Today, climate change is probably the largest concern of many of the voting blocks in the world's democracies. To many, it is seen as the biggest challenge mankind has ever faced. For many, it seems to have filled the gratifying role of a secular apocalypse. But as a cause in the public consciousness, it's not going to last.
To this day in New Zealand and Australia when you go outside in summer you have to wear sunblock. The ozone hole stretches up from Antarctica and exposes both countries to UV radiation that cause levels of skin cancer far above global averages. Growing up in the 90s the ozone hole was a huge issue and it still is, but people don't really think or talk about it anymore. Why? In the late 80s the Montreal protocol successfully got sign-on from all the world's nations to ban the use of the CFCs that were causing the problem. It was a fairly remarkable achievement made possible by the relatively small size of the sector and the availability of alternative technologies whose adoption was both green and profitable. The root cause of the problem was addressed and the public could cross it off the list knowing "We're doing something"
This year, the US Department of Energy underestimated solar installations, as they have every two years for the last decade. Solar is now two thirds of all new generation capacity added to the world's electrical grid, because it has reached cost parity with all fossil fuels in many countries, and continues to drive downwards moving from parity to "You'd have to be an idiot for not using it.” Paired with this is the low cost of natural gas for the foreseeable future as an excellent stopgap while battery technology improves to fill peak demand on cloudy days. For the 3rd year in a row, greenhouse gas emissions have been level despite economic growth around the world. Is the public soon going to start thinking "Hey, we're doing a good job"? Yes.
After the Montreal Protocol on ozone depleting substances was signed to phase out CFCs, the knowledge that the issue had been addressed slowly trickled into the public consciousness. First it was a political move, but as it actually worked the issue faded from the public consciousness. The largest ozone hole was recorded in 2006, the same year as an Inconvenient Truth was released.
This, despite the fact that the ozone hole was still growing because of old refrigerators sitting in landfills and 3rd world countries being given an extra decade to make the changes. The ozone hole will still be burning off the skin of tourists visiting New Zealand for generations to come. The afflicted will continue to put on sunblock, get cancer screenings and accept the toll of significantly more people dying from melanoma skin cancer. But with several centuries of climate change ahead of us, what is our version of sunblock and cancer screening going to be?
When electricity dives below 1 cent per kWh, you start to be able to do all sorts of crazy things like watering deserts with desalinated seawater. The Netherlands shows another way that countries could deal with the rising sea levels. Will New York go underwater? No. They will build flood defences too. Most of the world's large population centers will build flood works . We’re going to get good at it and make it more and more cost effective. Will species go extinct? Yes. But it’s a trend that has been going on for centuries due to a lot of different human-created causes and one that will sadly continue. Not to minimise it, but species extinction is something that this planet does. 99% of the species that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct. To take the issue to the hype levels we have now, you have to threaten our own species, not just polar bears. Some small island nations with populations in the thousands will cease to exist, but I think countries like Bangladesh, where hundreds of millions of people live, will follow the Netherlands model and build the infrastructure necessary to prevent flooding rather than close up shop. Countries that will have to deal with serious threats aren’t waiting around. Bangladesh has already started. The Netherlands is playing it safe by planning for a 4 meter rise in sea levels over the next 200 years and has currently budgeted about 1% of GDP to strengthening their current defences. Climate change is a slow process with a 1 meter rise over the course of a century. If it took a generation for China to have the economic strength to fortify its cities, Africa and South East Asia can do it too. Although expensive, even by the worst estimate the impact of dealing with climate change amounts to a few years of lost global GDP, not even as bad as the global financial crisis caused by American sub-prime mortgages.
The thing that is really going to make climate change drop off the radar though isn't just that the root causes have been discovered and solutions to the issues have started to work. It's that other issues will overtake it as it floats down the "crisis" deck. Wikipedia has a long list of "Earth annihilating" events ranging from asteroid strikes (Deep Impact), influenza (Contagion), artificial intelligence (Terminator) and nuclear war (On the Beach). As a species, we are always shuffling through this deck of destruction looking for the most dangerous hand.
If you're a humanist type like me who cares about the world, I invite you to join the cause I never stopped thinking about: Nuclear Disarmament. Unlike climate change, it's going to take generations of pressure and work to change the world’s governments from suicide bombers to just a guy with a knife. If that doesn't work for you then maybe you could have another look at the list and see if climate change is really still the greatest challenge for humanity. Personally I doubt it.