The trouble is, you think you have time.
That phrase, attributed to the Buddha, was probably never said by him. But I find it extremely pertinent, especially now, with humanity having just crossed into the third decade of the 21st century and, somehow, still having failed to really learn from the past.
I remember, growing up in the ’80s, everything seemed hopeful. Being a kid is certainly a part of this, but it felt like we were moving forward. There were setbacks, of course. I vividly remember Challenger going up in flames and the invisible threat of Chernobyl. There was still the fear of an all-out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR, but by the end of the decade it seemed like the Cold War was finally ending. The world was uniting. The major ecological threat of the time was the ozone layer hole and we proved that we could solve these big problems when we united and sought solutions. Of course, there was already talk of global warming, but we knew that we would solve this too. It was just a matter of time.
Sadly, we were wrong. On both counts, as it seems. Following the record-breaking small and brief hole over the Antarctic of 2019, 2020 saw the widest and deepest ozone hole on record. Of course, we had other, more pressing issues to worry about, so few outside of the scientific community noticed. Our concerted efforts to replace ozone-depleting chemicals didn’t fail, but in our rush to declare ourselves victorious, we risk believing that the fight is over.
If our battle against the ozone layer hole was not as successful as we thought it was, how much less likely are we to succeed with promptly replacing something which has been the main driving force behind the industrial progress of the last 200 years?
And yet succeed we must.
We have just over ten years to tackle the climate crisis according to the UN. Or, rather, we did back in 2019. It’s 2021 now and 2020 would be the last year in which we could afford to increase our global greenhouse gas emissions. Well, the silver lining of the pandemic was that transportation on a global level was limited, so hopefully emissions would have decreased, right?
They did at first, but then by the end of the year they were back, stronger than ever. I don’t know how to put this more mildly: our boat is sinking and we’re throwing water overboard using a spoon. A teaspoon, at that.
The trouble is, you think we have time.
This overconfidence on the part of our political and financial leadership stems from the fact that technology is advancing rapidly. Surely, some new technology in the emerging carbon capture and storage field will solve all of our problems. It might. But we don’t know when and, worst of all, we can’t say how fast this “deus ex machina” some of us are counting on will be ready for action. Science and technology just don’t work that way. For example, new advances in physics have opened a window into what we thought unthinkable just a few years ago: the possibility of faster-than-light travel. It’s theoretically possible, some scientists claim. When? In a few centuries. Maybe.
Obviously, this is a radical technology with immense challenges. However, all new technologies take time to implement, improve upon and develop to their maximum potential. And anywhere along the line we might encounter serious setbacks or unforeseen complications which could render something which looks great on paper completely unworkable. The biggest running joke for those who follow technology closely is that nuclear fusion is always “20 years away”. Fusion will indeed solve all of our energy problems. When? In a few decades. Maybe.
In other words, semi-magical thinking will not solve our problem. Not this one. It’s simply too big and the consequences of failure are simply too terrible to ignore. The bottom line: rising sea levels and changing climate patterns can and will render big parts of the globe uninhabitable by humans. Scientists believe it will happen by the end of the century. However, it seems that the planet is warming faster than we thought. Regardless of when it happens, if we continue on our present course, the consequences will be catastrophic.
Cities will sink. Land will become unfarmable. Precious water supplies will be compromised. People will lose their homes to floods, uncontrollable fires and megastorms. They will freeze, starve, drown or be cooked alive in heatwaves.
No, not “they”. We.
You see, the single greatest challenge facing mankind in its entire history on this lovely, blue planet is not pandemics. It’s not the climate crisis either. It’s the fact that we need to turn “I” into “we”. “Them” into “us”. This is not some faraway problem which will make us sad for a moment, before we turn our attention to the latest celebrity scandal or superhero flick. This concerns us all. Even if we consider the place where we live to be “safe”, we should realize that there is no such thing as “safe” anymore. Even if it actually is for now, millions upon millions of people will lose their homes. Massive waves of immigration will be inevitable. Our chains of supply and demand will be disrupted. Production of goods will suffer. Food production will suffer. Water will become a precious commodity. Things which we take for granted will once again prove not to be so.
The pandemic, which illustrated this very point, was just a test run. What will follow in the next years and decades will dwarf all this so much, that people will look back at this weird, difficult time with wistfulness and think ”boy, I hope we could go back to considering COVID-19 to be a problem”.
It’s not a joke. It’s not an exaggeration. It is already happening. With each year new temperature and precipitation records are broken. Storms and typhoons keep getting larger and more frequent. Floods, wildfires and droughts of increasing severity are already destroying people’s livelihoods and claiming lives. Natural disasters which were unheard of in many parts of the world are rapidly becoming the new reality. We will get to a point that such disasters will be so frequent and brutal that there will be no time to properly restore damaged infrastructure. Insurance companies will stop covering “natural disasters”, because it will no longer be viable to do so. Our standard of living will deteriorate across the board.
The worst of it is that we are unable to predict how fast these changes will be. Already, some areas of the planet seem to be warming faster than expected. The seas even more so. We don’t know what the tipping point is. And by the time we find out, it will be too late.
Today, we are living in the hottest conditions in our history as a species. Should we push our luck even further? Is it worth it?
Imagine that we are sitting round a poker table. We’ve just sat a few minutes ago, actually, and we barely know the other players. However, we’re on a roll and we keep raising the stakes. So far, we’ve been lucky, and we’re riding the wave. But eventually our luck will run out. The stakes now are too high: our very home. We don’t really know how our opponents will react. But, you see, unlike a conventional, high-stakes poker player who can find a smaller place, rent or crash at a friend’s, we have no other option. There isn’t anywhere else to live. If our home becomes unlivable, we will just die. Obviously, it’s not worth it. It’s time to cash in on our meteoric progress and go sustainable. Not in 2050. As fast as we possibly can. Faster than that, even.
If we don’t, not all of us will die at once, of course. Nor will it be fast. Over a span of decades massive waves of climate immigration, which will dwarf anything we have ever seen, will put additional stress to our steadily dwindling food supply and our shrinking economies, which will already be suffering under the consequences of the runaway climate crisis. Migration and dwindling resources will combine to cause ever increasing political upheaval. Demagogues and fascists will take advantage of this, as they’ve always have done historically. The signs are already here.
This combination of factors will hit harder than we can imagine. Does this seem like fearmongering to you? Then think about how our reality today seemed unthinkable just two short years ago. Would you have believed anyone if they told you then how we’d be living today? I wouldn’t either.
The inevitable pressures put on us by those without as well as increasingly frequent natural disasters will put our entire civilization in danger of collapse. History has repeatedly taught us this lesson: when a civilization overextends itself, its population grows uncontrollably and it places its own habitat under stress, any serious environmental challenge can have dire, often fatal consequences. And what are we doing about all this?
At this very moment, the planet’s superpowers are considering how best to update their nuclear arsenals, instead of how best to invest in protecting our shared home. Update and modernize, not decommission and repurpose. It seems like the ’80s again, only less hopeful, as instead of coming together, we seem to be moving further apart every day. Moving back instead of forward seems to me absurd, was a great line from one of my favourite songs of that time. We should know better by now.
And yet, we are arming ourselves against each other, rather than focusing and investing on our collective survival. Apparently, we still think that our worst enemies are “the others”, instead of ourselves. Instead of realizing that on this, our only home, we live or we die, together.
That’s not to say that we can’t change.
The trouble is, we think we have time.