As a result, the Anthropocene may prove too hot to permit permanent ice in polar regions. Already, summer sea ice in the Arctic has reached perilously low levels and Hansen suggests it is already a foregone conclusion that it will be gone in coming summer seasons.
Climate change is also, obviously, having an impact on the weather. Extreme weather is becoming the norm, like the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 that saw an already dry region receive just 5 percent of its "normal" rainfall. For comparison's sake, last year's severe drought in Texas stemmed from receiving only 35 percent of that region's normal rainfall, noted atmospheric scientist Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. "A lot of countries that had zero to do with climate change are being pummeled by climate change," Sachs added, suggesting aid to these regions is really compensation.
The problem in addressing climate change, which Sachs also called the biggest and hardest challenge ever to face humanity, may be human nature itself. Fossil fuels remain the cheapest fuel source, and as long as they do, we will continue to burn them, Hansen noted, arguing for a carbon tax on coal, oil and natural gas with the proceeds distributed to citizens of the countries collecting the tax. And climate change timescales are "longer than human memory and longer than terms in political office," Goddard noted. "Human experience is also largely local, and it's hard to notice a global trend."
At the same time, the more than a billion people mired in energy poverty must be given access to modern energy. If that comes from fossil fuels, it may prove difficult to solve global warming. Engineer Vijay Modi of Columbia University has come up with a way the energy poor can avoid burning kerosene or the like: micro-grids powered by the sun. Modi's Shared Solar combines a village wired by the government with a privately funded solar installation run by a smart meter and doled out on a prepaid basis to villagers. So, for example, the village of Segou in Mali, which has such a system, has a vendor with a smart phone who uses an app to sell increments of electricity generated by the sun to his neighbors.
Shared widely via a new effort called the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, or perhaps just the burgeoning population of Internet-connected mobile phones, such technology could provide light at night for a girl to study by—and the education of women is a crucial part of any bid to address poverty, social justice and environmental problems. Or it can empower local entrepreneurs, such as a women's fishing collective that now has a refrigerator to store its catch or the local tailor and his new light. If such technology ends up fueling economic development, social justice and environmental improvement, then the state of the planet just might improve this century. After all, as Eliasson observed, when asked if the world needs a plan B given its dire state, "there is no planet B."