We humans are adaptable to an astounding great degree. We originated in Africa but we have inhabited, and continue to thrive, in the far-corners of the earth. As long as change is not too sudden, we are adept at adapting to it. Technological progress enables us to even permanently inhabit regions like Antarctica.
Now this adaptability of ours comes with a flip side. It hinders our ability to sense danger when change is slower than a threshold. Sure, we care about our environment. When the ozone layer was disappearing, we humans took collective action to minimize the use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) everywhere in the world. A fast disappearing ozone layer and the visceral consequences of its absence inspired us into action.
But with climate change, the change happens much slower. In the last hundred years, fossil fuels have been rising earth’s temperature to a geographically significant degree. The last time the earth was as warm as it is today, is 125,000 years ago. So we have created a geological anomaly – an epoch that we call the Anthropocene.
However, this change is subtle for the everyday person. In the Paris accord, nations agreed to limit human warming of the earth’s mean temperature to well within 2 degrees Celsius. 2 degrees isn’t much for us to adapt to as individuals. This means that if I lived a in place where the average winter temperature was -10 degrees and summer temperature was 20 degrees Celsius, I would now have to contend with -8 degrees and 22 degrees – a change that doesn’t seem catastrophic.
And yet, the geographical systems that sustain the ecological balance on earth are delicate enough for this 2 degree change to be the difference between the planet as we know it, and a much more hostile place. The planet itself changes and adapts to change much slower than we humans do.
Among the problems we have, it isn’t the obvious, visceral Hollywood varieties that represent a greater threat to us. When an asteroid hurtles towards earth, we are equipped well enough today to avert Armageddon. It is the slow, silent and insidious problems that we need to worry about.