It’s time to rapidly rethink the climate crisis
In the 25 years since I started taking global warming seriously, everything has changed
When it comes to the climate, everything is changing so fast. It is understandable that our sense of how things work and what the future will bring, can struggle to keep up. The speed, scale and impact of the climate and ecological emergencies, what can be called the Planetary Crisis, just keeps getting more intense. Getting a clear fix on what is happening, or what the future holds, is challenging.
Nevertheless, I think there are some things that can be said with some confidence. This essay shares some of these ideas. Some, I think, are now simply true; the weight of evidence compelling. Others are what I think most likely to happen, though only time will tell.
Mostly, this is a zoomed-out view of some big trends rather than a micro-look at ground level. Here is a summary:
1) We can no longer stop dangerous climate change
2) Continuity with the past is no longer possible
3) Old ways of thinking will not work on a hotter planet
4) We face a disorderly future
5) We will probably not come together united
6) Massive change is now inevitable
7) The dam will burst this decade
8) We are now living in the long Emergency
9) This is a good time to find your tribe
The moon is rising on the dark horizon
I see people running, I see dark clouds a-coming
Before the storm
These lines are from the song we used to open our multimedia concert, Music for a Warming World. Ironically, even though I was producing a show about the climate crisis, I have been slow to understand this current moment.
If only we were still living before the storm.
It is time to stop talking about this as the future. Doing so blinds us to present reality and avoids the difficult questions and choices we face. Understanding the present, let alone the future, is challenging. It requires relinquishing old and cherished ideas. This is as much a challenge for environmentalists and sustainability experts as it is for those who have barely thought about the climate crisis.
It is difficult because there is a massive difference between the world we think we live in and the world we actually live in.
What I sketch out below is not, for the most part, what I wish were true or what I hope for. Rather, it is my best sense of our current reality and how things are likely to unfold.
Understanding this present reality also provides insight into the possibilities for change that are otherwise not easy to see.
But first, a reality check.
- We can no longer stop dangerous climate change
That opportunity has been lost.
Limiting the scale of future harm is the best we can now do.
Any close reading of the science is deeply troubling. The planet’s average surface temperature is now 1.1°C hotter than when we started burning coal. The rate of heating is speeding up. Australia, the ‘lucky country’, is 1.4°C hotter. It will get hotter, perhaps much hotter.
To make matters worse, most of the heat generated by humans, about 93%, has been absorbed by the oceans, and half of that since 1997. This ‘forgotten heat’ (by the public, not scientists!) will increasingly affect the planet’s climate for generations to come.
This can’t be undone.
There is now so much heat baked into the climate system that were we to stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the planet will still hit 1.5°C. But emissions will not stop tomorrow. The catastrophic reality is they are still rising.
Emissions must peak mid-decade, (just over two and a half years from now) and then rapidly decline by well over 10% per year. Yes, there are some good things happening. The electric revolution is well under-way, and will assist, but industrial, land, buildings and agricultural emissions are harder and will be slower. Far too slow now for a safe landing into the future.
As it stands, it is almost certain the planet will exceed 2°C, a truly dangerous threshold. A Herculean global effort could change this. But ‘could’ is not the same as ‘will’. Much more likely is that predatory delay, conflict and inertia will prevent this from happening. There is no plausible scenario I am aware of where global action is likely to accelerate at the speed and scale necessary to limit global temperatures to below 2°C.
This will be catastrophic for some places and hugely challenging for most. The tragedy is that if we had seriously started on this, even thirty years ago, we could have gradually transitioned to a low carbon world.
But we didn’t. We kicked the can down the road and there is no compelling reason to believe this will suddenly reverse, at least in the short term and not in any orderly or managed way.
Yet, most people still live with the illusion that we can tweak our current lifestyles and return to normal. We cannot.
2) Continuity with the past is no longer possible
Imagine you are on a sailing ship 200 years ago, headed for an unknown land far away. You wave farewell to family members in tears on the dock. You carry trinkets and memories with you. You also carry the certain knowledge that you will never return to your land. The home you were born into quickly fades into the distance.
