Book outlines challenges and reasons for hope in addressing climate change
In last week’s column, I provided a glimpse of our bleak climatic future as described in “The Uninhabitable Earth”, by American journalist David Wallace-Wells. The book lays out in terrifying detail how climate change will soon become the defining issue of the 21st century and impact every aspect of our lives. “The assaults will not be discrete,” he warns. “They will produce a kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation . . . in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.” Among the impacts: climate wars.
A climate crisis of unprecedented speed, scope, and severity is already unfolding – although most of humanity has barely awoken to this new reality. To put this point into stark relief, Wallace-Wells quotes the author of “Carbon Ideologies”, William Vollmann. “Someday, perhaps not long from now, the inhabitants of a hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet than the one on which I lived, may wonder what you and I were thinking, or whether we thought at all.” Humanity has never seen this scale of existential drama in which nature itself is the enemy. For Wallace-Wells, the only analogies are in mythology and theology.
The solution to the climate crisis is both totally obvious – reduce and then eliminate greenhouse gases – and almost impossible to imagine. Economics, politics, and culture are all aligned against action. Achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – remember that emissions are still going up each year – would require a total reconfiguration of our politics and call for unprecedented global cooperation. But, for Wallace-Wells, “Thinking like a planet is so alien to the perspectives of modern life—so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system—that the phrase sounds at first lifted from kindergarten.”
The necessary scale of response would require reimagining infrastructure and the use of cement (a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions); reimagining the world’s electricity systems, including the grids; reimagining agriculture and our consumption of animal protein; reimagining ground, sea and air transportation; and taking on the task of retrofitting millions of buildings. Given the political actors on stage today, it’s all but impossible to think that this could happen by 2030.
Let’s remember, too, that every country in the world is incentivized to do only the minimum to keep face, and then let the rest of the world clean up the mess. This was clear in the Conservative Party’s climate plan in the October federal election. How many times did we hear, “What Canada does won’t make any difference on the world scale, so why punish ourselves?”
It’s not surprising that Wallace-Wells believes that meeting the IPCC target for 2030 is all but impossible, as is keeping warming below 2 C. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking the most aggressive action possible. Every ton of carbon dioxide we avoid putting into the atmosphere makes a difference, so there will always be a reason to act, even decades from now.
Elements of hope
Although David Wallace-Wells is less focused on solutions than on presenting the scale of the problem – “what we should do”, for example, is never fully fleshed out – he does see some elements of hope. “The thing is, I am optimistic,” he says. “I know there are horrors to come. . . . But those horrors are not yet scripted.” First and foremost, he finds hope in the fact we know the cause of climate change: human activity. This that means humans must solve the problem. He is also buoyed by the huge increase in both media attention and public concern for climate change in the past year. Seventy-three percent of Americans now believe that human-caused climate change is real, which represents an increase of an amazing 15 points since 2015. What has woken people up? Fear and alarm to a large extent. One of the best teachers has been the repeated climate disasters we’ve seen: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. Add to this the non-stop series of scientific reports that have come out in the last year.
Wallace-Wells notes that all of the Democratic presidential candidates are serious about climate change with many pushing for some form of the Green New Deal. He also points out that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst of what might come. These include carbon taxes, new approaches to agricultural practices, a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet, and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.
There is also hope in energy production, which is the “low-hanging fruit” of greenhouse gas reduction strategies and probably the easiest emission problem to solve. The cost of wind turbines and solar panels has already decreased dramatically. Remember, however, that energy production represents only 30 percent of the world’s emissions. Economic arguments, too, are giving traction to the need to act quickly. The new economic wisdom seems to be that fast action on climate change is better for the economy than moving slowly. We now know that reinventing our industries based on low greenhouse gas emissions is good for growth.
What to do?
First, David Wallace-Wells argues convincingly that the solution is political; it is not through individual action. He provides the example of flying. Just one flight across North America releases the same amount of carbon per passenger as eight months of driving. However, if you decide not to fly, millions of others will. He agrees that we should still try to set an example in our own lives, be it reducing meat consumption, driving a hybrid or electric vehicle, or simply consuming less. An individual’s decisions do influence other people. He believes that the two most important individual actions anyone can take are voting with climate change top-of-mind and sharing your fears for the future with friends and family.
Although every country must do its part, Wallace-Wells believes that the future of the planet will be determined by China, which is now responsible for 30 percent of the world’s emissions – double those of the U.S. More than anyone, Chinese President Xi Jinping holds the cards. Let’s remember, however, that China wants to preside over an intact world, not one that is completely broken by climate change. China, therefore, is incentivized to act.
As for political measures we can take, Wallace-Wells touches on a few:
1. As a society, we will need to think of everything we do in terms of its carbon impact. A good starting point is to end fossil fuel subsidies immediately. It is estimated that in 2017 they totaled a staggering five trillion dollars worldwide.
2. We must mobilize and work collectively in an effort to force our governing bodies to coordinate an immediate and dramatic reduction in emissions. Wallace-Wells finds inspiration in the Extinction Rebellion Movement and the student strikes started by Greta Thunberg.
3. Carbon removal technology, which removes carbon from the atmosphere, will have to be a big part of the solution. At present, however, we are far from having the technology at a scalable level.
How our future climate will play out is full of uncertainty. This is not because of scientific ignorance but, overwhelmingly, from the open question of how we respond. Will we sit back and simply watch in horror as cities like Venice flood and countries like Australia burn, or will we somehow find the means and the will to act. And maybe most importantly, will we learn in time what acting even looks like?
“The Uninhabitable Earth” issues a stark warning. “One way we might manage to navigate (rising temperatures) without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it.” After all, urban air pollution already kills millions each year. “We live with . . . those death tolls, and hardly notice them,” he writes.
At the very least, it is incumbent upon us to understand the scale of the climate emergency. Reading “The Uninhabitable Earth” is a good starting point – but be prepared. I also recommend listening to the many interviews with David Wallace-Wells on YouTube, some of which helped to inform this article. I especially enjoyed the talk he had with Joe Rogan, in which he is more optimistic than in the book. He says that “we’ll see much more aggressive action in the decade ahead than we’ve had in the decades in the past”. We must all do our part to assure this happens.