Who Will Save Earth? The Ingenious Human Mind (Op-Ed)

Raghu Murtugudde, University of Maryland
Who Will Save Earth? The Ingenious Human Mind (Op-Ed)
An image of the Earth taken by the Russian weather satellite Elektro-L No.1.

Raghu Murtugudde is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. Murtugudde contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I wake up every morning with good intentions, wanting to help save the planet by reducing my carbon footprint. But by midmorning, it's clear that I can't really track the food-miles of everything I eat, I can't always avoid driving, and I love my lamb kabob once in a while, so I can't really zero out my meat consumption. There is so much of the world I haven't seen and I can't imagine that global warming will keep me from flying to those places. Most of my climate-scientist colleagues also talk incessantly about the need to reduce consumption, and some have even built models to say societies may collapse if we fail to do so. 

But are scientists like myself the ones who will save the planet? I seriously doubt it, even though some of us are fairly shrill in issuing increasingly alarming messages. We all are afflicted by the one-action bias, which means we will buy a hybrid car, but not pay attention to anything else; like living in too big a house, or owning multiple homes. Can a mother, even if she can afford organic food, take the time to worry about saving the planet when she barely has enough hours each day to care for her children? Can a poor family struggling to earn three meals a day really make decisions based on carbon footprint? It seems like an impossible expectation.

What if people just accept that the poor just need to focus on reaching a decent standard of living, and avoid being crushed by the onus of having to save the planet? China and India saw their per capita carbon emission from fossil fuel and cement production go from about two tons and one ton, respectively, in 1990 to almost eight tons and two tons, respectively, in 2012. Do we want the citizens of those countries and other developing economies deprived of luxuries the developed world takes for granted? The human mind simply is not capable of worrying all day, every day, about carbon footprint. We should be worrying about the big picture, finding solutions, rather than relying on the pipe dream of simply reducing consumption to save the planet. 

The headlines have been blaring 24/7 for years now that climate change is upon us and the planet needs saving. It is beyond doubt that we have been ramping up the carbon in land, air and water, and this is increasing temperatures on our planet. If we continue down this path, there is a finite probability that irreversible changes in glaciers and sea level could occur. Many indications of global warming clearly are here already.

But, it is not easy to predict when we will reach this tipping point, especially since the planet has shown evidence for a pause in global warming during the last 15 years. We still don't know how much excess energy trapped by the continued increase of greenhouse gases is being stored on Earth somewhere, perhaps in the oceans, or returning to space. 

Many species surely are going extinct due to the rapid warming, but others are hardier than we expected. For example, while many corals have been decimated as ocean temperatures rise, some have become quite resilient to acidifying waters. Perhaps ours is the only species we should be worrying about, since past extinctions actually have led to increases in biodiversity due to the opening of new environmental niches. 

Nature makes the rules and life finds the loopholes, as the old saying goes. Our loopholes may come from finding solutions to our demands for continuing our good life without destroying the planet. 

But the daily headlines have had an impact. The World Bank has taken the lead in funding climate adaptation and climate resilience projects all over the world in energy, infrastructure, transportation and agriculture. But a Global Environmental Facility report notes the need to monitor some of these actions more carefully. The benefit of the terrestrial protected areas, where human activities are regulated to protect biodiversity and endangered species, for example, is not clear for the inhabitants around them, even though biodiversity may indeed benefit. Some climate adaptation and mitigation actions are no-regret decisions (the cost-to-benefit ratio can easily be justified), but there should be caution when people's livelihoods may be affected negatively by them.

Will the vision of the future be more optimistic if we decide we are not only incapable of constantly worrying about reducing our consumption, but, rather, that we are more likely to produce game-changing solutions? These solutions would be ones that would let us enjoy a well-lit world where we can eat as much as we want, drive and fly around when the heart desires, and allow future generations to dream about space travel, instead of fearing the end of the world due to climate change.

It is human ingenuity that has brought us this far, albeit with unintended consequences to the environment. We don't necessarily need to produce food as we have done for the last 10,000 years, the main advance being the use of fertilizers to increase yields. Maybe geneticist Craig Venter will find a way to produce food in the lab, making traditional agriculture disappear. It is possible that the same human ingenuity that gave us industrial production of ammonium for manufacturing fertilizer will find a way to use oceans for hydroponics along with aquaculture to sustainably produce sufficient food for the world.

Are we doomed to rely on fossil fuels for eternity? The infinite potential to harness the inexhaustible energy of the sun is only limited by human imagination — printable solar cells and solar roadways are only the beginning. It is only a matter of time before nano solar cells produced from 3D printing will deliver wearable clothing and technology that will allow us to travel in our driverless cars on solar roadways in our smart cities with no negative impacts on the environment. Fossil fuels need only tide us over until our ingenuity will allow us to wean ourselves from them. 

And then there is the issue of water. The UN Secretary General has raised an alarm about the world running out of water — but the planet's surface is 70 percent ocean and even a more massive ocean was discovered recently deep within the earth. Can we really run out of water? It is a matter of access and pollution, both of which can be solved by massive — but economic and environmentally safe — desalination.

There are some nifty examples of the bold human imagination ranging from super sustainable cities to the intelligence revolution. It is the crazy ones who will change the world, not the worry-warts who think fear, force or folly can change humans. 

In the meantime, we must continue to try to reduce our carbon footprint until these game changers come along, with efforts like http://confessionsfilm.com/oneearth/ and http://collectiveinvention.com/

The greatest impediment to taxing ourselves to create a better future for posterity is the evolutionary instinct of discounting the future. But maybe we don't have to worry about it if we let our imagination run free. Until then, here's to the bountiful and sustainable future for all of us — derived from the ingenious human mind.

The author's most recent Op-Ed was, "Is Climate Change Response 'Fight or Flight' or 'Rest and Digest'?" The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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