We Have Only Five Years Left

We must radically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 in order to avoid the most catastrophic damage of climate change. How can you help?

We have only 5 years left to do something about climate change. Depending upon how you define “do something,” we have even less time, possibly only a few months. The next Conference of the Parties (COP), happening this fall in Glasgow, will likely determine the fate of the entire planet.

Today, in 2024, the inhabited Earth is already hotter than it has ever been. Since the industrial revolution, the average surface temperature has increased by 1.1°C. If we continue on the path we are on — if we maintain the status quo, even the shiny, “eco-friendly” one integrated by the privileged few — we can expect an increase of 3-4°C by the end of the century.

We have heard statistics like this before. It is very easy — too easy — to hear them and think, Hmm, a few degrees more? I can deal with that. That is the absolute wrong way to think about it, and actually, no, you can’t. A few degrees more isn’t just your hottest day plus two or three degrees. It is a trigger of exponential effects that you cannot deal with alone because we, humanity, cannot coexist with them. This is difficult to imagine, but easy to explain. The ecosystemic effects of surface temperature increase are, to say the least, existentially significant.

What Will Happen

If the average surface temperature reaches 1.5°C, 80% of the world’s coral reefs will die and be unrecoverable. At 2°C — just .5° more — every coral reef will die. Now, before you think, Hmm, I was never that into snorkeling, anyway, which is, again, the absolute wrong way to think about this, consider that coral reefs are an index of the health of the ocean. When surface temperatures increase, so do ocean temperatures. When ocean temperatures increase, the acidity of the ocean increases because of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide present in the water. If carbon dioxide increases, oxygen decreases. Put simply: sea life suffocates if it is not boiled to death outright. When sea life dies, food systems collapse. You may not be interested in snorkeling, but I’m pretty sure you like eating.

But wait, there’s more.

If the average surface temperature reaches 1.5°C, the Arctic will be expected to experience an ice-free summer every 100 years. At 2°C, this will happen every 10 years. Now, before you think, Hmm, good thing almost no one lives in the Arctic, or, Hmm, a hundred years is an awfully long time from now, which is, again, the absolute wrong way to think about this, remember that arctic ice doesn’t just disappear. It melts. When it melts, it turns into water. That water has to go somewhere. Where does it go? It melts into the oceans, changing their pH balance, of course, and rising tides everywhere.

The problem with these effects is that they are too abstract for most of us. They are the direct effects of climate change, yes, but they are also the catalysts of the effects that we will feel most directly. They are the start of irrevocable systemic effects. They matter intrinsically, because it matters that this planet is home to other life forms besides humans, but they matter to us because they begin to describe a world in which we cannot live.

The difference between a 1.5° and a 2° increase in surface temperatures seems negligible at first glance, but it’s a small increase that comes with dramatic, exponential effects. It would put billions of humans in poverty. It would increase the variety of disease and the risks of exposure to them. It would increase food insecurity, especially among people already vulnerable to famine today. It would increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather — heat waves, fires, and storms of once-in-a-lifetime intensity will become routine.

The thing is, these descriptions of what will happen are indistinguishable from descriptions of what is happening today. Remember, today, in 2024, we have only increased surface temperatures by 1.1°C. And yet, we are already experiencing abrupt, distressing, and costly weather events, constant fires, extreme heat waves, food shortages, and an increase in poverty. We are already paying for it all in myriad ways, most notably in real money and in lives.

If, as projected, surface temperatures increase by 3-4°C by 2100, the global damages will cost an estimated $600 Trillion dollars. At a time when pandemic relief packages and infrastructure bills cost in the trillions, that can be a difficult number to understand. But here’s an easy way: $600 Trillion dollars is twice the entire wealth in existence today. We can’t print that money. It literally doesn’t exist. At the same time — and as a direct result of the destruction caused by such a hot planet — conflict will double and global agriculture — as in all the food in the world — will hit a cliff and fall off of it, producing half as much as it ever has. Billions will starve. Don’t assume you won’t be one of them.

