however, the sense that we have time to put together a response is also
implicit in the slow pace of negotiations over international agreements
about emissions—not to mention the even slower pace of compliance
with the cuts already specified in the Kyoto Protocol. (Very few nations
that signed those accords have begun to make substantial cuts in their
emissions, despite the publicity over their promise to do so.) 14 he same
patience is evident in the fact that these negotiators either set modest
cuts in emissions (as at Kyoto) or distant dates for compliance.
The greatest virtue of this patient approach is its realism about the dif-
ficulty of finding agreement, changing our carbon-based culture, and cut-
ting emissions deeply enough to make a difference. Anyone who reflects
on how difficult it will be to transform our societies to the necessary
degree must empathize with the bone-deep pragmatism of negotiators,
their acceptance of the political conditions we face and the necessity of
working within them to achieve anything that will mater.
But very litle in the scientiic research can justify such patience.
For one thing, a portion of the carbon dioxide we emit remains in the
atmosphere for a century or more. As a result, even if we soon curtail the
amount of carbon dioxide we produce, levels of that gas will remain high
throughout the rest of this century at least, forcing changes to the climate
throughout that long period. In effect, our actions long ago are being felt
today, and our actions today will be felt for many decades to come. The
longer we continue our current habits, the greater the difficulties future
generations will have to face. Unless we are fairly certain that today's
emissions will do no harm later on, we should do what we can today.
Moreover, although views differ about the effects that will follow from
our emissions, it would be foolish to assume that only the more opti-
mistic projections are true. If the science is uncertain in this regard, we
should listen to the full spectrum of considered judgment before opting
for a slow-motion strategy. If we listen in this way, we will soon discover
that things may be substantially worse than we might think.
The major debate among climate change scientists today is not
whether climate change is real but whether it will have a more severe
effect on Earth's ecosystems in the future than we previously thought.
One element contributing to this debate is research into the problem
of positive feedback loops of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of