Climate Change: Hope Is Vital–and Dangerous

First, a sanity check-in: over the past week or so, I had slowed down on my climate change studies (that is, on building an understanding of what’s going on and what we need to do, mainly by reading), because it was so stressful being buried under all of those grim statistics. This worked fine while I was completely preoccupied for three days doing a flooring project in our house, but as soon as that stopped, though, my stress level went up. The lesson for me is this: it may be stressful for me to learn about climate change, but since I have an idea how bad the problem is (thank you, Hurricane Sandy), it would be even more stressful to avoid it.

Reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet has continued to be punishingly difficult, but even just a few minutes after I’ve stopped reading, I find I can regain my balance. Working on climate change will require giving up a lot, and we may fail miserably, but we have the capacity to absorb and understand that and still come back fighting for our future and our kids’ future. In the end, we are very, very resilient.

There may be a solution
I was enormously relieved last week when I started investigating the idea of putting some kind of filter between the earth and the sun to cut down sunlight, a sun shade. At first I had some trouble with the geometry, but after a little while I did come to understand that the closer such a filter was to the sun, the smaller it would have to be. We don’t have to have a filter the size of the entire planet to cool everything down a little.

This will sound like science fiction, but keep in mind that as I write this, we have robots rolling around on Mars conducting scientific experiments. If our only challenges are technical and financial ones, we might be up to the task. And what is the task? It’s an approach called “geoengineering,” in this case maneuvering one big asteroid (or a bunch of smaller ones) to a place called Lagrange Point 1 (L1), the spot in space where the earth’s gravity and the sun’s gravity balance out, so that an object has the best chance of staying in place.

The asteroids themselves wouldn’t be the filter: that would be created by us putting some machinery on the asteroids to grind them up very slowly into dust. The dust would be spewed out into a cloud that would settle into orbit around the asteroid and filter out a little bit of the sun’s light and heat from earth, turning down the temperature just enough to get us back in the green zone. You can read about this idea (with some maybe-outdated climate change information) here.

creating asteroid dust: image by Charlotte Lücking, based on images from ESA and NASA, via livescience.com

Some more complicated (and expensive) versions of this project would require objects floating between the earth and sun that could be tilted or maneuvered, so that we would have fine control over where and how sunlight was filtered. With technology like that, we might even be able to refreeze polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, rolling the clock back in terms of actual warming, though not in terms of other environmental damage. We can do all of this–at least, theoretically–with many billions of dollars and with years of work.

Even with a working sun shade, we’d still need to make a fast and extreme change to much greener energy production and reduced energy usage if we wanted to stave off disaster. Yet shading the planet offers a real (though very complicated, expensive, difficult, worrisome, and politically improbable) fix that would stop the worst of the flooding, forest fires, superstorms, plagues (for instance, of malaria and dengue fever), and desertification.

The problem with hope
… all of which is great, and I hope we throw ourselves into creating a solution like this with desperate and concentrated energy. However, I worry that if we do, the average person will say “Yeah, we have problems with global warming … but why worry about green energy now? We’ve got that asteroid thing, and then we’ll have plenty of time to fix that energy stuff … later.”

Yeah, right: later. Because later everything will be different and the whole world will be excited about making the difficult sacrifices to change our energy consumption habits. Because later politicians won’t be so argumentative and short-sighted. Because later things certainly won’t have gotten worse, making action even harder. Right? Ugh.

Thanks for reading this, and keep on pushing to make things better. We need you out there.

How Learning More Makes Bad News Easier to Hear

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio, and I heard a story about shellfish dying off as the ocean becomes more acidic. This is something I found out about only in the last week or two, as I’ve started paying more attention to climate change and learning more about it: the oceans naturally sucks up a lot of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, though we haven’t noticed it much because the world’s oceans are so vast. Unfortunately, absorbing all that carbon makes the water more acidic–30 percent more acidic since the start of the industrial revolution. Shellfish, whose shells are made of materials very vulnerable to acidity, are having trouble coping: they’re dying off faster than they can adapt.

This is really distressing news, and in the past I would have felt deeply worried to hear about it and would have probably tried to distract myself from this problem, considering how little I can do to directly affect it.

The difference lately is that I’ve been facing these problems more, so hearing the news story just made me think “Yup, I’m glad they’re covering that and helping tell people about it.” I haven’t lost any of my resolve to try to help fix the problem of climate change, yet hearing about the damage we’re doing didn’t bother me in the way it has before.

Based on what I’ve learned about emotional responses, I think there are two reasons for this.

First, I’d heard the news recently and was remembering it. In the past, I had probably heard about ocean acidification and not let myself dwell on it, so I hadn’t remembered, but now the news didn’t feel like anything new to me: it wasn’t a new problem to worry about. Confirmation of things we already think we know tends to have a confidence-building effect: it feels good to hear people confirm our knowledge or beliefs, even if the confirmation is about problems or dangers.

Second, while I’m just barely getting started and am hardly doing anything yet, I am taking action, both in terms of educating myself and in terms of trying to spread the word. Actually doing something about a problem, even if what we’re doing is pretty minor, tends to make us feel much better about those problems.

There’s a tricky distinction here: I want to feel better about the climate change catastrophe to the point where I’m not paralyzed by anxiety about it. We can act more intelligently and effectively when we aren’t dragged down by too many negative emotions. At the same time, I don’t want to become complacent–I don’t want to just relax about the whole thing. I need to be working on this problem, not distracting myself to feel good.

Yet I don’t think I need to worry: as long as my coping methods are things like learning more and taking action, I know my improved emotional state is based on facing the problem rather than blocking it from my mind.

You would think that after seven years studying human habits, motivation, and emotions, all of this would have been clear to me long since, that I would realize that if I’m worried about something, facing it is usually the best thing I could possibly do. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to be too hard on myself for being slow to pick up on this. After all, we’re programmed to fight or flee when something scary comes along. Stepping up and facing the danger is a skill we have to learn to assert, and that can take some time.

Photo by Boogies with Fish