Take a moment to imagine that you are living in the time of your great-grandparents. Imagine yourself surrounded by horse-drawn carriages, oil lamps, and steam engines. You know that exciting changes are on the horizon—maybe you’ve already glimpsed a few, like the electric light bulb or the automobile—but it’s impossible to guess how the next scientific discovery will change your life.
Now imagine that a visitor from the future arrives and tells you four things that may come to pass within the next four generations. Here are the time traveler’s predictions:
First, metal aircraft will crisscross the sky daily, carrying thousands of passengers across oceans and continents.
Second, a worldwide network of electrical cables and storage devices will allow for the instantaneous exchange of information.
Third, most people will carry around tiny screens that can perform translations, calculations, and dozens of other functions, by communicating with objects in outer space.
Fourth, humans will disrupt the planet’s atmosphere with pollution, creating floods, droughts, and storms around the world.
Can you imagine? Some visionaries could. Jules Verne, a science-fiction pioneer who had a knack for getting the future right by accident, described a man-made scheme that nearly caused the world to flood in his 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole. In his version, an American gun club tries to build a cannon so huge that its shot will knock the Earth of its axis. Tellingly, the trigger-happy Americans are trying to clear the North Pole of ice because they think there might be coal deposits underneath. “We are so much in need of it,” Verne writes, “that the world may be called ‘an animal of coal.’”
But Verne was the exception, not the rule. Most people in 1889 had no clear idea of what the future would look like. If a time traveler gave them the four predictions I mentioned above, they wouldn’t have a clue if any of them were plausible. Most likely, they’d dismiss them all as sheer fantasy. Satellites and cell phones would go into the same category as huge, planet-shifting cannons: science-fiction, with the emphasis on fiction.
Yet here we are. Amazing! In less than 130 years, we’ve gone from steam trains to supersonic jets, from telegraphs to texts, and more! Through human ingenuity, we’ve created vaccines that have nearly eradicated dozens of deadly diseases. We’ve learned how to replace lungs, hips, and hearts. We’ve doubled our average lifespans. When we’re motivated, it seems as if humans can do anything.
As we get better at medicine, engineering, and technology, we also get better at predicting the future. Your great-grandparents may not have known what lay ahead for themselves or their species, but our scientists are obsessively poring over the tidal waves of data that have started surging in, ever since we put satellites in orbit to observe the world. Just like the algorithm on your phone can make educated guesses about where you are, or what you’re likely to type next, scientists use algorithms to anticipate the planet’s trends.
This month, the world’s leading experts on environmental science got together to publish a report about the future. Hundreds of scientists contributed what they’ve observed over 50 years or more. The report came to the public through the United Nations’s International Panel on Climate Change. It’s pretty bad news—the sort of future vision that would make Jules Verne give up science-fiction and take up gardening.
Before we get to the bad news—and to what we might be able to do about it—take another step back to 1889. Remember those four predictions? Back then, it would have seemed like lunacy to behave as if any of those things were really going to happen. If your great-grandparents had somehow been able to purchase stock in Apple Computers—well, you’d be a billionaire today, of course, but back then, they would have been laughed out of town. Yet here we are.
In 2018, you’d be a laughing-stock if you didn’t believe in jet planes, satellites, and the internet. However, there are still a lot of people who think the fourth prediction—man-made climate change—isn’t happening. And sure, it’s much easier to believe in, say, a cell phone, because it’s something you can see and touch and use. Even compared to something huge like the internet, global warming is big (it’s right there in the name) and hard to pin down.
But it’s one of the ways we’ve managed to come so far in such a short time: we don’t all have to know everything, we just need to trust the people who know the right things. I don’t ask an airline pilot to fix my laptop, and I certainly wouldn’t ask my internet technician to fly a plane. But I have to trust them both to do what they’re trained to do, or else nothing gets done.
It’s silly to trust one scientist, or even ten. But when hundreds agree, it makes sense to at least consider moving their prediction out of science-fiction and into science-facts. When 97 percent of publishing climate scientists around the world say global warming is happening, it makes sense to listen. After all, how much more ridiculous is it, really, than space shuttles or heart transplants?
Now, back to the bad news. The UN’s report states that unless coordinated action is taken within 12 years, the Earth’s average temperature will rise beyond any on record. Heat kills crops and livestock, but it also melts ice, making oceans rise. Unless we take action on a large scale, coastal cities (where 80 percent of humans live) will be flooded. Heat also makes hurricanes form. We’ve already seen and felt heatwaves, floods, and hurricanes increasing in the past few years. If we do nothing, they will all get worse and worse. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news too. Humans are amazing! Jules Verne may have warned us about climate change, but most of his books were about humanity working together to achieve unforeseen success. It’s what we, as a species, do: we see a challenge and then set our amazing brains to overcoming it. We’ve done it before, avoiding nuclear annihilation with diplomacy, or fixing acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer with science, awareness, and environmental sanctions.
If enough people move past the “doubting” phase, then humanity can reverse global warming before it becomes a real killer. But 12 years is not a long time; it’s not even a generation. We need to get out of our “great-grandparent” mentality, and on board with what’s happening today. Invest in the future to make a better now.