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Voice: Be Afraid of the World, Be Very Afraid Be Afraid of the World, Be Very Afraid...
Who’s right: Cassandra or Dr. Pangloss? Are we on the brink of serious trouble, as Cassandra of Greek myth prophesied, or is all for the best “in this best of all possible worlds,” as the fictional Pangloss insisted in Voltaire’s Candide? In recent decades, Cassandra-like warnings include Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy, the late Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Bill McKibben’s gloomy environmental and social forecasts, and predictions from everyone who thinks U.S. President Donald Trump will end democracy as we know it. On the other side, the ranks of neo-Panglossians include Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, and (on some issues) John Mueller, who stress the extraordinary progress humans have made over the past 500 years and believe that risk of violence or other major disruptions continues to shrink.
I’m generally a fairly upbeat guy, despite my realist proclivities and my recurring frustrations at the embarrassing state of U.S. foreign policy. But today I’m going to indulge my inner Cassandra and describe the five bad things that worry me today. I hope I’m wrong.
We haven’t known about man-made climate change for very long, but alarming evidence of its negative consequences continues to accumulate. Moreover, the pace and extent of change appears to be closer to the worst-case end of the spectrum. We are virtually certain to see a rise of more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in atmospheric temperature in the next 20 years, for example, and a major study by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change estimates that a rise of that magnitude would cause roughly $54 trillion (!) worth of damage.
But the troubling part is how tepid the response has been. A well-funded army of people rejecting mainstream climate science tried first to convince us the problem simply didn’t exist, and they have worked to block meaningful actions to address it. At the global level, profligate energy users mostly tried to make sure that somebody else got stuck with the costs of mitigation. When the president of the United States refuses to accept that climate change is even occurring and wants to resurrect coal (the dirtiest of all fossil fuels), you know we’re in trouble. And my guess—see here—is that adapting to this problem is going to affect politics and society in ways we’ve barely begun to imagine.
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