How Worried Should We Be About Climate Change?

05/29/2012 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2012

When we read that global carbon dioxide emissions rose in 2011 to a record high, thanks mostly to China, how exactly are we to feel? How should we react when we hear about politicians in Washington hastily permitting Shell Oil to explore in the Arctic, over the objections of scientists who worry about our priorities and the feasibility of cleaning up possible spills? These stories of the lack of large-scale will to fight climate change and mobilize a green energy economy make ordinary people wonder if climate change is really something that requires urgent action. This nonchalance exists despite polling that finds a majority of Americans would regulate carbon dioxide. Simply put: Is climate change something to be worried about enough to take bold action against or something to merely keep an eye on?

Many on the right will not entertain the distinction. Climate change is neither something to combat incrementally nor something to be viewed as a major challenge to human existence. The conservative (and flame-throwing) Heartland Institute recently went as far as comparing belief in climate change to terrorism. The more intellectual, libertarian approach is to view climate change as a possible challenge, but to resist alarmism. In fact, many libertarians see environmentalists as paranoid. Yet these same thinkers believe that technological solutions will mitigate any possible threats.

Physicist and computer scientist David Deutsch, in a similar vein, writes in his book, The Beginning of Infinity, that climate alarmists (he fingers Paul Ehrlich as one) warned about massive imminent climate change in the '70s that would decimate agriculture and leave us in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. He recalls attending a lecture by Ehrlich and writes, "I do not know about the others, but I can remember when I stopped worrying. ... Once I realized Ehrlich's prophecies amounted to saying, 'If we stop solving problems, we are doomed,' I no longer found them shocking, for how could it be otherwise?" Deutsch's theory is that we fall into a trap when viewing the planet as Spaceship Earth, a biosphere we evolved to adapt to and live sustainably on. He sees societies that try to live sustainably as becoming static societies where new ideas and ways of living are not encouraged.

Others view climate change as requiring us to change how we use energy, but in cool-headed ways. If solutions are needed, thinkers like economist Ed Dolan say, they should be market-based: "The proper policy approach is clear: First set energy prices as a realistic level that reflects all costs, including pollution, climate change, and national security, as well as drilling and delivery."

And still, there are others who are the most concerned about climate change, such as climate scientists, who justifiably preach doom. The possibility of unforeseen flips, or tipping points, could cause seemingly isolated climate threats to compound with other threats and produce warming much faster than expected. Fred Guterl reports how the melting of Greenland's ice sheets could affect the jet stream and throw Europe into another ice age. Similarly, deforestation in the Amazon could effect the El Niño-La Niña cycle, which could reinforce problems with monsoons in India and Africa.

Then there are ticking time bombs that climatologists know about but those further afield might not consider in their more relaxed approach to climate change. The New York Times reported that temperatures in the Arctic are becoming so unstable that the great store of carbon locked in the permafrost -- double the carbon in the atmosphere already -- is becoming a legitimate area of concern.

If there is a trend in the amount of worry about climate change, it is that those most aware of the economic and environmental data tend to press the most for large-scale action and those on the outside looking in advocate for a slow-go approach or wonder what all the fuss is about. I personally trust the scientists more than the pundits and those from other fields. The question is how can the public, which is concerned enough about carbon dioxide to want something to be done about it, match their so-far-mild concern with the serious threat we face and convince corporations and governments to act? We should be worried. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, "Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate." A little anxiety could motivate many people to press for action.