Building For The Past, Remembering The Future

Okay, I’m back–at least for this post. Whereas in recent incarnations I have been focused on the fact I was convinced I had something worthwhile to write, I am now (for today at least) going to try and write something I’m convinced is worth reading.

Michael Tobis (aka Dr. Doom) is someone I have opposed frequently and vehemently across the climate blogosphere. Nonetheless, he has a post up now that is thought-worthy, if not noteworthy. Titled ‘The Seventieth Generation, he makes an impassioned plea for all of us to remember the effects of our actions and choices for generations far in the future.

In it Tobis writes, “In this secular way of thinking, we owe little to the distant future. The more distant in time our impacts, the less we need care about them. Our ancient obligation to carry the torch of civilization is invisible to this way of thinking. Our new obligation to leave the world viable at all for our distant descendants is considered actually beneath mention, a sort of contemptible hysteria.”

“…We are behaving insanely. Insanity is, above all, a failure of love. And we cannot muster the imagination to act from love for our descendants, or for what remains of the world in which they will live.

It’s not as if ethical constraints on economic activity themselves are unimaginable. We no longer tolerate slavery or murder, at least not at the scale they occurred in the past. Money is no object. There is no amount of compensation that (we suppose and hope) absolves a person of murder. We just don’t do that.”

Once again I find myself on the opposite side of the fence from Tobis. We are not given to know the future. Given the incredible amount of change we have experienced in just my lifetime, what I see as real arrogance is to presume we know what will happen in 30 years time, let alone 300. Facebook is 13 years old, Google is 20. The Worldwide Web as we use it today is 25. Mobile phones didn’t start being commonplace until 20 years ago. What with the daily news about drones, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, biogenomics and nanotechnology, anybody who can say what the world will be like in 50, even 30 years, is truly a new Nostradamus.

Tobis is of course writing of climate change and of course is condemning those who don’t adopt his vision of the future, a future where our ‘inaction’ in curbing the burning of fossil fuels creates a planetary hell.

He wants us to build for the future, a greener place unperturbed by human contributions to global warming. In exhorting us to do this he is ignoring the present–a present where renewable energy is set to increase by 33% over the next five years, according to the IEA, after growing 9% in 2015Global emissions have plateaued for three years, again according to the IEA.  These and other actions (the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles, reforestation, etc.) have already rendered RCP 8.5 inoperative. We may not be doing enough to address climate change, depending on your point of view, but we are doing a lot.

To adopt his vision–building for a greener future for distant generations, we will have to make sacrifices. Well, not ‘we’–those who will pay the price will be those in the developed world who are poor, and those throughout the developing world. Tobis has insisted for most of this decade that we need to get to net zero emissions almost immediately. It is a draconian remedy, and one we are naturally reluctant to adopt without a clearer idea of what the future holds. Tobis doesn’t describe a future–not one based on our continuing in our evil ways, nor one where we successfully convert our entire way of living to satisfy his concerns.

But it is obvious that we will not have resources to build for a Utopian future with zero carbon emissions and address the clear and present environmental dangers we can see clearly by looking at the past. Those who have provided estimates for conversion to a green life have used figures in the tens of trillions of US dollars.

Here in America we can see that cities like Houston and Miami are vulnerable to hurricanes, and modest sea level rise coupled with large-scale subsidence makes them a ‘bowling pin for the gods.’ The same is true internationally, for cities like Manila, Havana and many more.

My very good friend and co-author Steve Mosher is enjoying a period of well-deserved recognition for his statement “We don’t even plan for the past.” And clearly we don’t.

But we could. Countries like the Netherlands and cities like Tokyo have addressed vulnerabilities highlighted by past storms or sea level rise and have managed to prosper despite these efforts. For a fraction of the money needed to eliminate fossil fuel emissions we could retrofit coastal cities (instead of rebuilding them in the same mindless manner we have rebuilt them before) and move people out of flood plains and river deltas (yes, even in Bangladesh).

We should build for the past–it is a far clearer guide to the dangers we will face than that provided by climate models and the fever dreams of those too long focused on the perils of CO2. After all, if the past is not there to learn from, why do we have a memory?

But we should remember the future. It exists and although it is uncertain, it should be a part of our planning.

We could prepare agriculture and agriculturists for the coming decades. We could build a safety margin in our construction to allow for sea level rise and higher temperatures, more violent storms and more frequent local flooding. Incorporating these into planning for future construction would be, again, an order of magnitude less expensive than tearing the planet apart and rebuilding it on an emissions-free model.

Michael Tobis is a terribly conflicted man. He is admirably concerned about the future of the planet, something that has caused him to make very poor choices in how he behaves in public discourse. We can admire his concern while lamenting his behavior. He is certainly not an optimist–so perhaps we can adopt the optimism on his behalf and remind him that not all is lost.

It isn’t even always all that serious.


2 responses to “Building For The Past, Remembering The Future

  1. I remember talking to the city manager of the Minneapolis suburb Richfield. We were speaking of the city’s aging infrastructure that was coming past due for replacement. He reminded me that Rome was not built in a day, but Richfield was – and it was all coming due at once.

    Perhaps someone should ask Mr. Tobis that if he plans to rebuilt the world’s energy infrastructure, what future generation will get the bill for replacing it?

    Think of the children.

  2. Pingback: Morality and economics – wmconnolley: archive

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