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How do we describe that world? We could use the metaphor of the
ship already struck by the iceberg and about to sink, as I did in the previ-
ous chapter. But even that notion only goes so far. That ship might keep
going for a few more decades , sinking very slowly into the depths while
the years pass. We simply do not know how to understand a world that
lives after the disastrous moment has passed and finally becomes aware of
its situation—but too late .
One type of story provides an inventive response to this situation.
The back-to-the-future scenario, especially in the Terminator movies,
imagines that in a disastrous future we might come back to this present
and avoid doing anything to cause that future. This scenario does at least
imagine a life ater the disastrous event. But it does so in order to convey
the urgency of acting now —as if all of us in the present have been sent
back from that future to make sure it doesn't happen. This type of story
is perfect for the era of climate change: indeed, nearly all of the warnings
that scientists give us about the effects of our fossil-fuel economy could
be told in that way. But what happens if we discover that the event has
already taken place—and we have no machine to help us go back in time
and make things right?
Our inability to know when that moment will take place or if it has
already happened, as well as our relative lack of control over whether it
will happen, stems in part from the radical limits in our knowledge of cli-
mate change. In the nuclear era, everyone knew well enough what push-
ing the buton would lead to. But with climate change, things are uterly
different. If scientists had not begun to calibrate the levels of carbon diox-
ide in the atmosphere in the mid-twentieth century, and if they had not
become atentive a couple decades later to the possible consequences of
introducing greenhouse gases in novel quantities into the atmosphere,
none of us would have had more than a vague sense of what was tak-
ing place. Without the ongoing work of hundreds of scientists around
the world, we wouldn't have a ballpark estimate of our situation even
today. Yet despite that effort, nobody knows how climate change works
in all its permutations. One reason for this contrast may be that human
beings created nuclear bombs, could test them, witness their results,
and contemplate their possible use. Nobody planned and implemented
climate change.
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