One important difference between the oil spill and the CO2 spill is that petroleum is visible on the surface of the sea and carries a distinctive odor now filling the nostrils of people on shore. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is invisible, odorless, tasteless, and has no price tag. It is all too easily put “out of sight and out of mind.” Because the impacts of global warming are distributed globally, they often masquerade as an abstraction. And because the length of time between causes and consequences is longer than we are used to dealing with, we are vulnerable to the illusion that we have the luxury of time before we begin to respond.
But neither assumption is correct. Most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the oceans and reemerges over time into the atmosphere. As a result, we are capable-–through inaction—of making truly disastrous consequences inevitable long before the worst impacts are manifested. Our perception of the dangers of the climate crisis therefore relies on our ability to understand and trust the conclusions reached by the most elaborate and impressive scientific assessment in the history of our civilization.
In other words, rather than relying on visceral responses, we have to draw upon our capacity for reasoning, communicating clearly with one another, forming a global consensus on the basis of science, and making a choice in favor of preventive action on a global scale.