environmental problems such as biodiversity are far more complex, and we still need to learn more to fully define those problems.

A key reason I am confident is that climate change has moved from the fringe to the center of the American and global political agenda. Moreover, young people understand the problem more than their elders seem to, and that knowledge cuts across political ideologies. Like crime in New York City, extreme weather, forest fires, hurricanes and floods are obvious and real. President Biden is viewing the climate crisis as an opportunity to employ people to modernize our antiquated energy and transport infrastructure. Reframing climate policy makes it easier to sell and more likely to succeed.

While I am confident that we will address the climate crisis and make it less bad, I do not think it will be simple or easy. People who live in the developing world see internet images of wealth in developed nations and are pressuring their political leaders to deliver GDP growth. Both China and India have huge populations, and the temptation to use cheap, old, and dirty technology will not go away. Just as the G-7 nations pledged one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine this past week, those same nations will need to transfer new renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction technologies to the developing world at prices they can afford. Here in the United States, climate deniers will persist over the short run. Trump and his allies are out of office but could still return. Despite these obstacles, the momentum behind decarbonization is taking root in the private sector and is virtually irreversible. Over the next decade progress, like the problem itself, will be obvious and measurable.

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2 years ago

i dont share your optimism and faith in human behaviors and political economies.

we dont have decades of trial and error we are past the climate event horizon the horse has left the barn the train has left the station no amount of human technology or energy will change the fact that it is simply too little too late. it is over.

Joshua Wallis
Reply to  rick
2 years ago

I completely agree. I hope and believe that this is an honest assessment – but it sounds like what I heard as a youth in the Catholic church: Satan doesn’t say there’s no heaven, he doesn’t say there’s no hell, he says there is no hurry, there’s always time to repent.

The excess of greenhouse gases will be extremely difficult to slow globally, and much, much more difficult to reverse. We’re starting the fight with both hands tied behind our collective backs.

2 years ago

As much as I’d like to ascribe to your optimism, and I really hope you’re right, I’m having difficulty comparing apples to apples. As an example, leaded gasoline was invented 100 years ago in the early 1920’s. At the time, lead was known to be a dangerous metal when ingested or otherwise introduced into the bloodstream. Yet, it was still used and rapidly scaled up for personal and commercial use. In 1973, it started to be phased out in developed countries and by 1996, the US had stopped using it for cars and trucks. (100LL is still used in general aviation reciprocating engines) But it was only this year, 2021, that the final hold out, Algeria exhausted the last supply of automotive leaded fuel.

Comparing apples to apples, it would take the collective world until at least 2080 to become carbon neutral and move towards a carbon negative posture. The problem is, the Earth’s climate doesn’t respond as quickly as private industry and our personal habits. Scientists predicted that by the end of the century, we will fully reap what we have collectively sowed from our reckless use of fossil fuels if we don’t make a very hard stop by 2050 to be completely carbon neutral AND move towards CO2 reduction keeping us at or below the 1.5c global temperature.

If we mange to arrest the global temperature climb at 2 degrees Celsius by 2080, I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but I have my doubts even about THAT target.

John Glavis
John Glavis
2 years ago

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”
-Raymond Williams
It’s a choice…
Hope is probable….♡

Jasper Palmer
Jasper Palmer
Reply to  John Glavis
2 years ago

This kind of hope leads to complacency as it is passive. Nothing will happen, meaning our civilization will end, unless people hit the streets, including people like Professor Cohen who know what is at stake.

Dayan M.
Dayan M.
2 years ago

Delusional hopium.