The point of all these ifs is simple: If the thought that, Hmm, I can probably live with that pops into your head when confronted with climate change projections, you are still not getting it. No, you can’t live with that. Everyone will be a victim of climate change, sooner or later. The policy benchmarks for maxing out at 1.5° or 2°C will not save us.

In his recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells makes the situation clear:

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true…
…If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other.”

Holy shit! WTF Do We Do???

The projections of near-future climate effects are pessimistic because we’ve been reliably doing nothing about them for a long, long time. We’ve proven that information doesn’t guarantee action. And by “we,” I mean we humans, big groups of us doing “big” things together.

The first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin in 1995. For more than 25 years, the most powerful heads of state on the planet have been meeting every single year to discuss and make policy in response to the most critical issues facing the planet: trade, warfare, and of course, climate change.

The first COP of major consequence to climate change policy was at Kyoto, in 1997. The agreement committed to by its participating states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was the very first of its kind. But it didn’t kick into gear until 2008 — almost a decade and a half later! — and the United States never even ratified it. Had we done so, we would have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. Instead, we increased them by 16% because that’s the sort of selfish glutton bully of a nation we are. During that time, many elected leaders in the United States made great speeches about how much they cared about the environment while also wielding their power to make it easier for industrial processes and economics to remain not only unrestrained, but actually subsidized by our government. In other words, we said one thing and did another. That has continued.

The next major milestone of the COP was in 2015. You’ve heard of this as the Paris Agreement. 196 nations signed this international treaty committing to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2°C. The United States was one of them. That is, until 2017, when Donald Trump withdrew. As of January of this year, we’re back in it. But here’s the real problem: The Paris Agreement is an important piece of diplomacy and national PR, but it doesn’t actually include specific requirements for how individual nations can keep surface temperature rise from that 2°C threshold. How we do it is up to us. And since the Paris Agreement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a special report making clear that the 2°C goal is not enough. If we want to avoid disaster, the threshold must be 1.5°C instead. To have any hope of achieving that, global carbon emissions must decrease significantly before 2030. Today’s emissions are measured at between 40-45 GtCO2 (gigatons of CO2) per year. If we shoot for the Paris Agreement’s stipulations, global greenhouse gas emissions would continue to increase and peak at somewhere in the neighborhood of 52–58 GtCO2 per year by 2030 and would be expected to coincide with 3°C warming by 2100.

Remember, 3°C is very, very bad. 3°C is the mass suffering and death zone. To keep us under 1.5°C, as the IPCC says we must, we would have to get global emissions to below 35 GtCO2 per year by 2030. Emissions budgeting, expressed in gigatons, is pretty difficult to visualize. Honestly, don’t bother. Instead of thinking about the amounts themselves, we need to think about how we can actually reduce them. On that point, again, David Wallace-Wells:

“If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year. This is why U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres believes we have only one year to change course and get started…
…If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be?”

What You and I Can Actually Do

As a child, environmentalist messages were all about individual behavior change. We were told that the best thing we can do to save the planet was to consume less, recycle more, and make more intentional choices for how and how often we travel. Those were good messages; they still matter. But they are not going to save us.

As individuals, there are really only two behavior changes left that are worth a damn. If you want to have the greatest impact now through something you can do entirely on your own, you can never set foot on an airplane again and you can go vegan. (And by go vegan, I mean the very hard way, which doesn’t replace every calorie and gram of protein with soy, which is a destructive and greedy crop and lousy for your body anyway). You can do these two things, but as severe as they are, they are also not enough.

No amount of reduction in consumption, or increase in recycling, or eco-friendly choices like rooftop solar arrays and electric cars will keep us from that 2° increase. It’s not that those things are worthless — they represent the right idea, and are better in many ways — but they are just not enough. Your whole lifestyle could be carbon neutral — as if you don’t even exist through the lens of energy consumption and emissions — and the world will still burn.

