In the debate about what humans should do about climate change there are essentially two camps. The first wants to see urgent and drastic action to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released through the use of fossil fuels, the other wants to do nothing; Especially to wait and see how bad the impacts of climate change are and then develop response mechanisms.
Humans are wonderful creatures and our consciousness is what sets us apart from other species occupying the planet. It is that consciousness, that ability to work out how the world works, that has brought us to this point of crisis. Without our consciousness we would never have made the connection between our activities and changes in the climate and would have transported on obliviously as the environment continued to deteriorate around us. Actually, if those whogue against taking action win the day (and so far, in many of the world's largest polluters they have been) we may still end up with an environment which will be vigorously hostile to the adult versions of those who are being Born on the planet just now; Our children.
If the world carries expanding the burning fossil fuels at the current rate, by 2050 global temperatures will have risen by close to 4 degree Celsius and the effects on the environment will be dramatic. The biggest challenge would be facing agriculture, with large areas of cropland becoming unsuitable for cultivation, and the lands that could be used would be producing less and less each year. The fresh water, timber and fish that we currently enjoy as nature's gift would also rapidly be disappearing due to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and salt marshes. The oceans will be effectively empty of life caused by acidification of the water and the effects of over fishing. Drought and desertification would be widespread, with large numbers of people experiencing increased water stress, and others experiencing changes in seasonality of water supply. Many people would be tempted to migrate to new lands seeking better conditions, putting intense pressure onto existing populations. There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, with all the damage that brings to unmanaged ecosystems and decreasing their resilience; Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Increasing levels of agricultural pests and human diseases plus increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events would add to the misery. In fact, it is quite possible that civilization in large parts of the world will simply collapse.
Faced with a threat our natural instincts are to fight or flight: that is to get away from the situation or to fight the threat. There is a third option in the natural world, which is to freeze but this is generally the least preferred as it gives an easy run to the predator. Clearly, we have only one planet so flight is out of the question. But why would people really think we should do nothing?
My view is that our social systems have not managed to keep up with our acquisition of technical knowledge. Certainly many of the social "rules" we have can trace their roots back hundred if not thousands of years. Much of western social thinking is highly influenced by Judeo / Christian ideas which origins are thousands of years ago. Man should have much as man has always behaved because that is what caused the world to develop as it has done and delivered us the best standard of living ever know in all of history.
The fatal weakness in this way of thinking is that it simply does not understand scale. The natural world is all about scale and what you can achieve depends upon your size. Fleas can jump the equivalent of thirty times their body height while elephants can not jump at all. Scale is also affected by growth. Suppose you have a pond in your garden and on January 1st a seed lands on it. The plant in question is a vivid weed and will double every week until it has completely covered your pond in one year unless you take action. When do you think you might act? It might surprise you to learn that you probably would not even notice it until the autumn of the year by which time it would only just be covering a bit less than 1% of the total surface area. Even by Christmas Day the pond would only be half weed and still have half open water. That is the power of exponential growth.
In human terms, our numbers have been growing exponentially too (although not 100% a week, thank goodness). It is important to get a feel for this because the total number of people present makes a big difference on the impact we have on the world.
If the human population had marched onto the Ark two by two and at the rate of 10 per second, it would have taken about the short month of February to load up. If the world's population had marched past Mr Malthus' house at the time he was writing his dire predictions about the income for unchecked population growth, it would have taken about 9 and a half months. Today's global population may be able to squeeze into an area the size of Los Angeles but the march past would now be taking 11 years!
However it is not the number of people who are on the planet but the things we do that cause the problems, especially taking fish from the seas without helping it to restock, burning vast quantities of fossil fuels and cutting down trees. All of these are "economic activities" and the way we think about how our economy should work in relationship to the environment has not much changed in two hundred and fifty years. It continues to believe in unending growth based on the exploitation of Earth's resources: a physical impossibility on a limited planet.
There is sufficient solar energy hitting the planet in an hour to power all human activities for a year. We have the knowhow to access it but now lack the will. We already produce enough food to feed all of the world's population: the billion of malnourished are counter-balanced by the billion that are overweight. With a more equitable distribution system the world could probably support a population of ten billion.
Our children could enjoy a better, cleaner and fairer world or they could face an ecological disaster, falling living standards and shorter lives. Which it will be will depend upon what we do. Do nothing is a conspiracy against our children.