Considering the great climate change debate -- whether it exists or does not exist as a major threat to our future -- I am reminded of philosopher and inventor, Blaise Pascal's famous "wager" over the existence of God: If you believe in God, you can find solace in peace and salvation. If you do not believe in God, why not hedge your bet?
Climate change suggests a similar dilemma. If you don't believe it is real and dire, and it proves to be nothing, then doing nothing leaves you home free. But what if you are wrong? What if you do nothing, and thereafter succumb, unprepared, to the devastating consequences that might follow? Why would you not hedge your bet and at least consider, maybe even define and prepare for the possibility of the predictable risks?
Recently, I attended a conference and planning workshop sponsored by the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, that invited state managers, municipal planners, non-governmental organizations, and interested citizens to take part in a planning exercise to define possible climate change risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities, and to imagine viable responses, to visualize, design, price, and prioritize implementation of responses should they be required. It was an exercise in climate risk management, and it was very instructive.
Here is a list of climate change risks: increased average surface temperatures, altered air and ocean currents, extreme weather events, increased precipitation, heat waves and cold snaps, melting sea ice, rising sea level, methane release, abrupt changes in earth systems, ocean acidification, shifting growing seasons and ranges, species movement (extirpation, extinction), shifting disease vectors, algal blooms, heat-related waterborne pathogens, invasive species, and more.
Here is a list of climate change impacts: flooding, drought, fires, agricultural failure, food shortages, water shortages, infrastructural damage, water and well pollution, species loss, economic loss, and more.
Here is a list of vulnerabilities: environmental degradation, critical pollution, lack of inclusion in adaptation and planning, lack of technical and scientific expertise, lack of awareness, concern and education, alienation from political power, regional geographical decline in island, coastal, and inland communities, poor governance structures, lack of leadership, lack of resources to meet the high cost of assessment, planning, mitigation or adaptation, community disruption, social and psychological decline.
So what about that bet? None of this will matter to you if you do not accept the possibility of any of these risks. But, again, what if you are wrong? Are you willing to ignore even the possibility of these circumstances and trends, and leave us all to fend for ourselves and defer the consequence of neglect to our children?
In that workshop, we accepted the actuality of climate change, and then examined what would be the impact on our specific communities: alongshore, inland, and in the far north of our state, each with very distinct conditions to be affected differently by such risks. It was revealing and disturbing for certain, but it was also uplifting as we worked as groups of managers and residents from these areas to see what we might do, might do first, might do differently, and might invent to sustain our livelihood and place for the future.
We were not overwhelmed or discouraged, as much as we began to understand the comprehensive impact of what we might face, to analyze its complexity, and to agree on what steps might be taken locally, perhaps with resources already available to us, to meet the challenge. Indeed, there was a palpable communal realization in the room that a group of strangers, with varied qualifications and interests, could come together to solve the problem - once we agreed among ourselves that it exists.
In those few hours, we transformed plausible scenarios into possible plans of action. In many cases, we understood that certain circumstances already existed, that the risks were already evident, and that the need for response, regardless of the climate change debate, was a necessary step no matter what.
I have always argued that beyond mitigation and adaptation the real solution to climate change is invention, the cooperative application of knowledge and experience not just to maintain or defend the status quo, but rather to imagine and create new solutions to the problems to be faced. I felt that power of invention in that place and took home renewed optimism that, as always, smart and well-intentioned people can come together to build a sustainable future. I wonder what Pascal would say?