Change can no longer be measured in individual sacrifices or investments. It has to be measured on the scale of everyone. But most people cannot afford to transform their lifestyles in short order. It is cheaper, after all, to drive a gas-powered car than an electric one. It is cheaper to buy coal-powered electricity than derive from renewable sources. In many cases, it is cheaper to fly than to take a train. (In every case, it is faster.) The systems of 2024 still reward the wrong choices. That means individuals cannot make the better choices they imagine. Change at the systems level — to fundamental economics, to infrastructure, to policy — are necessary to support the individual behaviors required if we want to live.

Systems change requires everyone who can to contribute catalytically. Buckmister Fuller gave himself a nickname that, I think, explains this well. In an interview in 1971, he said,

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth again: The whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. It takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole ship of state is going to turn around. So I said, ‘Call me Trim Tab.’”

On the one hand, Fuller’s philosophy of change seems too hopeful now; it’s fair to wonder whether we have time for it. But on the other hand, his metaphor of the trim tab isn’t just about how small actions can catalyze big effects. For Fuller, the idea of the trim tab was about a fundamental change of self, not just behavior — not acting like a trim tab, but being a trim tab. In other words, if one always sees oneself as the low pressure on a big system, one’s effects can be profound. Thinking of this as Fuller did, I realize that, yes, our individual choices still matter, even in light of half a century more of climate change than he experienced, because they begin to remake who we are and how we live.

Systems change is incredibly complicated and labor intensive. It requires countless changes at the individual level and it requires them to stick. It requires rules, forms of accountability, and governance. That makes systems change expensive. It is a sovereign-state-level expense, not an individual expense or even an aggregate expense of millions of individuals. It is on the level of trillions of dollars invested to prevent the compound hundred-trillion-dollar damages guaranteed if any less is spent.

The expense that individuals can carry is one of attention, time, and effort. For many of us, that will begin with choosing en eco-friendly appliance, or not buying that plane ticket, or eating less (or no) meat, or planting a garden to provide our own food, or converting our homes to solar power. But those choices demand changes to lifestyle. And when we change our lifestyle, we change our minds. Every action and experience rewires our brain. We begin to see the world — and its future — differently. Those choices will create other choices, not just of how we spend our money, but how we spend our time. In fact, we will begin to see our time as an even more trim-tabby form of influence than our cash. We’ll use it to talk to others about climate change, to engage with elected officials, to perhaps become one ourselves, to organize others, even to protest. The moment we are persuaded that climate change is the most important and consequential issue of our time is the moment we realize that our time must be put toward persuading government that its constituents will not accept an inexorable path toward suffering and disaster.

Carbon emissions must decrease significantly before 2030. That is less than 6 years away. Urgency is a great motivator; we have achieved incredible things in short periods of time in the past. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon within a decade and, eight years later, Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Within a handful of years of the polio epidemic’s peak in the US, a successful vaccine was created equipping a global effort to save millions from suffering from it. There are many such examples in recent history. But the amount of systemic change required to meet this challenge — to literally save the world — makes past achievements look like everyday routine by comparison. It is going to take everything from everyone.

I’m not a climate expert. I’m not a scientist. I’m not even an activist. But as a designer I am always focused on integrating externalities; I can’t ignore the things that I know will affect what I do and how I live. And that means that this thing — this huge, insurmountable, devastating thing called climate change — is the elephant in every room, all the time. It means that I have to think about how I, just one insignificant person with relatively zero power and influence, can apply my perspective and thinking as a designer to the problem, at the trim tab level. That’s all I can do. But as small as all I can do is in the grand scheme of things, it’s still all I can do, isn’t it? And good lord, that’s a lot. I already gave an hour to write this, what could I get done if I gave a few more? What could I do if I gave those hours for the rest of my life? What could you do if you did the same?

Written by Christopher Butler on April 30, 2024,   In Essays

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