We Can’t “Solve” Climate Change

Dear COP 21 Policymakers,

Stop saying we can ‘solve’ climate change.

I (and many of us) have often used the word “solve” for addressing climate change, but I think the word incorrectly frames the issue. Climate change is not something we will eradicate in our lifetime or in any near century. Even if we do “solve” it, what happens afterwards? Will we resume a business as usual attitude until we see signs of degradation again?

In high school, a president of a local health NGO presented to my class. She explained how she hoped her organization would no longer exist after twenty or so years. She felt that organizations aimed at solving problems should be effective enough to solve the problem and then cease to exist. I thought this was a brilliant outlook on social impact work.

But climate change will not be “solved” like other problems, and treating it like other problems may not be helpful. Effects of climate change will become more complex and intertwined with our lives. Everything from production of handbags to the development of intellectual property rights to public health policies will touch on issues relating to the environment. These effects will not be stagnant, so we won’t be able to simply wrap our fingers around them and toss them in the trash bin.

When we use the word “solve” we bifurcate time into a “pre-solved” and “post-solved” world, when really these two worlds don’t exist. It’s a more fluid, amorphous change. In a sense, the problem of climate change is similar to racism in that it cannot simply be “solved,” and terms like “post-racial” or “post-colonial” blind us to the evolving nature of the issue.

For climate change, this bifurcation affects our behaviors because we separate ourselves from the future and treat it as some distant point in time. We think about the post-solved world like the TV show the Jetsons – kooky, cool technological societies that are radically different from the present and far off in the distance. The future is depicted as a vague unknown thing somewhat beyond our control, so we do not even try to control it. For politicians, climate change mitigation policies become a duty that future generations of bureaucrats will implement (or in the United States’ case, possibly dismantle). So policies are pushed off farther away into the future.

The reason we are in this current environmental situation is that our brains and societies are not constructed in a way that can properly manage the future. We do not know how to weigh future persons’ preferences with current people’s preferences. Therefore, we humans have survived primarily on a “live in the moment” strategy where we plan for “the future” (only a few years away) and reap the benefits shortly afterwards.

So far there have been bold and hopeful promises from world leaders in Paris. If a meaningful agreement or declaration arises out of the talks, I hope that leaders do not just pat themselves on the back and return home saying, “We are going to solve climate change!” Saying we can “solve” climate change is an unrealistic expectation that may only intimidate or delay us from taking meaningful actions to mitigate the effects.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington aptly captures the significant moment in time we currently occupy, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.” We are at the crossroads where our past meets our future. Newspaper titles using the term, “Airpocalypse,” to describe China’s smog, while dramatic, also show that the future dystopia we’ve dreaded has already arrived. At the same time, “futuristic” technologies that can help us are already available. The future is now, so why not act!

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