Looking back, looking forward: 2008 edition

Frequently these days I’m reminded of Bill Gates’ maxim: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

We tend to extrapolate fairly linearly from where we are today. In our near-term predictions, we discount the inherent lag built into human institutions. In our long-term predictions, we entirely overlook the seismic shifts that are barely foreshadowed today.

Two years ago, when I wrote the year-end review, I noted that the recent election had finally deposed Senator James Inhofe as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. This seemed like a big deal! Inhofe was (and is) a clown and an environmental villain, and his control of a senate committee charged with protecting the environment symbolized everything that was wrong with climate change politics in the U.S.

What I failed to note at the time was the election of a junior senator from Illinois, whose incoming administration now represents one of the best hopes for meaningful action on the most urgent issue of our time.

Two years ago, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act. This also seemed like a big deal. And it was! With passage of the act, the world’s eight largest economy laid out a comprehensive agenda for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Just as significantly, it appeared the United States was finally starting to grapple with the problem it helped to create.

It was only three weeks ago, in 2008, that California finally ratified a plan for implementing the act. The officials responsible for drafting the plan have been moving in a timely fashion — and more importantly, the plan they’ve developed appears to be a good one — but it takes a long time to put the legislative infrastructure in place for a fundamental overhaul of the economy.

Lags and leaps. That’s been the pattern for the past few years, and will be the pattern for the next few as well. I fully expect to be disappointed at various points in the coming year, as the changes we think are just around the corner fail to materialize. And I fully expect to be amazed in ten years at how different a world we all live in.

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