Incrementalism is Killing Us When it Comes to Climate Change
There is an absolute lack of urgency in the way we have been dealing with the issue of anthropogenic climate disruption (i.e. man-made climate change). It’s as if we collectively, as the human race, were participating in an HOA meeting to discuss fire preparedness for our building while willfully ignoring the flames that were already starting to creep out of the top story windows. And three decades of piecemeal progress, well-meaning in some cases and purposefully deflecting in others, has already cast the die for our collective inertia towards a climate catastrophe.
Tick tock. 387 parts per million. COP15 in Copenhagen. Tick tock. 400 parts per million. Paris Accord signed. Tick tock. 415 parts per million. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special assessment report to limit warming well below 2 degrees Celsius published. Those parts per million (ppm) are carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at levels not seen since nearly 3 million years ago. 31 Gigatons of CO2 emissions. Tick tock. 35 Gigatons of CO2 emissions. More discussion to halt emissions. Tick tock. 37 Gigatons of CO2 emissions. The Paris Accord was meant to decrease continuing emissions annually by as much as 5% per year through 2030 and instead emissions increased by nearly 3% last year. Right NOW, the planet continues to add warming on top of the warming already committed, every minute of every hour of every day.
Drip Drip. That’s Antarctica, the Arctic sea ice, Greenland’s ice sheet and the collective glaciers of the world closing in on 1,000 billion tons of ice melt by the end of 2019, with single day ice melt in Greenland hitting levels projected for 2070. Drip drip. The year ending in May of 2019 was the wettest 12-month period on record in the U.S., contributing to unprecedented disastrous flooding in the Midwest.
Rent up. Cost of education up. Wages stagnant. Dreams on hold. No bandwidth to deal with climate.
Sizzle sizzle. That’s average annual temperature records being set every year, with 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 as the five hottest years on record and July 2019 as the hottest month on record. Sizzle sizzle. That’s over 7,000 square miles of rain forest burning in Brazil this year, turning the largest carbon sink on land into a carbon polluter. Nearly 4,000 square miles burned in Alaska this year and a jaw-dropping 45,000+ square miles have burned in Siberia, from peat bogs to ancient Boreal forest.
Business as usual. Buy low, sell high. Work hard, have kids, try to save for a rainy day even if pensions no longer exist and medical and student debt add up. Someone in charge is dealing with climate, right?
Whoosh drip swish. That’s Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, the most intense tropical cyclone on record to strike the Bahamas, generating 185 mph maximum sustained wind speeds, creating over 20-foot tidal storm swells and leaving over 70,000 people homeless. Whoosh drip swish. That’s tropical storm Imelda dropping over 40 inches of rain in parts of Texas, the fourth “500-year” storm in 5 years to hit that area of the lone star state. And I don’t have room to mention all of the hurricanes, storms and not-so-natural disasters of 2017 and 2018 — Florence, Harvey, Maria, Irma — you get the idea.
We aren’t slowly edging into catastrophic climate change any more, but rather we are fully immersed in it. It is non-linear and it is exceeding the IPCC projections as fast as they are making them. Thirty-years ago the world had a chance to deal with climate change in a methodical, linear way. Tick tock. Changes could have been modestly implemented initially, then ratcheted up slightly to get carbon emissions to net zero by now, 2019. Tick tock. As the world leaders talked, emissions increased. Warming increased. Tick tock. Talk, talk….solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars? Sure, we’ll do a little of that, just as long as it doesn’t disrupt “business as usual.” We need 3% GDP growth. We need Black Fridays and good citizens consuming their weight in stuff. More consumption, more goods, more global transport, more food waste, more people, more housing, more air conditioners, more shopping malls, less forest, less green space, less coral, less species, less biodiversity, less water, less ice, more resource scarcity, more climate disruption, more climate refugees, more instability. Tick tock.
By 2050, the low end of World Bank estimates put the number of worldwide climate refugees at around 140 million, but other estimates place this figure closer to 1 billion. The more conservative forecasted IPCC pathways hold warming below 2 degrees by 2100, but the IPCC’s own projections, which are already being surpassed by observable data, say we could get to 1.5 degrees warming by 2030 and 2 degrees before 2050. And as grim as those projections are, they do not take into account the effect of feedback loops for ice melting, the non-linear Antarctica and Greenland ice sheet melt-off now observable or the methane feedback loops from melting Arctic and Antarctic permafrost. And those feedback loops lead to tipping points that once done, can’t be undone. Tick tock.
Plan a vacation on your app. Watch Netflix. Eat organic if you can afford it. Make recycled jewelry from scrap metals. Buzzword du jour — sustainable development.
In 2018, Professor Jem Bendell left his position as a Professor of Sustainability at the University of Cumbria, UK because his recent review of the climate science data led him to believe his profession was itself “unsustainable.” Instead, he coined a new term “Deep Adaptation” that helps define how a society needs to adapt to a world irrevocably changed by anthropogenic climate disruption. Physically of course, but also economically, emotionally and socially for the human elements.
It’s not about tweaking around the edges of “business as usual” and a “no-sacrifice” mindset as we create a more “circular” economy. Every one of us, but the well-off more than anyone, absolutely need to sacrifice much in order to save ourselves and the remaining species not already doomed for extinction. As NOAA scientist Peter Tans recently stated, “Many proposals have been made to mitigate global warming, but without a rapid decrease of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels they are pretty much futile.” An order of magnitude decrease in fossil fuels’ usage is the #1 way to decrease warming and it will require a radical rethink of the “American way of life.” But even as this is written, oil companies are right NOW still drilling new wells in order to extract more oil. Car manufacturers are right NOW negotiating with striking workers to come back to their plants to build more SUVs, not fleets of electric cars. Right NOW is business as usual.
But what can I possibly do as a single individual against the inertia of economic and government forces?
Incrementalism and shiny slogans that slow-walk meaningful change will kill us. Don’t pat yourself on the back if you happen to drive electric, use metal straws and even cut down on your meat consumption. Do all this for sure, but understand that these things by themselves, without a national and global “buy-in” on a climate solution, will not change our collective destiny. Studies have shown that you need 3.5% of a population to actively participate in protests in order to bring about meaningful political change. That means roughly 250 million people worldwide. The recent worldwide climate protests, while the biggest of their kind, had active participation of between 6 and 8 million people. Therefore that number needs to come up by about a factor of 35x and that is the barrier for entry.
So stand with Greta and put YOUR body where the science is clearly telling you it needs to be. If we don’t DEMAND, through protest as well as individual action, an end to the burning of fossil fuels NOW — not next week, not next year — other environmental goals will be meaningless. Do it for your children and grandchildren sure, but also for yourself and your ability to co-exist on a planet that has nourished so much varied life in its fragile biosphere. But whatever you do, WAKE UP and know that you can’t plead ignorance anymore and no one is coming to save us except ourselves. It’s up to YOU. Tick tock.