To put it simply, the earth’s climate system is getting hotter as a result of human activities. And, despite some claims to the contrary, this is something that 99% of active climate scientists agree on.
The last century or so has seen a drastic increase in emissions (polluting gasses that we dump into the atmosphere) that has caused the earth to be, on average, about 1° warmer than 170 years ago. While this seems small, the results have been catastrophic.
We are seeing significant increases in wildfires, loss of animal habitats, ocean acidity, droughts, rising sea levels, heat waves, floods, and more.
The present struggle is to slow down / halt the warming and keep things at no more than 1.5°. This is something that we have all globally committed to at the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, many of us - particularly the more affluent countries - are not meeting the goals that we had set out. This is largely based upon our reliance on fossil fuels.
In case you’re wondering, yes, this is a huge emergency.
It’s not enough to think about this crisis only in terms of temperature. Our climate system is complex and interconnected with our entire world. Everything will be affected by this crisis.
If you can access it, the New York Times has a powerful visual article exploring the human cost of this crisis. As places on our planet become basically unlivable, we will see a mass migration unlike anything we have experienced before. We need to have infrastructure in place to give that many people safe places to live.
Elizabeth Kolbert has written an excellent book that details the tragic impact that this crisis is having on animal species as we enter a new mass extinction event.
Because this is a systemic problem, it requires holistic and systemic solutions.
While there is a lot of nuance to how various groups suggest that we address the climate crisis, the overwhelming consensus is that it is our consumptive behaviours, our reliance on fossil fuels, and our growth obsessed economy that have to change. The goals for sustainable development help us imagine a better way forward.
Part of the confusion is that there is a considerable amount of debate around what the right way forward actually is. Navigating that can feel a bit overwhelming.
If you spend any time in the climate conversations, you will inevitable hear one or more of these terms thrown around. Basically, these are three varied approaches to imaging what our relationship with economic growth needs to look like in order for us to meet the targets. I’ll try to sum them up quickly, but I highly recommend this podcast that talks about all three.
Green Growth is the idea that we can continue to grow, but do so in a way that is not destructive to our planet.
De-growth is the idea that there is no way for us to continue to infinitely grow on a finite planet.
Post-growth is about moving away from talking about no-growth to a means of shifting the economic model to one centred around wellbeing.
Rather than spend time on the differences between each of these, I want to acknowledge where they are aligned. We are facing an unprecedented emergency that is being created by our reliance on growth. In order to face this problem, that has to change.
Obviously the main question is what any of us can do in the face of such a big problem. How can we make any difference at all? Is there even a point in trying? Should we just give up? The problem with really big problems is they often elicit a bit of an existential crisis. My first suggestion is to take that journey.
You need to deal with your emotions, your biases, your blindspots, and your privilege in order to take the necessary next steps.
One thing I noticed during the early times of this Covid pandemic was that society needed to grieve in order to move forward in this new normal. We needed to mourn the loss of the life we had grown accustomed to. The people who didn’t grieve are the people who (still) refuse to admit that things have changed.
Grief is a powerful and necessary process, one that our culture doesn’t really understand or make space for. I could say a lot more about this; but for things to change you have grieve what you’re losing.
FYI, there’s a little book called Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis that I recommend if you’re interested in this sort of thing.
The question of what exactly is in our power to do as a response is an important one. It brings up a core tension between two extremes: personal responsibility v system wide change.
Quickly, the idea behind personal responsibility is that we - as individuals - can take steps that will actually make a difference in helping us meet the targets. Whereas those who advocate for systemic change suggest that for the targets to be met, this is something that will likely have to be legislated from the top down.
So where does responsibility lie?
In truth, this is not really an either/or situation - and most people who are having real solutions-level conversations know this. Both individual action and systemic change will be needed. I do, however, want to address four aspects of this tension that I find helpful.
First is the concept of guilt. Solutions that exist entirely in the realm of personal responsibility pass the guilt of the problem onto the individual. This is how the system often avoids critique. Please don’t feel guilty that you’re not doing enough. If you want a more productive feeling, I suggest anger - directed at the systems that are failing to act.
Second is the relationship between the individual and the collective. Yes, isolated individual action is relatively meaningless. However, individual action that is connected to a larger whole is one of the most powerful forces in human history. Governments and businesses will be forced to adapt if collective action is leading them. Consider lending your voice to the movement.
Third is the way individual actions can become collective. Often we need examples to both inspire us and help us normalize change. If you make the choice to reduce or stop your meat consumption or drive less, you inspire others around you to make similar choices. Maybe now is the time to take a first step.
Finally, I want to emphasize the importance of your vote. While I don’t want to suggest that voting is the most important way we can exercise our democratic right, I do think it’s important here. Voting is an individual action that we can take. So vote for climate champions. Do not fall for false promises, a history of poor climate response, or half measures. This is an emergency and we need leadership who treats it as such.
Future generations will thank you.
This is obviously a huge topic and I am certainly not claiming any sort of expertise. I wrote this in the hope of helping people along like myself who sometimes struggle with knowing where to find answers or how to even navigate the conversation.
Maybe you found it helpful. Hopefully you find it inspiring.
Either way, thanks for reading to the end.