As the climate clock strikes midnight it’s time to look to the morning
Climate change will profoundly reshape our world in the coming decades. Yet, in this article, I make a case for why we should not give in to despair and apathy. Turbulent times are upon us, and if we hope to see a new dawn, we will need to be clear-headed and ready to lead the way.
Increasing forest fire activity (Data visualisation by Jill Pelto)
Researching climate change puts me in a position where I often get to talk about it. Sometimes an unsuspecting stranger might throw an innocent “so, what do you do?” at me in an effort to engage in casual conversation before soon regretting when the small talk suddenly takes an awkward gloomy turn. On better days, I might share a cathartic moment with like-minded friends while exploring a topic that, in most circles, still very much feels taboo for its dispiriting potential. Through talking to a wide range of people, I have often been struck by how even highly educated and socially aware individuals who care deeply about doing right by others would sometimes lack a sense of the speed at which our societies would need to change if we are to avoid some of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. And for good reasons: the future is full of uncertainties and understanding the different scenarios devised by the community of climate scientists requires unpacking a whole load of assumptions. Oh, and then there’s that intuitive reaction of self-maintenance that tends to make you tune out when things start to appear devoid of any hope. Incidentally, several environmental groups and campaigners—in an effort to avoid losing the ear of the public and of the politicians they try to influence—have fallen into the trap of advocating a position that they know all too well would only commit us to insufficient action. But the more we shy away from the sinister implications of climate science and start positioning ourselves as ‘pragmatic’ advocates of gradual progress, the more we contribute to the collective denial that leads most of those around us to believe that banning petrol cars by 2040 or to go carbon-neutral by 2050 is what ambitious climate action is supposed to look like.1
In this article, I want to take some of the most unsavoury bits of climate science and try to make them digestible to a large readership by unpacking the assumptions that muddle the translation of science into action at every step. Yet, I am also aware of the risk that dropping more doom and gloom on unsupported readers may not lead to more engagement, but to apathy or even trauma, which is why I also want to offer some of my own reflections on the implications of such projections for the actions that we take in the coming years. “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti so well puts it, and part of how we will build the world of tomorrow is through rekindling networks of support for those struggling to hold on to their sanity in these strange times. Think of it like an extended hand to join a community refusing to surrender in the face of a crime that has for too long been presented as a tragedy.
Where we stand today
Perhaps a good place to start our journey into the assumptions that lie behind climate predictions is the internationally agreed target of 2°C. What we first need to understand is that 2°C—as the level of additional warming that has been deemed as acceptable by the international community—is a somewhat arbitrary target defined on the basis of political acceptability rather than scientific considerations. The temperature target was first mentioned in a 1990 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute as an absolute upper limit for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.2 Yet, despite the report’s warning that any additional warming beyond 1°C could elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear disruptions to the atmospheric system, the 2°C limit was taken up by the European Union as a policy target under the justification that it supposedly corresponded to the point at which the cost of reducing emissions would be outweighed by economic losses incurred due to climatic disruptions. Although the scientific community never actually supported the 2°C limit, the political salience that such a target enjoyed for seeming both realistically achievable and tolerable within the constraints of an economic system hooked on fossil fuels meant that it gradually imposed itself as a rallying cry for the entire climate community. Politicians are now expected to implement policies in line with this target, science and industry have been repurposed to try to find ways to make mitigation less costly, and environmental activists are now constrained to hold their governments accountable when they do not even stick to their mediocre promises.
A number of key tipping points already risk being triggered by a 2°C warming
(Source: www.climateactiontracker.org Ecofys/Climate Analytics/PIK)
Now that we have cleared up that 2°C as a goal is neither morally nor scientifically defensible, let’s play along with it anyway. Since the whole world has collectively agreed on a mad target, arguing from a position of sanity can be both isolating and futile, for you can be sure that it will be discarded as either naïve idealism or dangerous radicalism. Instead, we shall meet the crazies halfway and demonstrate the insanity of their logic by following it to its conclusion.
