We got a problem. A big one. More and more people are realizing that. That’s the good news.
Our planet is heating up rapidly and it’s a scientific fact that humanity will face disaster if we don’t cut down on greenhouse gas emissions massively — and quickly. That’s the bad news.
But climate change itself is not our problem. It’s merely a symptom of another problem that’s even bigger in scale and that many people don’t quite see yet. If we don’t succeed in understanding and solving this core problem (which is the root cause of many other problems as well), we won’t be able to tackle climate change either.
Humanity’s Core Problem
Our core problem can be boiled down to one central theme: relentless expansion — our inner urge to always want more. In the past, this urge was what kept us alive. In a world of scarce, it was better to have too much of some thing than too little. From an evolutionary perspective, it was the winning strategy to collect as much food as one could get. There was no cost to it other than the time, effort and risk involved to get it. But the cost of not following this strategy was extremely high: Those who didn’t have enough food starved to death.
For that reason, the urge to want more is deeply engraved in our DNA. We built our entire economy on that principle. In capitalism, each company and individual strives to accumulate as much wealth as possible. The urge to want more is the fuel of competition, and competition is the motor of our market economy.
Because capitalism has brought us unprecedented technological progress, we have come to embrace individualism as a fundamental building block of our society. It has become a commonly accepted postulate that our economy works best if every citizen acts purely out of self-interest. (Many economists believe in Adam Smith’s invisible hand, a supposed mechanism which magically transforms individual egoistic behavior into common good.) Everybody is on their own, competing with everybody else — for property, wealth, status and power.
Once we have reached a certain level in any of those areas, it’s really hard for us to go back. When you have lived in slums your entire life and suddenly have the financial means to rent your own flat, you certainly don’t want to go back to the slums. When you acquire a house at some point in your life, you probably don’t want to go back to your flat. And when you’ve made enough money to buy a beautiful mansion and move in with your family, you most likely don’t want to go back to your old house. The bottom line is that we always strive for more and if we can’t get it, we at least try to maintain our current level. We never want to go back to having less.
That’s not a problem as long as there are practically unlimited resources. This was the case on Earth before the Industrial Revolution. The world population was well below one billion [🔎 source]. There was very little technology available. Thus, humanity could only access a small fraction of the planet’s resources.
However, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1760, our population has multiplied almost tenfold. Today, over 7.7 billion people inhabit this planet. At the same time, our species has seen rapid development in technology. This had two main effects:
- It enabled our species to scale production and access a lot more resources than before.
- It increased the average living standard of those in the industrialized part of the world. People could suddenly get more and more of what they wanted, ascended to higher levels of wealth and property. The bar of what’s considered to be normal was raised dramatically.
When a rapidly growing population wants to consume an ever increasing amount of resources and develops the means to do so, it will inevitably run into a problem on a planet with limited resources.
In 1970, for the first time in history, humanity’s consumption of resources exceeded what Earth could regenerate in that year. Yet, our urge for more remained unchanged. Our consumption of resources continued to increase.
The day of a year when we have busted Earth’s ecological resource budget is called Earth Overshoot Day. In 2019, we reached that day on July 29. In other words: Humanity currently consumes about 1.75 times more ecological resources each year than Earth is able to regenerate. Every year, we accumulate more ecological deficit.
ℹ️ The Country Overshoot Day is much earlier for most industrialized countries (find the date for your country here). For example, the United States had their Overshoot Day on 15 March this year, which results in an even larger ecological deficit.
Because we still burn a large part of our resources to satisfy our energy needs, much of this deficit is stored as carbon dioxide gas in our atmosphere. Lucky for us, Earth has a natural mechanism to decompose carbon dioxide through its plants: photosynthesis. But as there is only a limited area where plants can grow on this planet (which we continue to shrink by deforestation), there is also a limited amount of plants and thus, Earth can only absorb a limited amount of carbon dioxide each year. With our annual carbon dioxide emissions, we are way beyond this limit.
Over a very long period of time in Earth’s history, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere oscillated around an average of 280 parts per million (ppm). For hundreds of thousands of years, it never surpassed 300 parts per million (ppm). That changed with our industrialization. In the early 20th century, we crossed that line. Today (as of this writing), Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is at 411 ppm, tendency: increasing. This is what drives climate change.
Due to the greenhouse effect, Earth’s global average temperature is steadily increasing. As the polar ice and glaciers are melting, the sea level rises. If we don’t change our behavior fast enough, more droughts, floods and wildfires will occur and have devastating effects on our civilization.
How Can We Stop Climate Change?
There are two ways to prevent this from happening:
- Either we quickly find a way to imitate nature and decompose the overshoot atmospheric carbon dioxide ourselves.
- Or we drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to a level where no overshoot is created in the first place.
