Steffen M. Olsen’s infamous photograph on Twitter showing dramatic evidence of the loss of ice in more and more ecosystems once again highlights the importance of feedback cycles in trying to deal with the climate emergency: the record amounts of ice lost in Greenland, where the photograph was taken, in the glaciers of the Himalayas or in the Arctic, is not just about rising sea levels and the loss of habitable zones, but the release of vast quantities of methane trapped in the permafrost and the polar seabeds, which generates a more powerful greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
This kind of feedback loops, partly hidden in the alarming IPCC report published in October, show the emissions reduction targets set by most countries as a waste of time: continuing to operate coal power plants and allowing diesel and petrol vehicles on the roads until 2050 is pathetic and simply reflects the lip service governments are paying to dealing with the climate emergency. Declaring a climate emergency without taking effective measures while immediately approving the expansion of an oil pipeline exposes policies focused solely on marketing, greenwashing and that even the Pope is guilty of. Gestures are important, but they are not enough. Gestures won’t save us.
Because we are unable to prevent idiots like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro from destroying the planet, we’re just hastening disaster. António Guterres and the United Nations can try, but his recommendations are ignored by leaders intent on prolonging an unsustainable and highly damaging economic model. As long as the neoliberals refuse to accept the evidence, as though this were a game and an apology when the skies fall in would suffice, humanity is in immediate danger of extinction. Up to two-thirds of Britons want faster action on the climate emergency, but many of them are still too young to vote.
If we are to have any chance of survival, then we’re going to have to change our economic model. Technology can contribute to that change, it can meet the challenge: we’re the problem, we take too long to adopt new practices. Leaving change solely to the market would be irresponsibility on a colossal scale, but could still play a role: why are electric vehicles more expensive than their diesel or petrol counterparts? Because we have not forced the motor companies to abandon the internal combustion engine and we have not forced competitive dynamics to act as they should. Ireland, which is about to launch a bold plan to tackle the climate emergency, is banning the sale of new diesel and gasoline vehicles from 2030, in eleven years, which is still too late: it must be done before and it must be a total ban on all diesel and petrol vehicles. Meanwhile, other countries are planting trees, which is good, but nowhere near enough.
Technology can make a huge contribution: machine learning can be used to create energy efficiency and logistics models to better plan our needs. The development of electric, self-driving cars could replace shorter, domestic flights, convincing people not to fly if it can be avoided: by improving trains and cars we would simply fly less. Meanwhile, progress is being made in developing efficient electric aircrafts.
But above all, we have to understand that renewable energies, so reviled by the neoliberals, are already cheaper than fossil fuels, even without subsidies. Countries that understand this change will be in a position to play an important role in a new economic model where a sustainable system will generate more income and more jobs. The United Kingdom has already managed to generate more energy from clean energy sources: over the last decade, coal use has fallen from 30% to 3%, wind from 1% to 19%, and solar power has risen to the point of allowing the country to go for 14 days without burning coal. This is the way forward: now we have to speed up the process. Otherwise, humanity will be consigned to extinction, simply to save a few lousy, out-of-date industries.
From the moment feedback cycles come into play, we are entering unexplored territory and the consequences will always be worse than expected. Our only hope is transitioning to a new economic model with the right indicators, avoiding our irrational obsession with growth and setting a different goal: to save ourselves as a species. Any objective that deviates from this is a mistake we’ll pay dearly for.
(En español, aquí)