Climate change and the challenges to human happiness

It’s not too late to confront despair.

 

Sometimes I’m asked whether I hold out any hope concerning the fate of humanity and climate change. I have a hard time answering. I have no doubt that things are going to get hotter before they get better; Denver, for example, just broke its heat record for September, hitting 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Do I doubt that humans will somehow figure out a way to survive? Not really, at least for a few hundred years — maybe a few thousand, even. What ought to worry us about climate change is not the fate of humanity, or even of the Earth; after all, this planet has another 800 million to 1.2 billion years for life on it to re-evolve, wherever it leads. Rather, a climate in flux is a major challenge to our happiness right now. We have barely started to grapple with the despair of the modern age, and an unstable climate brings the prospect of increasingly conflict-driven lives.

Water from an aquifer that lies below Colorado’s San Luis Valley flows through a center-pivot irrigation system, one of some 14,000 that draw water from below.
Luna Anna Archey
Take the cover story for this issue, in which editorial fellow Nick Bowlin reports from Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a high-altitude community of ranchers and farmers that is finding it hard to conserve water. The state has warned the locals that if their current experiment in self-governance fails, it will step in to manage their water for them. That means they will lose some of their freedom. Yet it’s not always easy to do the right thing. Last year, severe drought squeezed the community pretty hard. When this year brought heavy snow and plenty of runoff, farmers felt driven to make up for their losses — pumping water to grow hay and crops instead of recharging the groundwater. In a less volatile climate, people would have a better chance of succeeding and sharing water. But faced with extremes, humans falter. Conservation yields to self-preservation.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The ticking clock of climate change, in other words, makes it harder to do the right thing. Our health and happiness are threatened across the globe. The leading thinkers who gathered in Stockholm last month for World Water Week warned of increased global conflict over water, citing erratic rainfall and food shortages in South Sudan and Syria as examples.

From the San Luis Valley to South Sudan, climate change is challenging our values, forcing us to advance our ethics faster than the temperatures rise. And because the American West is more sensitive to this kind of change than much of the country, we who live here face the pointy end of this ethical challenge. But that’s where my hope lies. My hope is that people who care about the West, who read this magazine, will help guide the world through the challenges ahead. That means starting now and working steadily — thinking big, showing up and doing good. 

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