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Strategies for Coping

Preparing for the Future
Global warming is likely to proceed, given the fact that carbon-based fuels are readily available and that the people of all nations wish to use energy to better their standard of living. On the time scale of centuries, global warming also is irreversible, regardless of what we decide to do (although, in theory, we could try to arrest further warming.). Given this situation, it is prudent to start thinking seriously about strategies for coping that go beyond achieving agreements on reducing emissions. Strategies for coping must consider changing energy use for heating and cooling households, changes in the availability of water for agriculture and in cities, and changes in climate-related disease patterns.

Why is there so much resistance in some quarters to face reality and start discussing coping mechanisms? There are at least two fundamental reasons: the "shifting baseline" effect and the custom of "discounting the future. The "shifting-baseline" effect derives from the fact that each generation experiences the conditions of its childhood as normal. Thus, the clock of change (local, regional or even global) is reset about every twenty years. We do not feel deprived of things we never knew. No one misses the mammoth, the sabertooth tiger, and the Dodo bird, and but a few miss the sound of frogs that was commonplace to their great-grandparents. "Discounting the future" applies to the value of goods to be received in the future. We live for here and now and do not worry too much about the more distant future. Our time horizons tend to be short, and the hope for short-term gains outweighs concern for long-term damage when charting the course of economic activities.

Responses: Climate Change Versus the Ozone Hole
Modern market strategies put the bottom line on top and everything else at the bottom. Market forces also tend to determine politics. That is why there are no strategies for coping with problems that transcend one business cycle. However, this situation is not without hope. When the risk of inaction is perceived as unacceptable, treaties are made and action is taken, as in the Montreal Protocol regarding the preservation of the ozone layer. When it was discovered that ozone is disappearing over the Antarctic in spring, and that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are responsible, and that a lack of ozone will badly impact the health of people and animals, action was taken to ban the production and release of CFCs.

How could this be done so quickly? (1) Cause and effect were well established, with little argument among the knowledgeable scientists. (2) Adverse effects on health (an increased chance of skin cancer from increased UV radiation) pose a clear danger, to rich and poor alike. (3) The economic impact of taking action is modest. In contrast, the problems arising in the context of global warming are much less clear-cut. The basis of discussion is fuzzy, because of uncertainties in the physics, and the danger (while potentially large) is ill-defined and hardly imminent. The discussion has the additional problem of having to deal with irrelevant and misleading discussion from various commentators of questionable competency.

Not that this is a new development, as myth has influenced thinking about climate and climate change even into the most recent centuries and into our own time. However, the underlying reality of the situation is by no means a social construct. Climate change will impact our lives, and it does pose challenges for adaptation. Great floods, harsh winters, severe droughts and similar calamities do occur. Excessive change poses excessive challenges and can bring starvation, plague, and turmoil, as is richly documented by history.

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