The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis
Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac 2020
For all of history, mankind has seemed to live on the edge of disaster. The ever-changing climate of the earth has threatened to wipe humans out just like the dinosaurs several times. Luck has provided us with a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years, and we take it for granted at our peril. Our comfort zone is maddeningly tiny. If climate is too cold, we can't grow anything and survival depends on keeping warm. If the climate gets too hot, our bodies get over-stressed by the heat and again our crops die. The secret to our survival depends on staying in that sweet spot of mild, temperate weather where our farms, cities, and bodies run at their best.
I've been following the debate on climate change for decades, and not much has changed except the direness of the predictions. The science and data are clear- Planet Earth is warming up, and the most likely culprit are greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane that are increasing in our atmosphere and trapping heat. We can see the results of global warming everywhere- with the melting polar caps, shrinking glaciers, and disappearing polar bears.
Increasingly, this slow-moving disaster has been hitting closer to home. Rising average temperatures all over the world's cities have led to observable changes-
- much more rainfall in some spots while drought hits in others,
- increasing levels of wildfires threaten what's left of our disappearing forests,
- rising sea levels are eroding coasts and polluting drinking water,
- tropical storms such as hurricanes and cyclones are increasing in number and intensity
- disappearance of plant and animal species, or arrival of new species adapted to changing climates.
This book is one of hundreds that have been written about climate change, and the authors were intimately involved in the writing of the Paris agreement in 2015. I would have loved to read more about how the Paris agreement came to be, and the authors touch on it briefly. Somehow the organizers at Paris were able to get all the countries to the table, and get agreements from the established polluters (US, Europe, Japan), the up and comers (India, Brazil, China) and the 100 or so smaller nations that are feeling the brunt of climate change and trying to bolster their economies.
This was a herculean task, and it fell apart in 2017 when Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement. Any agreement like this only works if everybody agrees to share some of the risk and pain of transforming their economies. President Biden has put the US back into the agreement, but the resistance to the science of climate change is still substantial in the US, as it is in other developed countries with a lot to lose.
The Future We Choose starts off by imagining two scenarios- one in which we do nothing, and one in which we meet the current goals of no greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Some people think that the worst that can happen would be a few glaciers melt and some shorelines recede. The reality would more likely be that large parts of the planet become basically unlivable, with air and water quality declining and erratic weather altering all agriculture as we know it today. Huge migrations of humans and animals would result and the economic and political ramifications are enormous. The rosy picture they present for the carbon-neutral future seems pretty out there, but things like electric cars and trains, giant tree farms, community farms, and smart technology aren't that hard to imagine for the future.
The authors recommend three mindsets to propel us to what we need to do to transform the planet: stubborn optimism, endless abundance, and radical regeneration. One thing that bothers me about many climate change proponents is their rosy, optimistic views about how easy this is all going to be. The oil, gas, and coal economy is what got us where we are, and the thought that they will just roll over while everything changes is hard to believe. There are so many moving parts to this problem, it's hard to see how we get it all done in just 30 years. But the authors insist on optimism and a mindset that avoids zero-sum games where the loss of oil money isn't replaced by something better.
It's not exactly like we have a choice. Either transform our entire economy from an extract and burn model to a grow and regenerate model, or watch the whole thing fall apart anyway. I can understand why there are so many climate deniers- the scope of the changes necessary are too much to comprehend, so they instead ignore the whole thing. Some are welcoming the coming climate apocalypse, assuming either that Jesus will come to rescue them, or that their privilege will keep the effects bearable.
This book recommends ten climate actions that move us away from fossil fuels and towards a fairer economic system.
1- Let go of the old way of doing things. Completely transform agriculture, transportation and energy consumption (the three biggest sources of greenhouse gasses). This is the big one.
2- Hold onto a vision of the future to overcome the inevitable grief that change brings.
3- Defend the truth. That means stand up for the science that tells us what's going on and stay away from conspiracy theories and pseudoscience backed by oil companies.
4- See yourself as a citizen first, consumer second. Become a more responsible consumer. (Which is hard to do in an age of materialism and individuality)
5- Move beyond fossil fuels and plan on using 100% renewables in your own life.
6- Reforest the earth. Stay away from products that destroy the most trees- beef, soy, palm oil and lumber.
7- Don't fixate on Gross Domestic Product, which doesn't take into account externalities like pollution and look to the Happy Planet Index for true economic health.
8- Use tech and artificial intelligence responsibly. Machine learning can be a great partner in figuring out how to transform our ecological footprint.
9- Build gender equality, because women are apparently better stewards of the environment.
10- Engage in politics. Vote, protest, speak up. Especially the young folks. Politicians look to the big money donors until they start to get scared when public opinion turns against them. Even corporations are starting to get worried about climate change, and they will listen if their customers vote with their money.
Cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% before 2030. Cut them to nothing by 2050. These are impressive goals that the authors of this book say are necessary to reach Paris agreement goals of limiting any further global warming to 1.5 degree centigrade worldwide. How do we get there? Not much detail in this short book about that.
Part of me is terribly pessimistic that enough will happen. The Donald Trump era has driven a bulldozer through any idea of shared reality or shared sacrifice. Getting a majority to believe in science and give up their gas guzzling SUV's seems a tall order in 2020. But 30 years is a long time. Some national weather disasters may raise the urgency level at some point.
Humanity's best weapons are its ability to communicate and collaborate, which is what sets us apart from the apes and all other animals. With information flowing at faster speeds and larger amounts, there are few limits to how quickly we can innovate as the need arises. Already there are many promising things in the works- nuclear fusion, carbon capture technology, improved batteries, cheaper, more plentiful solar energy, and a tasty meatless meals. It will take a lot of creativity and innovation, and the future of the planet is in the balance for the 21st century. You can already see things in motion, and the change has accelerated in just the last few years. Hopefully more books like this one and more climate agreements will show Planet Earth that we deserve to be here and survive into the 22nd century.