Now that all of the world’s leaders agreed, after 25 years of procrastination, to limit the rise of temperature to 2°C as part of the Paris Agreement (well, all leaders except now Trump, but let’s just leave that buffoon aside for now), we at least have a concrete figure to work with. When translated into a measurable amount of CO2, 2°C means that no more than 600Gt can still be emitted for a >66 percent chance of not exceeding this temperature threshold. This figure—known as our global carbon budget—can vary depending on the amount of risk that we are willing to take with how much we destabilise our atmosphere. As such, rare are the governments that actually base their policies on the budget offering a >66 percent chance, and most contend with a mere 50/50 chance while some—including the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole3—even go as low as betting everything on a 33 percent chance (the corresponding carbon budgets respectively expanding to 900 and 1100 Gt).
Here I want to briefly interrupt this analysis, and reflect on what these numbers actually mean. By framing risks in terms of probabilities to meet or to miss a target, it is easy to lose touch of what hides behind such technocratic exercise. That our governments are willingly basing their policies on the riskier pathways should in itself constitute a crime against humanity, but perhaps we should also be asking: In what world does a >66 percent chance even constitutes tolerable uncertainty? If the bar for the aviation industry was set so low that planes had only a two-third chance of making it safely to their destination, I bet that none of us would ever risk to fly. And yet, these are the best odds on which we are now gambling the life-support system of our entire species.
Where we are heading
With this perspective in mind, let’s dig deeper into those budgets and uncover the next layer of inadequacies in our current approach to tackling climate change: the issue of how we divide up carbon budgets across time. Because the CO2 that we add to the atmosphere remains there for hundreds of years to millennia, carbon budgets are essentially a finite, non-renewing resource. The 600Gt budget mentioned above is not just what we have today, but what humanity will have to make do with from 2017 until the end of its passage on Earth. To get an idea of what this means for our near future, this number should be put in perspective with our annual rate of emissions, which amounts to 40Gt a year from industrial processes alone (and therefore excluding land-use change induced by agriculture or extraordinary events such as wildfires). It doesn’t take a science degree to divide one by the other and to realise that at the current rate, it would only take a meagre 15 years to blow our chance at 2°C. The challenge, therefore, is that our emissions should immediately stop rising and be reduced drastically during the next decade so as to remove every form of CO2 generation somewhere between 2030 and 2040.
(Source: Stefan Rahmstorf/Global Carbon Project; http://go.nature.com/2RCPCRU)
Needless to say, current ambitions take us nowhere near that path. Instead, unpacking the implications of our governments’ plans to achieve what they have promised reveals yet another world of disquieting ambiguities. Indeed, while you might assume that the threat of near-term extinction would prompt a questioning of the dominant economic logic that restricts the realm of possible actions, that failed logic managed to be maintained thanks to a cunning new trick: the fabrication of the concept of negative emissions, of which the reasoning is clearly illustrated by the graph below. By resorting to the assumption that technologies that can absorb carbon from the air will be developed later this century, the narrow margin of manoeuvre of the 600Gt carbon budget is then artificially extended—at least in principle.
Negative emissions realised in the future underlie our present lack of ambition
(Source: Glen Peters and Kevin Anderson; http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6309/182)
While the pace of transition certainly looks less alarming when able to be stretched all the way to 2100, this false sense of comfort should be offset by the fact that we currently have no idea of how such negative emissions might be delivered. As of today, all hopes seem to be invested in what is known as Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS) combined with a massive uptake in bioenergy consumption (the combination of the two usually nicknamed BECCS). In other words, our refusal to act in the present is compensated by a gamble on the fact that we will be able to burn lots of trees (which absorb CO2 as they grow), stick a device on our chimneys to capture all the CO2 emitted during their combustion and inject that gas under the ground where we hope it will remain trapped for eternity.
