In 1985, when Carl Sagan went to Congress, global warming seemed like a distant problem. Granted, the likes of Exxon, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies were well aware that their actions were causing climate change, and they did their best to hide this fact from the public — but to most regular folks, climate change wasn’t a concern at the time.
Sagan, known for his work both as a scientist and as a science communicator, went to Congress to “underscore that this is a real phenomenon.” In his trademark simple and elegant style, he presented the causes of climate change, how we know it is happening, and what we can do about it.
“The power of human beings to affect and control and change the environment is growing as our technology grows and at present time, we clearly have reached the stage where we are capable (both intentionally and inadvertently) to make significant changes in the global climate and in the global ecosystem. We’ve probably been doing things like that, on a smaller scale, for a very long period of time,” Sagan said.
Unfortunately, more than 30 years ago, Sagan also seemed to predict the main reason why mankind would be so slow to act on climate change.
“Because the effects occupy more than a human generation, there is a tendency to say that they are not our problem — of course, then they are nobody’s problem.” Then, like now, many people wrongly believed climate change is something for future generations to act on.
But, as Sagan points out, “if you don’t worry about it now, it’s too late later on. [..]We are passing down extremely grave problems for our children, when the time to solve the problems is now.”
Unfortunately, despite technological progress, our society seems to have one foot stuck in the same mentality that Sagan spoke of in 1985. Because climate change acts on such a long timescale and because humans (and especially politicians) think in much shorter timescales, climate change remains insufficiently addressed.
Sagan’s speech is worth listening to now just as much as it was then. Since 1985, we’ve gathered even more irrefutable evidence that climate change is happening, we are causing it, and we will suffer if we don’t address it quickly. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. Whether or not we will act in time to avoid catastrophic, planetary damage is still unclear.