06/21/2010 02:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In the Long Run

Let us imagine, for a moment, that sanity has prevailed. The deniers and oil stooges have been defeated by the forces of solar and reason, and the world, being as one, sets out to reduce greenhouse gas production, aiming to get back to CO2 levels of 350ppm as rapidly as possible.

There, that was an easy stretch of the imagination, wasn't it? Ok, but now the challenging part - what happens next?

One of the problems in gaining public attention to our grim future is the slow (in terms of news cycles, and even in terms of human lives) pace of change. I know that a fraction of a degree per decade here, a fraction of a degree per decade there, pretty soon you are talking real high temperatures, but its hard for the average punter working in an air-conditioned office, living in an air-conditioned home, to sense that change personally.

The prospect of being hanged in the morning may concentrate the mind wonderfully, but the prospect of being fried, starved, or flooded, in say, 50 years time, turns the average mind to thoughts of ho-hum.

And so we come back to the mobilization of human effort. First year, fine, we are all in this together. So, higher prices on electricity, higher prices on petrol, higher prices on air travel? Grin and bear it, work out jolly ways around it with turning thermostats down, car-pooling, vacationing locally. Solar panels on the roof - a good investment; reducing household water use - easy, and makes sense; changing shopping patterns to buy local goods - sure, a bit more expensive, but satisfying; changing jobs from the coal industry to a renewable industry - good to have a challenge at my time of life. And so on.

But a few years of this kind of changed activity is going to make no discernible difference to global warming, which we know is going to continue to rise for many years with a built-in lag effect. And so we are into the reverse situation - people are called upon to make sacrifices, change behavior, for the common good of humanity. And things don't instantly get better.

How long would it be before the politicians of the Right, all over the world, would start telling people that there was no point to this? That the lack of instant improvement showed that they were right when they had opposed action on global warming, and that if they were voted back in they would instantly undo all of the measures that had been introduced (remember Reagan ripping solar panels off the White House roof) and people could go happily back to the way they were. Recipe for electoral success? You betcha! Recipe for planetary failure? Oh yes.

All David Horton's writing is on the new improved Watermelon Blog.