At the climate talks in France, the goal is a global consensus agreement. But everyone meeting there—the thousands of negotiators, politicians, environmentalists, civil society participants, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and the private sector—is aware that the conference's outcome will be disappointing and blatantly inadequate. For some, any agreement will seem downright futile. An agreement, virtually no matter how ambitious and aggressive it is, will not prevent sea level rise from threatening island states such as the Maldives (the climate-threatened nation that our roundtable colleague Sagar Dhara discussed earlier in Round Three). No agreement arising from the conference will adequately protect the millions of people around the globe who face climate disruptions ranging from flooding to increased drought to more powerful storms.
Not very far from the conference site in Le Bourget lies the historic Panthéon, a monumental building in central Paris. Outside the building, an artwork called Ice Watch was installed on December 3—and is set to melt away as the conference approaches its conclusion on December 11. The artwork consists of 12 huge blocks of ice, harvested from among icebergs floating in a Greenland fjord. The blocks are arranged in a circle, like a clock face, and represent the limited time that remains for effective climate action. Ice Watch, by visual artist Olafur Eliasson (in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing), demonstrates in a simple, tangible way the precarious situation that the world faces.
Ice Watch also calls to mind a set of seemingly irreconcilable truths about climate change and humanity's response to it. Attitudes toward climate today present a paradox. On one hand is a sense of futility, a deep despair about climate change itself and the world's inadequate efforts to address it. On the other hand—and offsetting the futility at least a bit—is an optimism born of necessity. This optimism springs from humanity's powerful will to survive, and from the ingenuity, creativity, and hope that accompany the instinct for survival. To be sure, it's hard to change human systems—incumbent energy systems, for example. And when humans are faced with difficult problems, their "solutions" are always incomplete. But it's also true that when change occurs, it often does so in unexpected and nonlinear ways.
This roundtable has investigated whether humanity is capable of developing and deploying technologies adequate to address the climate problem. But the ultimate question is something else. Can human beings rapidly reorganize, reorient, and redistribute resources—and can they transform their institutions and societies so that Earth’s climate is stabilized and future suffering and disruption are minimized? This question is bigger than the narrow technological question, and harder to address. It's also a question very much worth embracing.