Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


We know far more about certain catastrophic risks than we have been willing to do anything serious about. This was not always the case, of course. There was a time when we could have plausibly said we had no real knowledge of a problem and therefore no possible obligation to do anything different. For climate change, the nuances of the date can be endlessly debated; the possible window puts Americans knowing somewhere between 1896, with transatlantic arrival of scientific findings from Sweden, and no later than James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988. For the threats posed by a Cascadia fault megaquake, the range of possibility is smaller, with clear establishment somewhere in the early 1990s. In either case, however, no fewer than two decades have passed since a core idea was established and no powerful contrary evidence has countered it. We have moved from ignorance, to knowledge of an existential threat, to inaction at any meaningful or suitable scale. Tempting as it is to look backward and condemn inaction, the more necessary concern at present must be how to look forward and think urgently about rapid action. The complex world we have made on top of the prior world was built, we now see, on ignorant assumptions. We did not know then what we know now. Our concerns were not the concerns of the builders of the superhighways, or the coastal ports, or the downtowns, or the energy grids, or the communication networks; they could not have built or planned with knowledge we have but they did not. At all points in time, policy thinking and project planning are informed by the knowledge of that moment.

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