09/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Green Fatigue and The Global Hothouse...Are We Hosed?

A couple of weeks ago, one of the chief scientists at the U.K.'s Department for Environment Food and Affairs (DEFRA), Robert Watson, said that due to the uncertainty of containing carbon emissions, his country should prepare for a 4C (7F) rise in global temperatures this century. To which Guardian newspaper commentator and author Oliver Tickell responded that if the globe is going to heat up by 4 degrees Celsius, all we can prepare for is human extinction.

Tickell may be a bit overly dark and gloomy - it seems to happen to those that delve deeply into climate science and politics - and he's just finished writing a book proposal for combating warming, called Kyoto2. DEFRA's report did say that that kind of temperature increase would be catastrophic, with millions of people affected by coastal flooding and between 20 and 50 percent of species going extinct. But humans, the dominant global species, will likely adapt and survive.

It's a fairly huge threat, yet one that both U.K. and U.S. citizens (and nearly every other nation's inhabitants) seem incredibly unable to deal with. Some scientists have suggested that we have about a decade to stabilize our emissions (to near zero!), others say just five years.

But the subject of the environment is way down there on the list of the most important issues to U.S. voters. And the currently deflated U.S. economy...well, that's issue #1. There are signs, in fact, that people suffering from high gas prices and less disposable income are getting green fatigue - short-term threats are using up our threat bandwidth, while the specter of longer term havoc isn't enough to budge us into paradigm shift.

What to do? The question seems to be a philosophical one - can humans rapidly change in the face of distant, long term threats? The upbeat We campaign, with its light-switch ads, says we can switch to 100% low-carbon energy in a decade. Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel, might give a slightly tempered perspective, ultimately more equivocal perhaps, and definitely more long term.

Diamond and other thinkers at the Longnow organization posit that humans just aren't very used to long term thinking. Yet it's a skill we'll have to cultivate to deal with some of the intractable problems we face - not just global warming but also poverty and other environmental and human rights issues.

To push past green fatigue it's wise to take a longer view while continuing to focus on the end goal. The idea of clean energy both on the large scale - commercial wind farms, solar installations and tidal power - and on the small scale - solar water heaters, heat pumps, etc., make sense for reasons in addition to their low carbon footprint. In many cases, especially on the smaller scale, using alternative energy and clean technologies can makes us more mindful and respectful of the earth services we rely on.

In Diamond's view, we have to go through this process of shifting our values - tilting away from the mindless consumerist values of the near past, and implementing the steps that will lead to a paradigm change. We must keep on keeping on, with recycling, Victory gardens, energy efficiency and local sufficiency measures that sometimes seem inadequate on the global scale, but are part of a bigger, longer term transition (that hopefully won't take quite the full 10,000 years)!

So we're not hosed, no. We're just in the process of shifting our relationship to a warmer natural world and how we'll live in it. The only way to alleviate green fatigue is to actively engage with actions that make a difference.

More from TreeHugger on Long-term Thinking
::Why Eco-Activists Still Have Children
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::Eco-Rabbi Jack Reichert Talks Green God Shop

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