So... how bad is it, really?
I write this on 30th October 2022, sitting outside, basking in sunshine and a balmy 21°C. Which is about 10° higher than what I’m used to this time of year – and it’s not a one-off, we’ve had this weather for several weeks now.
Nice? Sort of. Scary? It should be.
‘Woefully inadequate’ and ‘irreversible climate breakdown’
The UN Environment Agency has published the 2022 Emissions Gap Report, which says in no uncertain terms that there is no credible pathway to keep global warming to 1.5°C. Basically, all those pledges at the Glasgow COP only a year ago were a lot of hot air (what a surprise).
Instead, we’re heading for 2.8° of warming. Two-effing-point-eight. Summer heat wave causes tens of thousands of deaths? Pakistan under water? A tornado in France? That’s at 1.2° of warming. And it's the ‘climate as usual’ our economic and politic ‘business as usual’ is driving us towards.
(Actually, when I say ‘our’, this is basically ‘the West’; but since ‘the West’ still seems to be the standard of wealth, democracy, unhealthy diets etc. that everyone aspires to globally, let’s stick with it.)
Johan Rockström, one of the world’s most reputable client scientists, warns that we are heading towards 'irreversible climate breakdown'; 6 of 9 planetary boundaries have been breached and 5 tipping points are getting active; transgression of these would trigger unstoppable climate chain reactions (such as methane released from permafrost speeding up global warming or the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf raising sea levels by one metre – not to mention Greenland melting).
Scary. 21°C in late October doesn’t feel so nice anymore.
‘Historic Turning Point’ and ‘Beyond Catastrophe’
The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2022 confirms these findings, yet uses different language in its press release: the global energy crisis ‘can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure future’, it has the potential to hasten the transition to a cleaner future.
Similarly, a recent New York Times feature by David Wallace-Wells – hardly a first-time climate dude – entitled ‘Beyond Catastrophe’ suggests we’re on the way to make things better. If you think that a world ‘well past climate normal but also mercifully short of true climate apocalypse’ is ‘better’, that is.
That prompts the question: what’s better, warn in the starkest possible words about the catastrophic consequences that are almost inevitable by now, or try to put a positive twist on things?
Accept, and act on, the ambivalence
Both, of course. Accept and get familiar with the very real, massive danger, and then see what you can do about it.
In fact, that is what Rockström and his collaborators are doing, with their exceptional work on the Earth4All model; likewise the IEA is not pretending that things will be easy, and Wallace-Wells presents new climate realities, not utopias.
We must live with this ambivalence – the truth that an utterly disastrous future is almost here, as well as the reality that even the full implementation of current political and corporate promises, if we achieve it, will result in a lot of loss and discomfort; but also the knowledge that there are many solutions, technological but above all societal, that will help us avert the worst and find ways to adapt.
Stop thinking and acting like an individual
However, we must not let the existence of these solutions lull us into complacency. Tech alone won’t save us. We have an obligation to look for things we as individuals can do, starting with ceasing to think and act as individuals. We need societal changes, we need to return to some form of commons thinking, we need to encourage and vote for those politicians who are willing to take bold steps, such as cutting fossil fuel subsidies, introducing a universal basic income, redistributing wealth, raising taxes.
Sure, there is the risk that politicians don’t get it right. But those kinds of mistakes are easier to fix than run-away climate change. And who else will you trust to ‘fix it’? Corporations and the free market forces? Yeah, right. That’s worked really well over the last hundred years.
Please. Don’t give in to despair (‘but what can I do’ and ‘it’s too late and too big’), don’t be complacent (‘tech will fix it’ and ‘we still have time’). Find what you can do. At the very least, take the crisis seriously and think and talk about it.
Because it’s bad. But not too late to make it better.