The climate crisis is not going to cause a break with the past; it already has. We are already on the boat. But this time the destination is uncertain.
This is perhaps the most difficult recognition about the world we now live in. The relatively predictable safe zone of climate and ecological security humans have lived with since the end of the last ice age has ended, abruptly.
Our species has never been here before. Certainly many indigenous peoples have been through catastrophic losses, full recognition of which is long overdue. There is much to learn from their endurance, courage and wisdom. But there is now another layer of trouble; in the planetary crisis, the protection provided by a reliable planet is now no longer guaranteed for anyone.
Like the immigrant on the sailing ship, we must learn, and do so quickly, that we are already living in a different world, what writer Alex Steffen calls The Discontinuity.
That is harder than it sounds, because much of our know-how no longer works.
3) Old ways of thinking will not work on a hotter planet
When things change, we look for analogies, to things that have worked in the past and understand well. This is as true for activists and policy makers as it is for academics and ordinary citizens.
This is understandable. But it does not work where there is a sharp break, a discontinuity, with the past.
Our ways of thinking and tools use to build our world are proving to be inadequate for the world we actually inhabit. This is because the world we now live in is less predictable, change increasingly non-linear, and one in which speed is everything. Yet, the tools we rely upon are often the very products of the world we have already left behind.
Part of the problem is the belief that we can manage the future and do it in an orderly way. This is a deeply embedded belief and there are good reasons why this is desirable. Disorder undermines confidence that we are still in control. Governments, corporations and communities generally seek orderly and manageable change. People need a degree of certainty.
Governments often talk about a coordinated, sensible and orderly transition. The aim is to get from today (present reality) to a sustainable tomorrow with the least disruption. Coordinated, orderly, sensible. Who can argue with that?
Yet, desirable as it may be, this approach will almost certainly fail. The opportunity for an orderly transition as we usually envisage it has passed. Yet, this is the way most climate and sustainability thinking is still framed.
The reality is that we are not prepared for the world we already live in, let alone what is coming; unpredictable, cascading and rapidly escalating risks that affect insurance, financial stability, political trust and government capacity, agricultural production and food supply lines and, well, virtually everything.
The future we face will not be predictable, orderly, and sensible; it will be disorderly.
4) A disorderly future
I think it is very likely is that some places will race ahead of others towards more rugged and safer zero carbon communities. Places (and climate always affects place) that have the luck of geography, high wealth, quality governance and access to innovation will be much better positioned to respond than places without these resources. But it will be messy, with outcomes unevenly distributed, a future that Alex Steffen calls ‘spiky’.
An orderly and well planned transition is far less likely now, if not impossible. As change comes, it will not come evenly or even fairly. Those communities, cities and states that do respond well will understand that speed is now everything. Every moment of delay makes some places harder to protect and needed change more costly and difficult.
Yet, delay seems built into our civic and governance processes. The usual approach to change, say in a corporation, government, or community, is to bring together all interested parties to discuss the problem and agree on a solution. The best decision making is inclusive, democratic, just. And usually incremental; small changes that show we are doing the ‘right thing’.
While desirable, this often simply delays desperately needed change. It is how fossil fuel companies have delayed critical action on climate change for decades; slow down, don’t be hasty, we need more research, we need consensus.
It is not just the bad actors. I know this from my professional life; forming committees, not being able to act until we have agreement. And even then, moving incrementally. I don’t say this to criticise the people involved; often there is no easy alternative. Indeed, this is how I have been been trained to think. But these well understood ways of change making are simply not up to the task when speed is everything.
Even the promise of a WWII type mobilisation for climate and ecological change has not happened and is unlikely to happen at anywhere near the scale or urgency needed. I would love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be.
This is worrying for many people, who like myself, have banked on rapid organised action to create the change needed. But it will not be ‘all together for the planet’.
5) We will not come together united
I am not optimistic we will see a world-wide (or any wide) shift to a global revolution or unified ‘people power’. Like many climate activists, my hope has been for some form of mass, inclusive and diverse climate movement that will shift the political culture and balance of power. This is something many people value and something worth fighting for.
This is not how I think the future will actually unfold.
