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The main drivers of virtually all charitable, noble, and courageous humanitarian acts or behaviors are always, one way or another, rooted in empathy and compassion: the ability and altruistic desire to feel someone else’s suffering, fear, or predicament.

It’s relatively easy to muster this best of all human traits when the object of our concern is clearly visible to us, clearly within the scope of our awareness. But how can we feel for somebody else’s problems when they occur at great distances in space and time…if we can’t see them, if we can’t hear them cry? How can we care, even if they’re our own flesh and blood, when they are living in a different segment of the space-time continuum? Our great great grandchildren, all our descendants, exist in a certain sense, they’re just not here yet.

It’s perfectly natural to want to deal with the here and now. We have to take care of business, the business that is “in our face” right now. It’s difficult to give priority to issues that present themselves only as concepts of future suffering when urgent problems arise every day, particularly when the factual basis for those concepts is questioned.

It’s also very difficult to empathize when separated from the suffering by many thousands of miles. But technology intervenes to bring us closer as we watch scenes of great devastation and human suffering through the marvel of television. No such technology can bring us closer to the suffering of our descendants. But suffer they will, as they damn prior generations for foisting a damaged planet upon them (You can almost hear them…yelling at us from the future, “Thanks a lot for leaving us this horrible mess!!”).

This is the dilemma and the challenge of climate change. How to muster the necessary empathy for the predicament of those yet unborn. How to sincerely attempt to “put ourselves in their shoes”.

Human caused climate change is no longer a debate (except perhaps for those who still insist the sun and planets revolve around Earth, the center of the universe). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s major Black Friday Report states that without drastic reductions in carbon emissions, by 2100 global warming will cause a 10 percent reduction in USA gross domestic product, including $141 billion in heat related deaths. It will reduce snowfall in western Montana, shrinking the winter sports season by 20 to 60 percent by 2090. It will warm stream waters, doing major damage to the great Montana fishing tradition. (See the Saturday, November 24 IR).

Drought, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and other major weather events are becoming the norm as human generated carbon emissions play havoc with the delicate balance of nature. Carbon emissions jumped 2.7 percent from 2017 to 1018, according to the highly respected Global Carbon Project (December 6 IR). It’s probably too late to avoid serious suffering due to human pollution. Indeed, it seems to have started already. But we’d better put on the brakes “yesterday” if we want to avoid damaging the planet beyond any kind of meaningful repair.

There are many ongoing projects and initiatives to move our world away from fossil fuels to renewables. It will take some time, but the science and the technology are now there to accomplish the transition to a new energy industry, one that is clean and includes ample jobs to fuel the economy. The real problem is mustering the social and political will among the world population to make such a massive and difficult change quickly. Can we reach a critical mass of public opinion in time to move our institutions to act?

For sure, we’ll need virtually everyone on board. On board with the 97 percent of scientists who urge immediate action on carbon emissions. On board with objective truth, which does exist, believe it or not, in the sciences. If you’re still struggling with turning the page from wishful thinking to accepting science, it’s OK, even Copernicus probably winced at having to relinquish belief in the earth’s primacy. Your great-great-grandkids and beyond will thank you.


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Bob Pyfer of Helena is a retired lawyer with extensive legislative experience and an intense interest in social science and social policy.


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