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Socolow Essay on the Truths We Must Tell Ourselves to Manage Climate Change

Posted by: 
Holly Welles
Publish Date: 
Friday, December 7, 2012 (All day)

Cli­mate change is unwel­come news, and the best and worst out­comes con­sis­tent with cur­rent sci­ence are very dif­fer­ent, says Prince­ton University’s Robert Socolow, pro­fes­sor of mechan­i­cal and aero­space engi­neer­ing, in a new review arti­cle pub­lished in the Van­der­bilt Law Review.  There are novel ways the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­nity, in its role as mes­sen­ger, could tell the story about cli­mate change using greater empa­thy and can­dor.  This essay, which was deliv­ered as a keynote address at a sym­po­sium held Feb. 24, 2012 at the Van­der­bilt Law School, addresses new ways to freshen the conversation.

The era of con­scious­ness of cli­mate change began in 1958 when Charles David Keel­ing began the first accu­rate mea­sure­ments of car­bon diox­ide in the atmos­phere. The sea­sonal oscil­la­tions were unex­pected and the annual aver­age has become a new index (the Keel­ing Curve) of global human impact.

Fifty-four years later, cli­mate change nego­ti­a­tions in the United States and inter­na­tion­ally are in paral­y­sis. The cur­rent impasse has lit­tle social value and a “restart” but­ton is needed. Such a but­ton will be found when those already con­cerned about cli­mate change become bet­ter at telling truths first to them­selves and then to the gen­eral pub­lic. One can begin with acknowl­edge­ments that 1) cli­mate change is unwel­come news, a chal­lenge we would rather not have; and 2) the best and worst out­comes con­sis­tent with today’s cli­mate change sci­ence are very dif­fer­ent. More­over, every nom­i­nal energy “solu­tion” to cli­mate change has a dark side and the solution’s pro­po­nents are not the ones to be counted upon to iden­tify what can go wrong.

Accord­ingly, cli­mate change is a prob­lem of risk man­age­ment requir­ing bal­anc­ing the risks of dis­rup­tion from cli­mate change and the risks of dis­rup­tion from mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion. Both pub­lic and pri­vate insti­tu­tions need to find ways to over­come their reluc­tance to ver­ify whether intended car­bon reduc­tion goals have actu­ally occurred, so that progress can be accu­rately mon­i­tored and learn­ing can occur. Indi­vid­u­als can be helped to become more aware of how their every-day activ­i­ties cre­ate their car­bon foot­print. Pop­u­la­tion must reen­ter the conversation.

There are grounds for opti­mism. Sci­ence has dis­cov­ered threats fairly early. Many help­ful tech­nolo­gies are being devel­oped and deployed. And, our moral com­pass is in work­ing order, insist­ing that we care both for those alive today and for the col­lec­tive future of our species.

Cita­tion: Robert H. Socolow, “Truths We Must Tell Our­selves to Man­age Cli­mate Change.” Van­der­bilt Law Review, Vol. 65, Num­ber 6, pp. 1455–1478.

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