The idea that all people have an interest in a climate-safe world seems obvious. But there are many other interests that work against communities ‘all coming together’ and agreeing on a course of action. This is where I believe climate activists like myself must temper our expectations in seeing this ‘united’ model as the only way forward. Collective action and cooperation will continue to be important. But I think this will only be part of the story.
It is just as likely that change will come from points of conflict. Those moments are crucial for driving positive change much faster than a consensus model, and speed is everything here. Winning the local renewable revolution, electrifying private and public transport, disrupting the food system and so on will involve conflict as well as cooperation. Not everyone will be on board but I no longer think this matters as much as I once did.
If united we will probably not stand, and the world becomes even more contested and fragmented, as I suspect it could, what happens to the change we desperately need? Even in the most contested of times this much is certain …
6) Massive change is now inevitable
When Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called climate change the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’, I think he was both right … and wrong. Right, because my generation has been systematically stealing the future from our children. But wrong because it inadvertently reduces climate change to a moral notion; climate action is something good people do.
Massive change is no longer an option we get to choose.
The climate crisis is much more than a moral challenge; it is an existential and material crisis for humans and many other species who rely on a stable climate. Because this crisis is one of storms, heat, fires and floods, massive change is no longer an option we get to choose. It is now an inherent part of this new world we have called into being.
This, I think, is not yet widely recognised.
Humans are not the only actors in this drama. The planet‘s life support and living systems are changing and responding to what we have already done. No-one, no human, is in control. We are all being carried along for the ride into a deeply uncertain future.
Political action is still really important. But I think this decade will see massive change despite or regardless of political action. Think about it this way.
The planet is responding ever more forcefully through deep droughts, increasingly dangerous heat, unmanageable forest fires and so on. People can often avoid a moral claim on their behaviour, but the material impact of the planet’s response is much more difficult to ignore. The planet’s voice will only get louder.
There is also another equation at work. Every delay to action is now more costly than action itself. I can’t think of a single scenario where more people are better off by delaying climate action than by acting at speed. The benefits of delaying the closure of coal mines or coal power plants for the sake of workers is orders of magnitude lower than the benefits of shutting them down and turbo-charging renewable energy production and storage.
Many more people benefit by fast action. This does not mean workers ought to be abandoned. A just transition should be fought for. But too often the focus is on the immediate costs of change rather than the costs of delay.
If we win slowly, we lose. Speed, tempo, is now a critical part a move to a low carbon world. Winning where we can, and fast, will accelerate even more change.
But one way or another, change will come, and sooner than most of us imagine …
7) The dam will burst this decade
The pressure for climate response is like a river of ideas, solutions and opportunities building up behind a dam of delay. A small number of people whose interests are served by slow change are actively trying to hold back this flood. It may feel like they are winning. Indeed, they keep working to reinforce the dam, repair holes and stem the leaks. But the pressure building behind the dam is ultimately impossible to stop. As growing storms, escalating costs and material dangers increase, the pressure for rapid change will prove simply unstoppable.
Those rightly frustrated with the lack of serious climate response can take some comfort from this. Because of predatory delay there is now enormous pent-up energy for change. The unsustainable cannot be sustained forever; it will collapse. We are not far away from seeing this with coal, despite the recent spike in prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Short term spikes are not medium term trends. The trend is what to watch.
This built up pressure for change is not just from the bad stuff; there are enormous benefits and opportunities for communities, businesses, and governments from lowering emissions, building green and rugged infrastructure, creating new technologies and innovative social programs. The financial, lifestyle and security benefits are huge for those with the foresight to lead. This adds to the pressure behind the dam for rapid change.
The pressure from the planet, the benefits of fast action and the opportunities which are already well understood in the investment and business community are creating extraordinary pressure for massive and rapid change. This pressure for change is already in the climate, ecological, economic and social system and the dam holding it back is about to burst. Not evenly, not everywhere all at once, but burst it will, unleashing enormous social and physical changes to the way we have been living our lives, including opportunities to create a better future.
Some of these changes will be positive, some not. Some communities will do relatively well and create a liveable future, if they act with speed and determination. Others will struggle and some will collapse as viable places to live.
