Many people, even some activists, do not seem to yet have understood the main statement climate change has made to humankind. Many seem to treat it as yet another environmental issue, separated from the others with a comma: there is a problem, it’s about the environment, and we need to improve the way things are in order to avoid this problem.
This is depressingly wrong in many ways.
First a parenthesis: I don’t think climate change is an environmental issue; or rather, I don’t think there are any “environmental” issues. The issue is not carbon, methane, species, and so on and so forth. There is an issue, it’s about the future of humankind, and it sometimes manifests itself through what we call the environment. But let me refocus this small text without over-philosophising. Close parenthesis.
I start with an analogy I use to explain climate change:
Situation: Imagine a bus full of people, driving fast on a mountain. The road ends ahead, and if you don’t stop, you would fall off the cliff, destroying the bus itself, everything inside the bus, including the passengers. Some people are arguing about changing the driver.
Options given: If the driver is left alone (he seems drunk), you would fall off the cliff in 20 seconds. There is another driver who says he would step on the gas less than the driver, so you would reach the cliff in 25 seconds. There is another driver who doesn’t even believe in the cliff, so he would just rush you there in 15 seconds.
Of course, when you mention pulling the break, they laugh at you and question where you got your driver’s licence, and if you insist they bring the police.
Now, for this exercise to make sense, please do try to put yourself into the story. I give you 10 seconds to think.
Then answer: What is a rational choice for the passengers?
Let us rewind to climate change, and please be patient with me for a couple of paragraphs because I have to be slightly technical.
The greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere remain there for many years, they absorb the heat, making the planet warmer. Without them, most of the energy coming from the sun would radiate away, and planet earth would not be a suitable place for life as we know it, not for our species at least. Having an excess of these gases due to human activities causes what is called anthropogenic global warming. Some of the impacts on ecosystems are: more severe and more frequent droughts, floods and storms, biodiversity loss, water and food scarcity, failures of infrastructure, and social conflicts.
So far, climate change looks like any other environmental issue: It is bad. We should avoid it. And the more we avoid it, the better.
And this is exactly what is wrong in our perception.
The missing piece in the puzzle is due to positive feedback mechanisms:
Inherent to any earth system, there are mechanisms that accelerate it and that slow it down. Think of a small snowball you roll down a hill. It has an initial speed. Then there is gravity, it increases the speed. But there is also friction, which decelerates it. If your initial speed is too low, the snow ball would simply stop. If it is high enough, then you get what is called the “snowball effect”: it speeds up, and more pieces join than those that fall off, etc.
These are “feedback mechanisms”. Pay attention to the fact that it is the dynamical system itself that feeds it. You don’t push the snowball any more, neither do you try stopping it.
Some feedbacks are “positive” because they increase or accelerate the initial situation (like gravity in our example), and some are “negative” (like the friction).
For climate change, there are several positive feedback mechanisms, I’ll give two simple examples: 1) Earth warms up, ice melts into water, water absorbs more energy compared to ice which would reflects sun rays, so earth warms up even more. 2) Earth warms up, frozen soil in Siberia melts, underneath there is trapped methane, this methane is released, meaning more greenhouse effect, hence Earth warms up even more.
Climate scientists predict that a 2C warming would make these positive feedback mechanisms dominate the dynamics, causing a “run-away” climate change.
This is why they talk about “tipping points”.
Now rewind again to the bus story. You remember we had 20 seconds left, with a lesser evil driver promising 25 seconds until the fall and an ambitious one promising 15? Replace “seconds” with “years”, and this is where we are on the climate crisis.
In a nutshell, what this tells us is that there are physical and chemical limits to winning the struggle. And these limits lie within a ten-year span from today. Our struggles, all of our struggles are on a deadline.
Think of something you consider worth fighting for. Then think of another one. Now consider all of them. Climate science tells you that you will have to do all those things you would like to do while reducing emissions by two thirds, and do all of that during your own political lifetime.
For, an egalitarian, emancipated, just society inside a bus rolling down a cliff is not a thing.
I know that we all like to avoid thinking in black-and-white terms. And there are loads of grey zones here too: Maybe the tipping point is not 20 years but in 18, for example. However, the cliff is there, and we have to rapidly and fundamentally change everything in our society.
So these MUST be our red lines: 1) Leave at least 80% of all fossil fuels in the ground. 2) Do not launch any new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. 3) Implement a real and just transition to a fossil-free society, starting now – well, starting 10 years ago would be more realistic, but that’s when green NGOs had told us that the Kyoto Protocol was a first step and so on and so on (wait, that’s what they say now about the Paris agreement too!).
The bus story gives a few key points on why this is a radically different situation:
- We will either fall off the cliff, or not. All politicians and all political programs that lead us there are part of the “black” scenario (although curiously, those politicians tend to be all “white”). There are no “middle ways”. Discussing whether to jump off a cliff with initial speed 200km/h or 100km/h is plainly irrational: you would be dead either way.
- The status quo, the business-as-usual, is extremely dangerous for the humankind. There is nothing more “extremist” today than killing time with populist reforms.
- Not contributing to the problem is not enough. “Well, it’s not me who is stepping on the gas. In fact, look, I am creating friction by stretching my arm out of the window.” is silly if not hypocritical. Our historical responsibility is to topple the driver, and nothing less.
- This is not a one-time thing. We need sustained action in the right direction. Slowing down the bus now to accelerate in ten seconds is out of question. So we need to mobilize and organize.
All these were summarized into a slogan recently: “We are the ones we have been waiting for!”
We need a major leap in our capacity of imagination, and where we see ourselves in history. We need to mobilize and organize. Join in.