Articles Comments

Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Summer Reading Responses, Weather » Weather, Climate Change, and the Necessity of New Thinking

Weather, Climate Change, and the Necessity of New Thinking

Climate change poses humanity with the sort of problem it has not evolved to handle. This is the result of several factors in our evolutionary history, deriving from the very different world our pre-historic ancestors inhabited. The early days of our species were fraught with immediate physical perils, such as the scarcity of food sources, constant threats from wild animals, the lack of shelter, and so forth. All of these problems require attention in the present; otherwise, one would starve, be eaten, freeze, etc. So harsh was this early human existence that it left little time for thinking about anything else – like the future, the long run. Hence, focusing on the present at the expense of the future provided a survival advantage. And this short-sightedness was relatively harmless, for unlike us they lacked the technological sophistication to drastically alter their natural environmental. Their world moved very, very slowly.

Neither of these conditions is so today. While many people certainly still struggle to provide for their basic physical needs, the progress of civilization has drastically reshaped the nature of these struggles. At the very least, humanity can longer reasonably use such difficulties as an excuse not to think about the future and the long-term implications of its actions. Furthermore, the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution and those that followed have both greatly accelerated the pace of our lives and given humans an unprecedented ability to influence the natural world – whether we realize it or not.

The result of this is that humans have created a new kind of world, yet continue to think about it in the same present-centric way that worked just fine for their predecessors; we can solve immediate problems that occur in the short run, like a drought or flood, but it is harder for us to see how our carbon-dependent lifestyle over the past few centuries has ever so slowly been pushing our global climate off its normal tracks. Thus, dealing effectively with climate change – and a host of other problems that manifest themselves only over a long period – will require that humanity adopt a new way of thinking, one that gives the required attention to the long run in addition to the short run.

Part of this cognitive difference can be demonstrated by considering the difference between weather and climate. Weather is what our ancestors were concerned with most. Is a storm coming? Will next summer be drier than this summer? These are the environment’s short-term behaviors, which undoubtedly hold practical value – like deciding whether or not to stick that umbrella in your bag. It cannot, however, help you decide whether or not to invest in stilts to raise your house. For this, one must look to climate. In The Discovery Global Warming, Weart describes how textbooks used to define climate as “a set of weather data averaged over temporary ups and downs – [meaning] it was stable by definition” (Weart 10). Science shows us today that climate is anything but stable. Consequently, I think it is better viewed as the environment’s long-term behavior, a behavior which is free to change over time and especially in response to the modern scope of human activities. Understanding it by such a definition is a good first step toward cultivating the new way of thinking humanity must achieve to deal effectively with climate change.

Written by

Filed under: Climate Change, Summer Reading Responses, Weather · Tags: , ,

One Response to "Weather, Climate Change, and the Necessity of New Thinking"

  1. niemitz says:

    I agree with your assessment in part. That humans have not evolved in some ways to think long term i.e. beyond survival is true especially when we are confronted with a crisis. By this we can read when something becomes a crisis we react. We are good at reacting and have developed technologies that help us react in ways that are overall satisfactory to our survival e.g vaccines for the flu and so forth. But we tend to be a here and now kind of species because we do not have a long term perspective especially on climate change. We only have a short instrumental record. Before that we have significant uncertainty and we hate uncertainly thus we have insurance out the wazoo. The problem as I see it is that human nature is all about me rather than thinking about the whole population. We (Americans) have been so clever that we don’t has a need to think about others. Altruism has been removed from our genetic code. Nor do we think about the effect we have on others because we all act the same and we never see the other side of the ocean or refuse to acknowledge it. We see this played out in the US’s refusal to ratify climate treaties (i.e. it will hurt our economy!!). So we have two problems: we are myopic in the sense of time and we are selfish in the sense of we can do what we want because we perceive it will not hurt anyone. Climate change will one way or another disabuse of us of both flaws

Leave a Reply