Global economic development has brought wealth and opportunity to so many new places, but it has come at the cost of environmental destruction. Global climate and ecology are massive, complex systems. As these systems change, they will unleash unforeseen disruption in how we live and work. In other words, greenhouse gas emissions have been the byproduct of what is mostly a force for the better—economic development and the rise of a global middle class. However, the unchecked effects of climate change will be far reaching and have the potential to devastate whole regions of the globe.
The solution to climate change lies in decoupling economic output from greenhouse gas emissions. Here is the good news: decoupling is possible, and in fact is beginning to take place. In 2015, global GDP grew three percent, while emissions were flat. The challenge is that decoupling carbon emissions from economic output more dramatically will take political will on a global scale. As problems go, climate change is a combination of a perfect storm and emergency in slow motion.
Part of the problem (as with any form of pollution) is that responsible parties do not bear the full direct cost of their own emissions. Without that cost burden, people and firms acting in their own self-interest will continue to pollute. This market failure is compounded by the fact that the harms of greenhouse gas emissions are cumulative: they will stay in the atmosphere and continue to warm the planet well into the future.
The poor and the young will bear the greatest burden of climate change; those who are most vulnerable are often the least visible and least able to be vocal. Meanwhile, special interests—fossil fuel producers chief among them—have both financial motives and the political heft to obstruct decoupling. These special interests can and do exploit our human tendency to dismiss threats. Even with obvious warning signs, people can fail to take climate change seriously, or fail to understand the gravity of our situation.
Consider the toll warmer weather is taking on crops. Every decade since the end of World War II has been warmer than the one before it. The 10 warmest years since 1880 all happened since 1998. The warmest year ever recorded was 2014— until it was surpassed by 2015, which was in turn surpassed by 2016. Droughts can set off a chain of catastrophic events, such as unrest in the Arab world, which happened at the same time as crops failed, food prices skyrocketed, and small herders lost 70 percent or more of their livestock. Failing crops of Russian wheat and Syrian cotton may be just the beginning. Over the next 15 years, crop yields in places like south Asia and Africa could decline by 10 to 30 percent.
Aside from food scarcity and its domino effect of issues, warmer air and water also mean more frequent violent weather. Worldwide, the frequency of weather disasters has increased by nearly 50 percent over the past 20 years. We’ve all seen the alarming number of hurricanes, tropical storms, and tornadoes that have left a trail of devastation in their wake.
Climate change is affecting people’s prosperity all over the world, and yet beliefs about climate change vary. About one in eight Americans are in denial, and about one in nine are alarmed. The majority of people are aware that the climate is changing, but they generally are not engaged in solutions. Some may hold out hope for a technological breakthrough to save the day. In reality, the solution has less to do with whiz bang ideas and much more to do with the will to change. The most appropriate response, in my opinion, would be to look at the facts and work towards solutions that are in everyone’s interest. Defining reality and giving hope makes more sense than fear mongering, resignation, or outright denial. At least for now, there is reason to be hopeful—but time is running short. The next couple of decades are crucial.
As responsible citizens, we have a collective decision to make. We can choose to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting now, or live with the consequences for decades to come. The longer we delay this decision, the more costly the solutions. Global meteorology is a huge system with long lag times. Even if we were to stop the emission of all greenhouse gases today, the earth would continue to get warmer for a couple of generations. At our current trajectory, humanity will (in the next two or three decades) have added so much to atmospheric greenhouse gasses that we will lock in unsupportable temperatures and irreversible damage. The consequences will be an intensified version of what we are now starting to see—ecosystem collapse, droughts, crop failures, social unrest, violent weather, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.
There is reason to be hopeful. Government and business are taking notice and starting to act. The 2015 Paris Agreement among nations to reduce emissions is the first of its kind. Existing technology for renewable energy and conservation is cost-competitive. Prosperous economies, such as Denmark and the state of California, have shown that they can continue to grow and compete while reducing their carbon footprint. Businesses recognize sustainability can help reduce costs, boost customer loyalty, and raise employee engagement.
The truth is we all have control over our own carbon footprint, and we can influence the organizations and institutions where we work, worship, study, socialize, and volunteer. My simple suggestion is to begin where you can. The beauty of doing that is—in addition to the direct benefits—acting also changes the actor. It changes you, which is both satisfying and leads to further action. Here are some suggested steps you can take:
Learn More. Climate change coverage gets short shrift in the mass media: In 2015, major broadcast TV networks devoted less than an hour in total for the year to climate change. Few Americans know that the scientific consensus around human-caused climate change is 99.9 percent—essentially, unanimous. George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication refers to this as the “gateway belief,” which once understood, opens the door to more information. There are plenty of good sources to keep you up to speed on climate issues and what to do.
Make Changes, Small and Large. Once you start to look for greenhouse gas emissions, you “see” them everywhere. Energy audits are cheaper than you think and can highlight ways to save money. Even without an audit, some changes are no-brainers. LED light bulbs, for example, pay back in three years or less. Food choices also make a difference. Just giving up beef can reduce your annual footprint by a ton of carbon dioxide. Global food waste emits more greenhouse gases than the entirety of the European Union. Anyone can sequester carbon by composting. Other levers include lowering per-person car miles with public transportation or ride sharing, purchasing carbon offsets for air travel, selecting renewable power on your utility bill, and buying “experiences” instead of “stuff.” There are countless ways to lower emissions through steady, small actions. Over time, larger choices matter as well, such as the type of house to live in, where to live in relation to work, and what kind of car to drive (if any).
Engage. Just speaking up can help shift attitudes and actions. In 2015, only 12 percent of Americans reported that they heard other people talking about climate change at least once per month. And yet people are most influenced by those in their own social group. You can also support conservation organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund, just to name a few. Political engagement also matters. The policies deployed in California and Denmark became a reality because regulators and politicians believed there was a mandate.
As a global society, we are at a crossroads. The effects of climate change on our environmental system will be far-reaching, irreversible, and hard to predict. Preparing for an uncertain future means taking meaningful action today to mitigate losses tomorrow. We can either decouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth, or live with the consequences. Forward-thinking people, campuses, companies and countries are showing the way to a solution. Just like being the first to invest in an emerging world market, those pioneers can reap the benefits while others play catch up. All of us, as voters, consumers, and global citizens have a stake—and a responsibility—to take action. The first step is overcoming our own barriers to change.
This article is an excerpt from The Disruptors’ Feast by Frits van Paasschen.