If the track record of Carbon Capture and Storage technology is already mixed at best, the truly unsettling aspect of the whole process relates to the scale at which it is presumed to be deployed. Indeed, assumptions about the biomass use anticipated to deliver the negative emission rates taken for granted in these models are almost farcical. For one thing, the European Union, which currently supplies a mere 5 percent of its energy demand with biomass is already relying on imports and triggering intensified logging outside of its borders.4 With our scenarios relying on between 10Gt and 20Gt of yearly negative emissions to come from BECCS by 2100 (one quarter to half of what the global economy currently emits), it is estimated that land equivalent to one to three times the surface of India would be required to grow the corresponding amount of biofuels.5 In the context of increased droughts, food shortages and wildfire that climate change is set to bring, serious doubts can be raised on the practicality of deploying those measures in the real world. Similarly, when considering that about forty kilograms of CO2 are emitted for every kilogram of solid waste that we dump into our landfills—and that we already struggle to find enough space to dispose of this waste—we hardly see how finding enough leak-proof subterranean cavities to contain all the carbon dioxide needing to be captured by CCS technology can appear like a reasonable assumption.6
But let’s just assume that I am being overly cynical about what can reasonably be expected from technological progress. Who knows? Maybe we will, after all, figure out a way to make all the carbon magically disappear at the flick of a wand. The problem, however, is that if no one can give definite proof that technology will not be our saviour, the paths that we are choosing today are assuming with certainty that it will. Blind faith in our future ability to bury carbon on a planetary scale now underpins all of our actions to mitigate climate change.
The path not considered
The most pernicious effect that these hopes in technological salvation have is the very tangible delays that they inflict on the present. For each year of delayed action, the rate of the change needed becomes even more rapid, making our reliance on BECCS seeming even more and more like the only pragmatic option.
Even scenarios that take BECCS for granted will soon require drastic emission cuts
(Source: Robbie Andrew; http://folk.uio.no/roberan/t/global_mitigation_curves.shtml)
Yet, there is actually another way to get emissions down fast enough without having to gamble everything on providential technological fixes. What is more is that given what we know about the alternative that I just described, there is no compelling argument why such a plan wouldn’t seem immensely desirable to the vast majority of people. To get emissions to fall at the speed required by our very limiting carbon budget, we must turn our attention to where—and most importantly who—they are coming from. Indeed, by failing to recognise the fact that the lifestyle of the richest 10 percent is responsible for half of all global emissions or that the poorest 50 percent only emits a mere 10 percent of it, the idea that climate change is an unfortunate consequence of our inevitable day-to-day activity will restrict our search for solutions.
The lifestyle of the rich is responsible for the lion’s share of our self-destructive endeavour
(Source: Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty/Oxfam; https://oxf.am/2t8gtGH)
Although individuals belonging to the top 10 percent class can be found on all continents—often well isolated from the life experienced by most of their fellow citizens—they tend to be so widespread in North America and Europe that the characteristics of their lifestyle have come to define local cultures and are very rarely recognised as the idiosyncrasies they in fact are. Indeed, while only 7 percent of Latin Americans, 4 percent of Chinese and 1 percent of Indians and Africans belong to the top 10 percent of global emitters, as many as 60 percent of North Americans and 30 percent of Europeans are reported to emit more than 15 tons of CO2 a year—the threshold at which one begins to earn top-10-percent status.7 A couple of long-haul flights a year, daily car usage, regular shopping sprees and a meaty diet—lifestyle habits that can appear so commonplace in the western world—and even you, well-meaning reader of this article, can realise that you are part of the exclusive club of those responsible for the lion’s share of ecological destruction.
Focusing on individual lifestyle changes is often seen as unhelpful by those who make a structural critique of environmental degradation. Yet, is there possibly a structure more pervasive than that which makes the culture of the dominant group seem so mundane? Is the normalisation of highly destructive habits not something to be called out and resisted? By putting the focus on what makes the lifestyle of the rich so much more harmful than the way the majority of the human population lives and by dispossessing those activities of the prestige they enjoy, they will cease to be aspirations for the rest of us. Only then might we be able to achieve the sudden turnaround in emissions that is needed to ensure our survival. Moreover, in comparison with bets on technological progress that ignore all questions of equity, such drastic emission-cuts could be achieved relatively pain-free, since, indeed—besides having to content with some grumpy rich folks—the bulk of the burden would be shouldered by those who are already in a position of obsene privilege.
