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Although the vast majority of experts believe in the case for man-made climate change, the average person is much more likely to have doubts. Perhaps 95% of climate scientists believe human actions are warming the planet, but what about the other 5%? If the evidence is so compelling why aren’t they all convinced? Could it be a conspiracy by the environmental lobby, politicians or foreign interests?
Climate change certainly has its high-profile sceptics, from influential newspapers to the odd respected scientist to the president of the USA. So the question is, what should we do if the sceptics are right, or if there is a chance that they are?
Perhaps climate change is one of those areas where we can never know for sure until it happens, like the question of whether life exists on other planets. There are computer models, but the sceptics will insist that models are just theories – unproven. Maybe we should accept that we simply do not know, in which case we all we can say is that climate change may or may not be happening, and that it may or may not be caused by humans.
What if we do nothing?
If we do accept that climate change might happen, and that it might not, we ought to consider the consequences both of acting, and of doing nothing. If we do nothing, we continue to pump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Perhaps the global temperature will stabilise, or perhaps it will continue to rise catastrophically. In the short term, doing nothing will cost us no extra money, making it an attractive proposition. In the longer term, if the global temperature rises then there will be additional costs in dealing with that change, but we can deal with that when it happens. Why waste money dealing with a problem that might not exist?
On the other hand, most of the processes that increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have other consequences. Burning coal or oil releases other chemicals and particulates into the atmosphere. Our cities are dirty and dangerous and full of smog. Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths are thought to be due to pollution from cars and trucks.
Energy security and cost are issues as well. Most countries need to import fossil fuels to run their power plants, meaning that their energy security is dependent on both other countries (often volatile ones) and supply routes, i.e. shipping and pipelines. The power stations themselves are huge, centralised sites, supplying power to large numbers of people. An accident, failure or terrorist attack at one of these stations or at a strategic point of the distribution network could result in a loss of electricity to significant areas.
Regardless of climate change, maintaining the status quo will lead to increasing pollution and less energy security in the longer term.
What if we take action?
If we spend money on de-carbonising the energy mix, then that money might be considered wasted if climate change turns out not to be a real issue. However, the cost of renewable energy is likely to keep falling as the technology matures, while fossil fuels are likely to increase in price as available stocks are used up. The short-term cost may well lead to long term savings. At the same time, decentralising the energy grid by having a larger number of small power generators will provide a more robust, distributed energy network. Encouraging consumers to generate their own electricity through solar or wind power at home will reduce their dependence on big power companies, while at the same time reducing each nation’s dependence on foreign countries for fossil fuel imports.
Electric vehicles are a good example of short term spending for long term gain. Electric cars are cleaner, cheaper to run and much less polluting than petrol or diesel-powered alternatives, but for them to be practical money needs to be spent developing a nationwide charging network. Once such a network is in place, and as such cars become more popular, electrically powered motoring should become more and more attractive leading to cleaner air in the cities and cheaper transport.
Insulating houses is another obvious example where short-term expenditure leads to long-term savings for householders, at the same time as reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
In the medium to long term, money spent to combat climate change will have the effect of improving energy security, reducing energy bills, giving consumers more control over their power supplies and improving air quality by reducing pollution.
In conclusion, and regardless of whether man-made climate change is actually happening, money spent to reduce our collective carbon footprint has plenty of positive effects and few negative ones. Given the potential consequences if the scientists are right, it seems foolish not to act to reduce our carbon emissions while we can.