Such are the predictions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose most recent report details with terrifying precision what’s likely to happen if we keep burning planet-warming fossil fuels. Without “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the report reads, the planet is on track to warm beyond 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, thrusting us into a hotter, more dangerous, and less predictable world within several decades. Already in 2018, two major hurricanes have rocked the United States, and a typhoon left 127 dead in the Philippines. Disasters like these, which mostly hurt people who lack wealth and political power, are going to get worse.
Yet as the planet heats up, the U.S. government remains frozen. And Americans, raised in an oil-hungry society, are struggling to kick their fossil-fuel habit. While there’s been much effort to “green” individual behavior, experts say rousing people to slash emissions is more complicated than it seems.
Waging a personal war of attrition against emissions—like ditching beef or installing energy-efficient bulbs—can feel like important changes because they involve actions that sit within the narrow band of individual power. In the supermarket or at home, you’re the boss; you can buy tempeh or unplug your toaster.
“We have to entirely reframe our response to what’s going on.”
Yet even the most optimistic studies suggest that if every person on Earth switched to a plant-based diet, it would reduce agricultural emissions, which account for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, by 30 to 70 percent. That’s a lot, but it’s not enough.
At this point, to believe changing consumer habits alone will solve the problem isn’t just unrealistic, it’s delusional. And it’s also paralyzing.
“The whole culture of focusing exclusively on discrete actions and solutions is a strategy for dealing with feeling powerless,” says Renee Lertzman, an environmental psychologist and author of Environmental Melancholia. “It creates a solutions-based culture that actively works to discourage having other kinds of conversations, and amounts to a kind of disavowal and avoidance of the harder questions.”
You can dutifully shrink your carbon footprint—and should, Lertzman adds. But, for climate realists, there’s only one way to put the brakes on climate catastrophe: stop using fossil fuels. Everywhere. Forever. This means decarbonizing the global economy within 30 years, according to Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“We need a transformation of the global energy system,” Huq, a former IPCC author says. While consumer choices are important, the changes required to keep warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit will be “extremely drastic… and are not going to come from individual behavior change alone.”
Global markets and national policies will have to shift as well. One hundred companies, nearly all of them oil and gas firms, are responsible for more than 70 percent of carbon emissions. Investors are starting to see fossil fuels as a bad bet, but “policing companies and the markets has to come from governments, and these have to respond to the desires of the people,” Huq said. For him, this means people across the globe have to come together to demand total decarbonization, through measures like fossil-fuel divestment, and push aggressively for policies committed to this goal.
Of course, organizing to change corporate behavior and national policy is perhaps more difficult now than it’s ever been. Decades of neoliberal economic reforms have not only redistributed tremendous power and wealth to corporations, but they’ve also chipped away at people’s sense of collective agency. In countries like the United States, with weak public institutions and governments awash in private money, making greener consumer choices can seem like the only response to environmental decline.
“We have to entirely reframe our response to what’s going on,” Lertzman said. Changing consumer behavior is important, but “the point is to focus not just on behavior, but on what underlies it: meaning, values, the systems we’re embedded in.”
Seeing personal behavior as a silver bullet ignores another brutal fact: Whether we decarbonize or not, the future will be profoundly different, and many people will lose the ways of life they’ve come to expect and feel they deserve.
The problem of climate change, and the many human catastrophes it causes, is not just the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy. It is also the centrality of these fuels to the global market system and the lifestyles it supports. Whether you live in suburbs and drive to work or rely on Amazon for next-day deliveries, fossil fuels have leached into every aspect of modern life, formed our sense of what it means to live well, and constrained our ability to imagine new ways of living.
Solving the highly complex problem of climate change requires completely rethinking the way we live and advocating for a world that doesn’t rely on the unsustainable exploitation of nature and humans. At the personal level, this means participating in collective projects that guide local, national, and international policy toward total decarbonization.
The divestment movement on college campuses, the Standing Rock encampment, and the People’s Climate March are all examples of people taking action to wean the world off fossil fuels and imagine more just ways of organizing society. The enthusiasm is trickling up. Young candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abdul El-Sayed have backed proposals for a “Green New Deal” that would return energy production to public control, build clean transportation infrastructures, enact a green jobs guarantee, ban new oil and natural gas exploration, end fossil fuel subsidies, and cut fossil fuel use to zero within three decades. Such proposals are ambitious, but they begin from a realistic assessment of what full decarbonization would actually take.
If done successfully, changes in policy can make changes in personal behavior easier to pull off. As reporter Martin Lukacs wrote in The Guardian, everyone has to make choices to live more sustainably, “but individual choices will most count when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent or intrepid few.”
The IPCC’s latest predictions are dire, but they’re less a cry for despair than a call to take a realistic look at what climate change actually means. “The point about dire predictions is that they’re predictions with the implicit caveat that if we take action, then these need not happen,” Huq says.
Not all actions are created equal, though. Those that seem most doable can be the least realistic and reflect a wishful thinking of the climate change era: Maybe it won’t be as bad as they say, maybe the world as we know it can endure.