As of today, we don’t have the technology to go the first way. We might develop that technology one day, but we cannot rely on that to happen within the next ten or twenty years. This would be like driving a car towards a wall at high velocity without slowing down or steering in another direction because we trust that — while we’re driving — someone will develop a technology to tear down the wall before we hit it. Thus, the only way to reliably stop climate change is the second: We need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.
Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions
How do we do that? Again, we have two options:
- We quickly replace our current technology with new, more energy-efficient technology that can sustain or even improve our current living standard but emits much less carbon dioxide.
- We reduce our current living standard. A lower consumption will result in less carbon dioxide emissions.
At present, our society is focusing on the first method. We are increasingly generating energy from renewable sources and try to improve our technology to make it more efficient. But it’s all happening at a slow pace.
Solar and wind energy combined still only cover a mere 2% of the world’s prime energy demand. When including hydro power, biofuels and waste combustion, renewable energy sources only make up for an estimated 15% of the world’s current energy mix [🔎 IEA Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2018]. Unfortunately, at the same time our hunger for energy is still growing rapidly:
We Always Want More
In 2018, global energy demand increased an estimated 2.3%, the greatest rise in a decade.
– 🔎 REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report
So even though we are taking steps towards greener technology, our efforts are being neutralized or in fact overcompensated by a higher energy demand. Our carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase:
As a result of higher energy consumption, CO₂ emissions rose 1.7% last year and hit a new record.
– 🔎 IEA Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2018
Our urge to always want more is persistently counteracting our technological measures to fight climate change. In other words:
The world is not on track to meet international climate and sustainable development goals.
– 🔎 REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report
Whenever we make technological progress to become more energy-efficient, we follow our archaic instinct and simply consume more energy, annihilating most or all our efforts to save humanity from catastrophe. This is known as the rebound effect and it means that
it’s not sufficient to improve technology without considering behavior.
– 🔎 Economical and Social Research Council
All scientific evidence indicates that developing new and replacing existing technology alone will not suffice to stop climate change. We have to do more than that. We have to change us.
The Other Way
The only way to effectively reduce our carbon dioxide emissions is to go with the second option as well: We need to restrain our hunger for energy and transition towards a society that focuses more on less. Fighting climate change means fighting our urge to want more.
Before 1880, no-one in the world had electrical lighting at home. Then came Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison, developed and commercialized some new technology and by 1960, practically every household in the United States was equipped with light bulbs and connected to the power grid. A similar development could be observed in other industrialized parts of the world. People had adapted to a new standard of living — electricity was the new “normal”.
Just at the moment that the USA was fully electrified, the story repeated itself with the color TV. Before 1960, no household had one, but only thirty years later almost everyone had a tube at home. It had become the new standard.
The same happened with cars, air conditioning, personal computers, the Internet and smartphones. Today, we take all these things for granted, just as we take cheap air travel for granted and the freedom to go almost anywhere in the world if we want to.
All these things require energy to work. As a result, global energy consumption has multiplied 16-fold since the year 1900 — and it’s still increasing, despite our ongoing efforts to improve energy efficiency. On the bright side, those efforts did have an effect in most industrialized countries: Here, we can observe a flattening or even a slight downwards trend of the total energy supply in the past few years. The United Kingdom, for example, has managed to reduce their total primary energy supply by more than 18 percent within ten years (2006–2016).
However, all developing countries are in the process of catching up with the Western standard of living. And they have every right to do so. (Watch ▶️ this great TED talk by Hans Rosling to understand why.) To reach that goal, they will need to draw level with the industrialized countries regarding their energy consumption per capita. As the vast majority of the world’s population lives in those developing countries, this means a major increase.
In 2014, for example, India had an average annual energy consumption of 7 kWh per capita, whereas the average US citizen consumed 81 kWh — that’s 11 times more [🔎 Energy Production & Changing Energy Sources — Our World in Data]. So even if the Americans managed to cut their energy consumption by half in the next 20 years due to technological progress, the Indians would still have to increase their energy consumption more than 5-fold if they wanted to draw level. As India has four times as many people as the United States [🔎 India Population (2019) — Worldometers, 🔎 U.S. Population (2019) — Worldometers], this would still translate to an increase in total energy demand by a factor of 19.5 for both countries together.
Now, the industrialized countries could try to keep the developing countries from adopting their living standards. (Author’s note: With some of the people in power today, I wouldn’t even be surprised.) This would not only be morally wrong, it would also inevitably lead to war — most likely to another world war. Given the weapons and technology available today, this would be disastrous for our entire civilization. Thus, the only cause of action that can save humanity from both climate change and war is to reduce our energy consumption and as such, our standard of living.
We need to be okay with demanding less than what we have today. The ultimate test for our species in the 21ˢᵗ century is to overcome our inner urge to want more. If we succeed in that without losing our curiosity and ambition to expand our knowledge, future generations will regard this transition simply as another step in our evolution. If we fail, there won’t be many future generations.
