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Like a child neglected for misbehaving, global warming is curled up in a corner of our collective social consciousness, crying and aching for our attention. Not all passers-by have ignored its plaintive cries (for recent RSA perspectives, see here, here, and here) but personally I know I am guilty for playing deaf most of the time. This week, via a book recommendation by my colleague Dr Jonathan Rowson, I was able to finally take stock, and give the problem the attention it deserves through a 25-hour immersion over the course of 4 days. The following thoughts are a review of an outstanding book, and partly a chronicle of my own personal attempts to face up to climate change.

The climate problem is not what I thought it was…

Book Cover of The Burning Question

The first few chapters of The Burning Question, by Berners-Lee and Clark, revealed several critical gaps in my perfunctory understanding of climate change. Though I knew that CO2 emissions were higher than ever in recorded history, I was also under the impression that recent progress in energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies had significantly reduced global levels of greenhouse gases. I was wrong.

It turns out that CO2 emissions have been and currently are increasing exponentially. This suggests: 1) our global efforts to curb emission levels have had little to no effect to this day and, 2) as with all exponential relationships found in nature, some factor(s) must give eventually to slow or halt the runaway growth. It leads one to wonder whether we, as a species, will voluntarily act to diminish a factor of our choosing, or wait for nature to choose for us.

It did not shock me to learn that temperature exerts a kind of “bullwhip effect” on the climate (a business term, ironically), such that small-scale increases can trigger large-scale effects, e.g., heat waves, droughts, floods, etc. But I was astounded by the following set of figures:

  • human activity has already caused a 0.8 degree increase in average global temperatures.
  • the UN recently set a maximum threshold of 2.0 degrees that global temperature must not cross.
  • a 4-degree increase in global temperatures is believed to lie beyond the capacity for human adaptation.
  • we are on course for a 6-degree increase within this century if our current emission levels remain as is.

Like a child neglected for misbehaving, global warming is curled up in a corner of our collective social consciousness, crying and aching for our attention.

Furthermore, for global temperatures to remain below the 2-degree limit, carbon emissions cannot exceed 700 billion tonnes in the foreseeable future – our global carbon budget, essentially. We currently have enough proven (i.e., “ready for extraction”) fossil fuel reserves to surpass 3,000 billion tonnes. In other words, more than 75% of the planet’s fuel must not even be extracted from the ground for humans and other species to retain a moderate chance of survival on this planet. The consequent implication here is that we, humans, are likely to trigger catastrophic climate change via the burning of fossil fuels long before the supply runs out. (Reading about exploratory teams sent to locate new oil reserves in the Atlantic is both mind-boggling and heart-wrenching.)

To prevent the unthinkable, or at least improve the odds of it not transpiring, it looks like countries must collaborate to pass unprecedented global emission cuts that could potentially “inflict mayhem on the global economy.” Heavy investment into alternative energy technologies may allow for the rapid scaling necessary to partially attenuate the cuts’ effects, but there is currently little worldwide interest in funding such projects. A history of slow and inefficient intergovernmental negotiations on climate change compounds the problem further. Possible reasons for the sluggishness include: political interests vested in the energy/oil industries, low involvement of the most senior-ranking officials, and the difficult question of which countries should cut emissions and by how much.

My head was spinning as I finished reading this section. The global warming problem is not only the most dangerous in recorded history, but it is also singularly complex. The plot thickens…

Have you ever squeezed a balloon?Offering a red balloon

Recent progress in technology efficiency across various sectors (that I believed were helping to reduce emissions) may be counterintuitively resulting in higher emissions. This is referred to as the rebound effect when some of the gains in efficiency are offset, and backfire when efficiency gains actually lead to higher emissions overall. For instance, purchasing a highly fuel-efficient car may lead the consumer to drive more or longer distances, offsetting the initial savings in emissions. To rectify rebound effects, the authors stress the importance of decreasing energy demand (via, e.g., efficiency gains) while simultaneously decreasing energy supply (via, e.g., emissions cuts and a global carbon budget). We need to squeeze the balloon at both ends.

Contrary to common belief, population size does not correlate significantly with higher emissions – but affluence as GDP per capita does. Indeed, continuous striving for material prosperity seems to be the psychological root of the global warming conundrum. This might explain why new energy sources seem to add to, instead of replace, conventional fossil fuel sources – the more we have, the more we want. Slowing GDP growth does not seem like an immediately safe or reliable strategy for cutting emissions, however, unless the underlying psychology is somehow addressed in tandem.

So what’s stopping us?

A global deal to cut emissions would render most oil reserves – valued at tens of trillions of dollars – worthless. Fossil fuel stakeholders would also face significant financial losses and bankruptcy in its wake. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, though currently starved for funding, could partly mitigate these losses. But then how is it possible that the development of coal power stations, fuel-operated vehicles, airplanes, and airports is at an all-time high in spite of these greater needs? Perhaps the continuous collective striving for economic growth provides an answer.

Despite many viewing economic growth as the supreme indicator of human prosperity, research and common sense reveal that (A) growth requires energy and, (B) energy consumption is threatening our world as we know it. In the absence of any major additional factor, the conceptual relationship between growth and prosperity disintegrates under the spotlight of global warming. For these and other reasons, experts advocate replacing the metric of growth for something more clearly representative of prosperity, such as wellbeing or happiness, but for the time being GDP reigns supreme as our touchstone.

As I finished the book, I noticed anger stirring within me where none previously existed. Feelings of this kind commonly emerge as people open up to the climate change data and implications

A further problem is that human minds do not seem evolutionarily well-equipped to tackle the particular characteristics of a problem like climate change: it is abstract (i.e., invisible gases), unprecedented in scope, salient only in the long-term, highly negative, uncertain, and extremely complex. This spurred a Yale University professor to exclaim, “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”

So what should we do? 

While most of us remain in a “deep slumber” in regards to climate change, a more suitable response would resemble “mobilizing for a war”. This response may activate unintentionally within us as temperatures increase, but it may be too late by then. Time is not on our side.

Several viable strategies to reduce emissions exist: a global carbon budget; the scaling of low-carbon technologies coupled with constricting emissions; attendance of the most senior-ranking government officials at climate talks to increase collective impetus; counteracting fossil fuel lobbying efforts or even holding fossil fuel companies accountable for extreme weather event damages. However, the critical ingredient to power these strategies is the support of large numbers of people.

It is not facile to say that everyone can do something, and that more of us should do more than we currently do. Voters can cajole their representatives, investors can rethink their energy portfolios, the wealthy can fund campaign groups, families can reduce their carbon footprints in ways that influence other families to do likewise, etc. While the direct effects of these efforts may be minor, the unforeseeable indirect effects, or “ripples”, can be tremendous.

Human society is inconceivably complex and interconnected, and while we need to get beyond the simplistic idea that ‘everyone should do their bit’, it is also true that at any given moment the slightest climate-conscious action could inexorably lead to a global warming awakening.

***

As I fA child on the ground cryinginished the book, I noticed anger stirring within me where none previously existed. Feelings of this kind commonly emerge as people open up to the climate change data and implications, and curiously serve as triggers of further action. Perhaps our collective indifference could be remedied by thoughtfully and patiently listening to the problem in the way that a parent listens to the source of a child’s pain. As the simple adage states, “to know is to care,” and once we care, action naturally follows as it now is beginning to for me. I suspect not enough of us really know, so maybe what the climate change front needs now is just that, more beginners.

Andres Fossas is Senior Researcher of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @afossas0

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