The other day I overheard a conversation in which one person made the observation that already rising sea levels were affecting millions and that in a century, higher sea levels would make many places inhabitable, if not destroy them. The other individual replied, “So? It’s not the first time that’s happened. Let ‘em move.”

A third person said, “It won’t be a real problem for centuries.”

A few days later, in referring to the thousands of children who have recently flooded into the southern United States, someone else said, “Just send them all home. We’ve got enough problems.”

I wish these were isolated instances, but I’ve heard more and more comments along these lines in recent years, dealing with everything from global climate change to mid-east violence to immigration and air pollution, and almost all of which were along the lines of, “It’s not that big a problem, and it’s not our problem.” Those words remind me of the most likely apocryphal words of Marie Antoinette who reportedly said, upon hearing that the poor of Paris had not even bread to eat, “Then let them eat cake.”

The Russian aristocracy didn’t think the problems of the poor and middle class were their problems, and the British and the French didn’t want to get involved in German politics when a certain rabble-rouser began rallying the disaffected to his cause, because it really wasn’t their problem if a few Jews were being persecuted. Neither did we freedom-loving Americans care much if minorities in Europe were being stripped of their rights; we didn’t care until it became our problem.

What most people don’t want to understand is both the physical and financial impacts of global climate change, and the impact those have on everything else. History shows that comparatively modest climate changes, on the global scale, far less severe than those we face, have toppled quite a number of civilizations, as have mass migrations of people. We’re now facing the largest change in the global climate in at least human history, and something like fifty percent of the human population now lives within sixty miles of the ocean coastline, including the majority of mega-cities, with trillions of dollars of buildings and infrastructure.

Hurricane Sandy was only a class two hurricane when it hit New York, and it caused more than $75 billion of damages, and there are whole communities that still have not recovered or been rebuilt almost two years later. What happens when water levels rise further and storms intensify, which they have been doing? Add to that the fact that the entire U.S. infrastructure – highways, bridges, power and water systems, dams, and ports – is generally in poor condition and vulnerable to disruptions.

Yes, climate change is nothing new, if more widespread and occurring more quickly, and neither are social and political unrest, and, unfortunately, neither is the human desire to believe that such matters are either not a problem or are someone else’s problem.

5 thoughts on “Understanding”

  1. Grey says:

    We have a few domestic wake-up moments in the relatively near future. For example, Miami is built on porous bedrock, so cannot be saved from rising seas by Dutch-esque seawall because the water will come up through the ground. It may well be under water in my lifetime.


  2. Nathaniel Perry says:

    California is facing the biggest water crisis in its existence, with a water table lower than at any point since humans started pumping from the aquifer here, and I know people who think it violates their property rights if the state tries to tell them not to pump groundwater excessively.

    A co-worker, by most standards an intelligent person, makes a habit of driving out of his air-conditioned garage, in an air-conditioned car, to his mailbox, located at the end of a 20-foot driveway.

    I’m not going to make such a sweeping pronouncement as “we’re doomed”, but our children and grandchildren will pay a heavy price for our foolishness.

  3. Wayne Kernochan says:

    As someone who has written extensively on his blog on the likely horrors that will affect us (yes, rich as well as poor) in a few generations if we continue on our present course, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for a well-summarized and well-argued description. Very sincerely, Wayne

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    I object to conflating the dubious bugaboo of global warming (for which there will be ample means of reversing it, already under development (like sunlight-powered catalysts that can convert water and CO2 into fuel), before it becomes a major problem, IF it was ever a problem at all) with mass migration. That’s certainly not the cause of the flood of illegals now.

    I also object to the premise that mass migration can’t be stopped; it can, given the will to do so rather than exploit the migration for perceived political or economic gain (which certainly does not benefit all existing citizens equally).

    We no longer can accept all the world’s less fortunate. So to be fair, why not only accept those whose skills are in such short supply that it’s in ALL our interests to do so? Some of those will doubtless come from south of the border, or underdeveloped countries further away; and the competition to attain valuable skills will likely serve them well, whether they’re let in or not.

    To be very clear: I don’t _care_ about people’s ethnicity, nor, provided they don’t think they have any license to use force to inflict it on anyone else, their religion. I do care that their culture is compatible with western capitalist (and ideally more nearly libertarian, once we stop subsidizing the socialists and similar-minded parasites) society; if not, we have no reason to extend our tolerance to the point of our own societal suicide.

    Likewise, I have no problem with (and have been known to engage in) _private_ compassion for those that I do not wish _public_ funds expended on.

    1. Grey says:

      I think your post says much about the current debate. You reject global warming as real, which close to 100% of scientists agree is taking place, and yet you claim that even if it does exist, you aren’t worried because you are trusting scientists to make imaginary, science fiction power sources real in time to stop it.

      (PS: Yes, I know you can convert water into hydrogen. http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/411023/sun-water-fuel/. Again, it’s a timescale problem)

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