The idea that human well-being necessarily comes at the cost of our environment is a distinct fallacy of those who only know a life of disconnect from it. This fallacy is so prevalent in our modern societies that a great deal of radical imagination is now needed to reawaken to the fact that lives need not be lived in consumer ways, but can also be oriented towards regenerative purposes. Our most urgent challenge is now to incite restorative vocations while discrediting life pursuits that worsen our predicament. Understanding what characterises the lifestyle of the 10 percent—its practices, but also its ideology—not only opens new pragmatic avenues to achieve fast emission-cuts, highlighting what makes it inherently immoral will also play a part in formulating new narratives of what ought to constitute an honourable life in our new climatically-changed world.
A call to heroism
Making conscious efforts to take a deep dive into the existential crisis we find ourselves in can take you on a roller-coaster of psychological trauma. The realisation of the sheer inadequacy of the measures taken to prevent our Earth from spinning out of control in the coming years is enough for the most hardened among us to shut down and start thinking about escape. And who could really blame you for it? Why investing all these efforts in making a better future for ourselves when our rational mind knows too well that all of this is set to be trampled by the incompetence of those who really run the world? Well, all of that may be true, and I will not have the dishonesty to tell you otherwise. But recognising hard truths will only lead on a path to depression if we lose sight of the fact that there is still a worthy battle to be fought. Meeting the incredibly strict deadline imposed by climate change will require nothing short of a dramatic shift in how we think the human experience, our measures of success and our idea of a life well lived. Holidays to far-away locations, luxurious possessions and ever so frequent splurges—the defining elements of ‘the good life’ as experienced by the 10 percent— are indefensible with a moral compass tuned in to the logic of climate change. On the other hand, earth-regenerative acts, conscious sobriety, community rekindling and active opposition to destructive forces can provide us with what the old world and its promises constantly failed to provide: a life mission, a sense of belonging, and a great source of fulfilment. If we are to collectively survive this century, we will have to embrace our identity as agents of change; as protectors and stewards; as champions of a humanity tuned in to its better nature. The climate change era is already upon us, but let it not be an era solely marked by death and destruction. Let’s invest our whole hearts, soul and strength into an era of bravery, kindness and imagination.
1 Michael Hoexter, ‘Living in the Web of Soft Climate Denial’, New Economic Perspectives (7 September 2016), http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2016/09/living-web-soft-climate-denial.html.
2 Carbon Brief, ‘Two degrees: The history of climate change’s speed limit’ (12 August 2014), https://www.carbonbrief.org/two-degrees-the-history-of-climate-changes-speed-limit
3 Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, ‘A New Paradigm for Climate Change: Why Carbon Prices Can’t Deliver the 2C Target’, Nature Climate Change 2, no. 9 (28 August 2012): p. 639–40, doi:10.1038/nclimate1646.
4 Fred Pearce, ‘Up in Flames: How Biomass Burning Wrecks Europe’s Forests’, FERN (November 2015): p.12, http://www.fern.org/sites/fern.org/files/upinflames_internet.pdf.
5 Pete Smith et al., ‘Biophysical and Economic Limits to Negative CO2 Emissions’, Nature Climate Change 6, no. 1 (January 2016): p. 47, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n1/full/nclimate2870.html.
6 Andy Skuce, ‘Talking Trash on Emissions’ (7 January 2014), https://www.skepticalscience.com/behind_the_Lines_CO2_shotput.html
7 Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, ‘Carbon and Inequality: From Kyoto to Paris’, Paris School of Economics (3 November 2015): p.36 and p.47, http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2015.pdf.