• Otávio Santiago

Why We Will Meet the Challenge of the Climate Crisis

I’ve been aware of climate change since 1980 when as a junior EPA staff person, I was given an assignment of drafting a preliminary policy on sea-level rise for federal facilities. It was a strange assignment, and I don’t think my draft went anywhere, but it was my first exposure to something called the greenhouse effect. I read some articles written by a fellow named Wallace S. Broecker, who studied oceans and was warning about something called “global warming.” In a few years, we would be colleagues on the Columbia faculty and later at the Earth Institute. Wally, Mark Cane, Robin Bell, Jim Hansen, Peter Schlosser, and scores of other Columbia scientists were studying every aspect of global warming, and by the time we reached the 21st century, they and their colleagues around the world had clearly demonstrated that humanity was facing an existential threat.

Our global economy is the foundation of our political stability, and it is built on a wide variety of technologies ranging from the internal combustion engine to industrial farming. Many of these technologies emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Our planet is getting warmer, and that heat is changing ecosystems and weather patterns. We continue the practice of introducing new technologies before we understand their full impact. We will be doing that even more often as we cope with the impact of the threats to environmental sustainability that will only increase with time. We saw rapid emergency technology development in the past year with the near-miraculous invention of COVID-19 vaccines. We have seen what we can do with our backs to the wall. But as happy as I am to be fully vaccinated, I know that the long-term impact of these vaccines is unknown because they have not been around for the long term. But we are studying and testing the impacts, and if we find some that are harmful, we will develop technologies to deal with those harms. Technology solves problems and creates problems, and then new technology is needed to solve the problems created by earlier technologies. It’s an endless cycle.

So, given the daunting task of addressing climate change, why do I believe that we will meet the challenge? It comes down to some fundamentals about our species as a whole: Generally speaking, we do not want to die, and are not suicidal and we are creative and ingenious. We can also be stubborn and selfish, and so the path to meeting the climate challenge will not be direct. My colleagues in the physical and natural sciences are often frustrated by public policy because they expect it to solve problems. They problem-solve in their own work. They study what they seek to understand and gradually get their arms around the problems they are studying and often solve those problems. Public policy is different. We don’t solve problems — we make them less bad. As Charles Lindblom and David Braybrook posited decades ago when they articulated incremental public policy theory: public policy is remedial, serial, and partial. We seek to move away from the problem and make progress in small, discrete steps. There are no magic bullets or quick fixes. It is a long slog through the mud of trial and error.

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