There’s one knock-down argument that pessimists can level at all the progress Pinker has pointed to so far. What happens when we’ve so damaged the Earth that no one, not the rich, not the poor, not the West, not the East, not Africa, not South America, no one can live on it?

You know what? You’re absolutely right. If we don’t solve our problems, we’re all doomed. So let’s solve them.

First, we have already come a long way. The Industrial Revolution filled the air with smoke and the water with sludge. Today, people fighting for cleaner air and water have made huge strides, so that rivers all over the planet are recovering, forests are being replanted, and a record amount of land and water has been set aside as wildlife and natural preserve. Though many problems remain, what the past 50 years have shown is that all these problems can be solved with a combination of government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and individual activism.

Except, perhaps, one.

That is the problem of human-caused climate change.

Most of our activities dump carbon dioxide into the air, and this extra carbon dioxide must warm the planet. If you want to debate that, go get your paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is simply a fact, and no reputable scientist can suggest any way in which excess carbon dioxide in the air will not lead to higher temperatures.

The question is how to fix it (and fix it we must, as, again, the scientific consensus is that this warming will be harmful, possibly devastatingly so). Solar and wind energy are nice, but limited, and require enormous swaths of land (reversing the trend mentioned earlier about preserving more and more land as natural space). Pinker’s most important answer is one I’ve long held (and again one that will cause my liberal friends to turn away): nuclear power.

I’ll be honest. I was first attracted to nuclear power because I think it’s cool. The idea that this esoteric nuclear phenomenon, the fission (or fusion) of atomic nuclei, along with Einstein’s E=mc^2, could be the answer to the world’s energy woes got my little physics heart pumping. One should always be wary of ideas one is especially fond of.

But nuclear power’s safety record is impressive, its lack of carbon dioxide emissions alluring, and the myriad ways that problems such as waste and proliferation can be dealt with is promising. Whether fission with thorium reactors and sodium salts or fusion with seawater and fuel from the Moon are the future, the promise of nuclear power as a solution to the very real threat of global warming is hard to pass up.

One inescapable fact about the world is that it doesn’t care what we think. If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the air and do nothing to mitigate the damage, we will see the results. No amount of science denial or nuclear fear will hold the water back.

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