Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article belong solely to the author.
This summer’s sizzling temperatures, savage droughts, raging wildfires, floods and acute water shortages – from Japan to the Arctic Circle, California to Greece – are surely evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that the climate crisis is upon us now.
This is the new normal – until it gets worse.
We, the entire global community, the residents of this planet, must finally grasp the urgency at hand and undertake dramatic, meaningful measures – initiatives beyond the modest goals of 2015 Paris climate accord – to stave off nothing less than the destruction of civilization as we know it.
This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s mainstream opinion among serious scientists worldwide: Climate change, unchecked, will eventually wipe out our race – and man-made greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.
An open letter signed by 15,000 international scientists last year read in part: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home,” the letter warns.
“Since 1992, carbon emissions have increased 62 percent,” said William Ripple of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, who initiated the letter. “And the global average temperature change has paralleled that. Also since 1992, we have two billion more people on Earth, which is a 35 percent increase.”
In his epic tome “Collapse,” the American physicist Jared Diamond attributes the decline and extinction of several historical civilizations, among them the Maya and the Inca, to climate change, overpopulation and incompetent resource management.
The book’s telling subtitle is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” It was resolute stubbornness and bad management that killed off the great Latin American peoples, Diamond argued.
Today, though, an entire world civilization, not just a regional people, has neglected and defiled the very resource base from which it sustains itself.
Yet the headlines still read “When The Weather Is Extreme, Is Climate Change To Blame?”
We’ve got to move past the false, stubborn debate about whether global warming is happening or not. Obviously it is, plentiful research has underscored this for years, and with the natural disasters everywhere we’re feeling it now. Those who still don’t get it may have stuck their heads in the sand – or perhaps they’re lying to themselves.
But either way we can’t lose more time trying to convince them. And those who are slowly coming around – including US Republicans, notorious former skeptics – have to catch up on the learning curve very quickly.
Resignation or fatalism – that it’s a tragedy, the destruction of life as we know it, but alas we can’t affect it – is as self-defeating as denial, and lazy too. I’ve seen one too many dystopian, post-apocalyptic thrillers recently based on worst-case, extreme-weather scenarios, but too few about saving mankind from these fates.
In the 1980s, the international community’s response to the ozone’s thinning and the scourge of acid rain illustrate what mankind can do when it puts its mind to changing human and above all industrial behavior. In the form of the 1987 Montreal Protocol and 1985 Helsinki Protocol respectively, treaties were put in place that halted the destructive menace of the pollutants responsible for those blights. They’re success stories.
Admittedly, these afflictions were more contained than the entire planet’s warming, but they show that human beings can at least constrain the folly that they’ve set in motion.
So the battle against climate change is in our hands. Despite the meager political action to date, we’re not starting at square one.
Our scientists, in a feat of global cooperation orchestrated through the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have enabled us to understand climate change as the consequence of two centuries’ intensive burning of petroleum-based fuel, and what it portends – namely a future in which human beings and other inhabitants of the planet will find it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to live as we have.
Another product of science is the technology that can replace fossil fuels. It’s already there, and in use in small quantities almost everywhere in the world. The clean tech that we have today – solar power, wind energy, battery-propelled transportation, smart grids, and more – is enough for us to go completely green in the near future.
Advances are made and costs come down on this technology every six months, but we don’t have to wait. Germany, for example, turned 40% of its electricity renewable in just 15 years. Today that could happen twice as fast.
A number of diverse, evidence-based studies show that a global transition to 100% renewable electricity, or close to that, isn’t utopian dreaming at all but feasible, and in the near future. A massive roll out of renewables, not including nuclear energy, could cover the globe’s energy needs by 2050, even with the world’s population growing. All investment in fossil fuel production would have to be switched to renewables.
One recent study, the product of a Finnish university and German think tank, envisions a global renewable energy mix comprising 69% solar power, 18% wind energy, 8% hydropower, and 2% bioenergy.
A full decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050 is possible based on available technology, according to Christian Breyer, a renewable energy expert and lead author of the study. “Energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will,” says Breyer – and he’s not alone in asserting this. A 2017 study from Stanford University came to similar conclusions.
But just as global warming today is something we can feel, so too can we see renewable energy at work.
In Europe, Germany is the most commonly cited example because it is home to one of the world’s most advanced industrial economies, which has prospered with the renewables surge. Yet Norway and Iceland already run almost completely on renewable energy, namely hydroelectric and geothermal power respectively.
Denmark plans to convert fully to renewable energy by 2050 by scaling back on energy use and exploiting wind power to meet demand. By 2020, extensive reductions in energy consumption will make it possible for wind power to cover half of the country’s electricity consumption. Danish power plants relying on coal will be phased out by 2030. And by 2035, all electricity and heating will be generated using renewable sources.
As individuals, of course we can curb our consumption and make our lifestyles as sustainable as possible. But as citizens we have to mobilize too and force our elected leaders (and unelected leaders in China and elsewhere) to tackle the industrial giants whose fortunes are tied up in petrochemical generation.
Until this summer, many in the developed world probably assumed that global warming would only affect the undeveloped and the far-away. But global warming has hit home for all of us in 2018.
If empathy for others or future generations can’t inspire concern, then let pure self-interest dictate action.
Whatever the motive, the time for half measures is past.