How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet? A Future Tense Event Recap.

Todd Moss, Rimjhim Aggarwal, Nikki Silvestri, and Dan Sarewitz

Photo by Kirsten Holtz/New America

Sometimes it seems like climate change discussions are stuck in the ’90s. We’re still having many of the same debates: Is it real? Are our children doomed to a Mad Max-esque future? Where is Captain Planet when you need him?

It’s time to switch up the dialogue. That was the message of a Jan. 15 Future Tense event held at New America in Washington, D.C. At “How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?” speakers focused on the ways that the top-down approach to “solving” climate change can exacerbate existing inequalities and overlook or stifle innovation. They also explored the surprising side effects of climate change on the military, business, and international relations.

The word of the day may have been governance, particularly in the context of promoting and permitting ideas that can build community resilience and increase access to food and energy—which are vital to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

University of Michigan research scientist and Nigerian Utibe Effiong blamed poor governance for his home country’s struggles with climate change—and inability to effectively address it. For example, Nigeria is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, but doesn’t have a refinery, which leads to high energy costs and inconsistent energy supplies.  

One problem is that governments worldwide tend to silo problems, instead of thinking holistically. Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank, discussed governments’ habit of separating issues that ought to be connected: “What we’ve come up with is we have special poverty initiatives and we have green initiatives.” In the United States, she said, green subsidies—for instance, for electric cars—“are particularly going toward the wealthy.” This is especially true in California, as Margonelli discussed this in a Slate piece in September. She proposes that we “solve for poverty and for climate issues at the same time.”

That’s a challenge, especially when much of the discussion around conquering climate change focuses on keeping developing countries from accessing energy and reaching new levels of prosperity.

 “If you look at sustainability and climate change discourse, what counts as sustainability in poor countries amounts to a shadow of the kind of economic and standard of living aspirations of the world,” noted Dan Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development agreed and said that “until you can run an iron or smelter on a solar panel,” you can’t expect people to live carbon-free lives.

Several speakers were excited about the potential of local level innovation although, as Sarewitz noted, international governance tends to be skeptical about “context-created solutions.” That’s a shame, because as Nikki Silvestri, a food systems and climate solutions advocate, pointed out, community-based initiatives—like using bodegas as hubs for providing information after a natural disaster—can serve as case studies that can be duplicated on a wider scale. Yet at times, such initiatives end up mired in bureaucratic red tape. “There’s something to be said for just do it,” she told the audience. “And then once you see what policies and regulations you bump against, that opens a real-time, nontheoretical conversation about what policies you need in place to allow innovation to flourish.”

Context is critical, as climate change effects aren’t uniform—a mistake that many make, said Rimjhim Aggarwal, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State. “The local impacts are very different in different places,” she said, so decision-makers in, say, her native India need to listen to farmers with valuable local knowledge. By doing so, they not only improve their plans, but they “empower that poor person, because now he is being valued.”

That strategy—empowering the poor and valuing their knowledge—isn’t a common one; much of the time, officials speak down to poor people and people of color about climate change, Aggarwal and Silvestri said. Silvestri noted that a study conducted by Green for All, where she served as executive director until recently, indicated that 70 percent of minority voters would favor a candidate who planned to tackle climate change.

In addition to discussing the social-equality questions that climate change asks us to ponder, the event’s speakers examined some of the unexpected business and military side effects of a warming planet. Rear Adm. Jonathan White spoke about how the U.S. Navy is facing three major climate change–related challenges: a melting Arctic, which opens up new waterways; rising sea levels by naval bases; and more natural disasters which may require Navy recovery efforts. White acknowledged that it may be surprising for some people to hear members of the military talk seriously about climate change, but the Navy, more so than most organizations, is a firsthand witness to the new Arctic. He noted that Navy submarines have been visiting the Arctic for 40 years, and the changes are undeniable. They’re working with partner nations to share information and to plan for a new planet.

The moral of the day is that while climate change presents a challenge for the world, there are opportunities as well: to empower communities and developing nations, to strengthen global ties, and even to make some money, as McKenzie Funk, author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, pointed out. In reporting his book, Funk found that Israelis have found potential profits in desalination and snowmaking; Greenland is hoping that new discoveries of new mineral reserves, made possible by retreating glaciers, could allow it to afford independence; and insurance companies have started paying for-profit firefighters to protect assets from wildfires.

Whatever happens with climate change, “There is no going back to past states,” Brad Allenby, president’s professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State, told the audience. “We live on a terraformed planet. The planet has become a design space. The human is becoming a design space.” So the question is, how will we design our future as the world warms? Unfortunately, no one has an easy answer to that—not even Captain Planet.

To watch the full event, visit the New America website.

Also in Slate:

There’s No Place Like Home: Science, information, and politics in the Anthropocene,” by Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz

The Carbon Diet Fallacy: Dealing with climate change is not like trying to lose weight,” by Lisa Margonelli

Pinot Noir Is Wine’s Polar Bear: The opportunities and challenges that climate change presents to vintners,” by Carrie Miller

Hold the Cookies, Save the Planet: Everyone knows meat is bad for the environment. But so is an ingredient commonly found in junk food,” by Ruth DeFries

Why Climate Change Isn’t a Sputnik Moment: Military technology can’t innovate us out of this one,” by Sharon E. Burke and Sharon Squassoni