More and more people will come to understand how much the world has changed.
8) Living in the long emergency
There are different views of what lies ahead. One is a belief (or at least hope) for the continuation of our current lives but in a more sustainable way. Another is collapse; if we can’t maintain a version of the status quo, then the only alternative will be a world-wide social collapse, a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’.
Neither of these to me is convincing nor adequately captures this moment. The first I think is simply untrue; we can’t return to the world before crazy heat waves, the summers of fire and floods. But I also think it is unlikely that our species will collapse and disappear (even if the Zombie apocalypse makes for a great TV series).
This is not to say all will be ok. The risks from planetary disruption are deadly serious and the events stoked by this heating world will, tragically, cause much suffering for many and for some, premature death. Some places, even now, will not be able to be saved.
The future will be very messy.
It is more likely that different communities and places will have quite different options, experiences and outcomes, depending on the luck they have, the resources available and the choices they make. But even good choices, with poor resources and bad luck, may not be enough.
This is not an abstract question. How safe will I, my family and those I care about be? The answer mostly depends on where you live. It depends on place.
Think about direct impacts. My apartment and suburb are very safe from rising oceans and river flooding. My city, however, is vulnerable to catastrophic heat waves and dangerous smoke pollution from bushfires. It is a mixed bag. But there are many other impacts, including on mental health, financial security and political resilience.
Places that experience less dangerous heat, have plenty of fresh water, good governance, rugged infrastructure, innovative planning and are wealthy will do better than those who lack these bare essentials.
If we want a decent shot at surviving for more than a generation or two, then we need to get serious about living in the long and dangerous emergency. This means having a serious conversation about preparing today for our own safety, the safety of our families, community, region, and nation.
And for some of us, thinking about this globally.
I will write more on this in another essay, but for now, one final suggestion.
8) Find your Tribe
Finding your tribe, those people and communities with which to build your personal, local and regional future, working with what you have got, is the best strategy most of us have to create a safer future.
We all need a diverse community of big hearted and courageous people to help us together figure out how to make our lives safer. I am not talking here about some sort of righteous tribalism; we need diversity rather than exclusivity, openness rather than certainty. My point is that now, more than ever, we need people around us, even if it is not everyone. Start with what we have got and work on building a safer place.
Climate action is still important, including protests and political mobilisation. But I increasingly think we must turn the dial to recognise the time we are in and prepare.
Our broad denial of the planetary crisis has left us ill-prepared for the world we have made. The challenge now is to understand that massive change is coming. Building a safer future requires understanding the risks we face in our place, where we actually live.
Doing this makes the climate crisis real.
It pays not to be complacent. While parts of the developing world will experience many of the worst impacts, Australia, the rich country where I live, is one of the places most exposed to severe climate shocks. We face this not just as the generalised ‘we’, but as individuals, as a households, as communities, as towns or cities. Climate related disasters always happen in actual places to actual people. We need to be ready and prepared to live in the long emergency where storms, floods and fires continually reshape and challenge our lives, homes and security. The global Covid pandemic has given all of us a taste of what living in a different world feels like.
The future costs of dealing with the planetary crises are now inescapable. The best we can do is to roll up our sleeves and start seriously investing in the future because every month we hold off, the greater the cost and the more difficult it is to create a safer tomorrow.
One final reflection is important: while we face massive change and dangers, there are also enormous opportunities, something I think I have been slow to understand. The possibility to build rugged and genuinely sustainable societies is still very much alive. Understanding what this could look like gives us a chance to start building it.
(This is the first in a series on ‘Living in the long emergency’. If you like this piece, please add some ‘claps’ (Medium’s version of likes); you can add up to 50. This helps the algorithm, and who doesn’t like a good algorithm!)
While a lot of these ideas have been intuitions I have had for some time, the hugely insightful work of writer Alex Steffen has provided some of the language that has helped make sense of this; sometimes that ‘ah ha’ moment, when a phrase suddenly brings together a previous murky tangle of ideas. I highly recommend you check out https://alexsteffen.substack.com/ and if you find it helpful, subscribe to the podcasts. I am indebted to his original thinking and the interactions I have had at his on-line discussions.