Though a version of the following essay was first published in the Princeton Packet, it could refer to any town navigating the 21st century in a climate of national and international inaction.
In the 1960 musical Camelot, they knew that climate is key to “happy ever-aftering”. With Richard Burton’s voice ringing in my ear, I looked back at the lyrics. “A law was made a distant moon ago here: July and August cannot be too hot. And there’s a legal limit to the snow here, in Camelot.” Some heat, some snow, but not too much--it sounds like a call for moderation, more like New Jersey’s accustomed climate than the shades of South Carolina quickly headed our way. Haven’t you heard? Our 12 months straight of warmer than normal weather are not a fluke, and the increasingly extreme weather events of the past year are what climate scientists have been predicting all along.
Surely Princeton thinks itself as congenial a spot as any for happy ever-aftering, yet climate appears nowhere on any list of priorities. When the Princeton borough mayoral candidates were asked at a debate last fall about what Princeton could do to confront the challenge of climate change, the audience snickered. Was the reaction an indication of widespread denial of the problem, or denial of any solution? Probably a mix of both. In either case, human intelligence has been cleverly applied to conclude that nothing need or can be done.
It’s understandable that people would feel helpless and even resentful in the face of such a challenge. After all, what can one town do about a problem that is global in scope? Less forgivable are attempts to fabricate doubt about the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused. I think of it in moral terms. Morality doesn’t wait for the world to agree, and local action can grow into a much broader movement. A central motivation is that with freedom comes responsibility, and it is deeply unjust that the consequences of our freedom (to burn fuels that will irrevocably and radically change the climate) are posterity’s permanent responsibility.
For an example of someone exercising freedom without any accompanying sense of responsibility, consider the captain who ran the cruise ship Costa Concordia aground, risking 4000 lives for the sake of showboating his gleaming machine. The captain, in deciding to steer close to shore, did not factor in the risks of doing so. He apparently ignored the modern navigational equipment on hand, and when the rocks appeared ahead, the ship’s momentum made a rapid change of course impossible.
Our navigation of the 21st century shows disturbing similarities to this indifference to risk. The potential downsides of our climate-altering activity abound. The ice sheets perched on Greenland, which are starting to sprout rivers deep in their interior that could lubricate their plunge into the Atlantic, hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 20 feet. Parts of Antarctica, which holds enough ice to raise sea levels 200 feet, could also become unstable. It’s hard to say when ocean acidification, thawing deposits of methane up north, and climate-driven shifts in ocean currents could trigger rapid transformations. As the cruise ship captain discovered, worst case scenarios need to be taken seriously, and momentum can limit options later on.
Even if current warming raises sea levels only three feet this century, that would displace the NJ coast 300 feet inland, causing tremendous damage to barrier islands, beaches and accompanying real estate. If you think government is too big now, just wait until it has to intervene in increasingly desperate attempts to save low-lying properties while providing disaster relief for radicalized weather. By opposing government intervention in emerging problems, we insure more government intervention later on.
It’s common to dismiss collective action as smacking of socialism, but we act collectively whether we intend to or not. Carbon dioxide derives its power from acting collectively--each molecule absorbing miniscule amounts of heat that, to take an extreme example, has warmed Venus to 850 degrees. Our machines, while serving our needs, pump long-buried hydrocarbons into the air as CO2, in the process collectively increasing earth's atmospheric blanket of CO2 thus far by an astonishing 40%. We ignore the power of collective action, for purposeful good or unintentional harm, at our peril.
Princeton occupies a special place in the quest for a safe route through this century. Some of the world’s most prominent climate scientists teach here. As civilization’s lookouts, they’ve offered abundant warning of the trouble ahead, and possible ways to avoid the worst of it. Despite some small, spirited initiatives, the town itself has largely ignored the profound urgency scientific findings imply, demonstrating in miniature the chasm between knowledge and policy that is playing out nationally and globally.
In a morally ambiguous age, begin by accepting that machines are simultaneously our best friends and worst enemies. As individuals and as a unified municipality, our goal must be to reduce machine use until more ethical fuels become plentiful. Cultivate ambivalence towards anything needing an exhaust pipe or chimney. Reduce the flow of energy through the umbilical cords that feed our fetal indoor lives. The energy you don’t use now is a generous gift to the future. One little-noted aspect of so-called sacrifice is that one can get good at it, and even find pleasure in a less mechanized life. In the ongoing election of a future, Princeton’s vote is a small one, but more prominent than most.