How We Can Change
After the basic science behind climate change has finally reached a large part of the population in the industrialized countries (with many still ignoring or even denying it), some people have begun to change their behavior and consume less. They render their cars and go by public transport instead, they reduce travel and try to avoid flights as much as possible, they reuse and recycle, eat less or no meat, and source their electricity from green energy providers at prices higher than market average. Let’s call them “climate angels”.
Definition: Climate Angel
A person who makes sacrifices or accepts inconveniences in order to reduce their individual CO₂ footprint with the goal to stop or slow down climate change.
Climate angels are a flicker of hope for our society. But they are not enough. Climate angels are a minority (mainly present) in the industrialized countries — and the industrialized countries only make for a small fraction of the global population. When a little minority slightly reduces their energy consumption and a vast majority continues to increase theirs, the total consumption will still increase. As a consequence, climate change cannot be stopped by the minority’s honorable behavior and their personal sacrifices will all be in vain.
Climate angels might argue that they won’t stay in the minority for long. They try to be idols and hope that others will follow along. They believe that over time, their movement will grow until it reaches a point where they actually can make a difference. Is that so? And more importantly, would they be able to get there in time to stop climate change and prevent the catastrophe from happening?
There is, of course, always room for hope, but it’s foolish to rely on hope alone when our entire species is in danger. When you live in a house on the beach front and you see a giant tsunami wave coming towards you, would you stay where you are and hope for the wave to dissipate before it hits your house — or would you rather evacuate to a safe place because you don’t want to put your life at risk?
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we only have little more than 10 years to drastically reduce our worldwide CO₂ emissions if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 °C. Net emissions must reach zero around 2050. [🔎 Global Warming of 1.5°C — Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers, IPCC]
Given this extremely narrow time frame, we do not have the luxury to wait and hope for enough climate angels to reduce their individual energy consumption voluntarily — to save themselves and all others. Climate change is just like the tsunami wave rolling towards us, with the only difference that we cannot evacuate Earth (at least not within the foreseeable future). The one thing we can do to escape disaster is to globally reduce CO₂ emissions on a big scale. As the IPCC puts it:
Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).
Those rapid and far-reaching transitions will only be achievable by political and economic means. In an ideal future world, everyone is a climate angel and acts responsibly. If we ever reach that point as a society can be debated. But as long as we don’t, we need to enact rules that require everyone to reduce their energy consumption and CO₂ emissions. Everything else would be like waiting for the wave to hit us.
The Collective Climate Action Problem
How can we make rules that are binding for everyone? For a single country, a government would have the power to introduce new laws and use its executive powers to enforce them. However, this government probably wouldn’t be re-elected in the next term because most people are no climate angels and would resist to have their freedom limited and their standard of living reduced. The next government would likely dispose of those laws.
Furthermore, if a single country was to drastically reduce its total energy consumption, it would either have to decrease its production output or produce at a significantly higher cost. As a consequence, its economy would stagnate and it would lose in international competition. The country’s citizens would have to make sacrifices for the greater good of “saving the world”, but those sacrifices would all be for nothing if other countries — especially those with a relatively high and increasing energy consumption — didn’t cooperate. This kind of dilemma is called the collective action problem or, more specifically, the tragedy of the commons.
What’s a collective action problem?
Simply put, this is a situation in which everyone would be better off cooperating to reach a common goal (e.g. limiting global warming), but not everyone cooperates due to other individual interests (e.g. reaching a higher standard of living). If those who don’t cooperate are in the minority, the common goal might still be achieved, without them contributing anything. In this case, the non-cooperators would be free-riders and ultimately better off than those who cooperated (e.g. they would benefit from a limited global warming without having to sacrifice anything).
In the other case, when the number of non-cooperators surpasses a critical level, the common goal cannot be achieved anymore. The cooperators are even worse off in this situation because they lose twice. (For example, if they make personal sacrifices to fight climate change while the non-cooperators don’t, they would still not be able to win the fight. The global average temperature would continue to rise despite their sacrifices.)
Humanity’s Greatest Challenge
In order to successfully avert the climate catastrophe, we quickly need to solve our collective action problem. We have to find a way to cooperate internationally, to reduce rather than expand. Humanity’s greatest challenge in the 21ˢᵗ century is not the climate — it’s us.
Our social development as a species needs to catch up with our technological development. We have to learn to control our urge for more, the same way we have learned to control other animal instincts in the past. In the short-run, this can only be accomplished by implementing a set of restrictive rules for the world that require a strict limitation of consumption. In the long-run, hopefully, humanity will mature and evolve towards a society that focuses more on cooperation and less on competition.
Thanks for Reading! ✌️
I wrote this article because I deeply care about a peaceful future for all of humanity and because I noticed that — even among those people who have identified climate change as a massive threat to our species — there is still a large fraction who thinks that technology alone will magically save us from catastrophe. It most likely won’t.
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My Twitter handle is 🐦 @DerHildebrand.