Yesterday, Columbia University hosted a conference on carbon capture and sequestration—new technology to catch CO2 at a coal plant before it enters the atmosphere and then stash it deep underground. So why was Jeffery Sachs in such an uproar?
Sachs, the leader of Columbia's Earth Institute and an adviser to the United Nations, said that while we must investigate all renewable energy options, at the same time people must get realistic: the world is still going to be coal-dependent for a long time, especially in rapidly-growing China and India.
Climate change is in crisis mode already, he says, arguing that only about one-third to one half of the environmental consequences for how humans have already altered the climate have so far shown up—meaning that things would get worse even if people stopped all emissions today. Thus, even though it would be better to move away from coal entirely, we have to face facts—pursue carbon capture technology and pray like hell that it's going to work.
Sitting though a few hours of a climate change conference like this one was mentally exhausting. The call to arms backed up by now decades of data is more than enough to convince me that a lot must be done in a short period of time. But the academic arguments over details and reality checks when it comes to politics and regulation leaves me with the feeling like that odds are against us.
It should come as no surprise, then, that people who know the most about global warming seem to be the most depressed about it, including teenagers. A new study by David Baker that aimed to gauge 15-year-old students' knowledge and attitude about green issues found that only 17 percent had good command of the topic, while 42 percent received a D or lower. And, he found, optimism followed the inverse: those who knew the least about environmental issues had the rosiest outlook.
While Baker's study could be construed as a confirmation of the obvious, it shows again just how important education is to raising up a generation of people able to confront the mess that previous generations have made of the Earth. In one bit of good news, the study found that more than half of the American schools that participated in the survey had a specific class for environmental science.
But here's the big question: can we deal with the huge range of environmental problems out there without sinking into collective despair? Frankly, the opposing side—that Al Gore and Jeffery Sachs and their ilk are simply attention-happy alarmists, and the Earth is too big for puny humans to screw up—is much more emotionally alluring and comfortable compared to feeling a responsibility to help confront and change a global catastrophe.
Baker's study describes the more aware high school students as being more "realistic" about the environment than their peers, but here's hoping that's not just a euphemism for "depressed." Fixing the Earth is going to mean striking an emotional balance—being realistic without slipping into the paralyzing conclusion that we're doomed already.