In the last couple of months we have seen some alarming research outcomes on the effects of climate change and the likely paths we are headed towards in the near future. These reports include the IPCC 1.5 °C report, the UNEP emissions gap report and the global carbon budget report for 2018 which highlighted an emission rise of 2.7% hitting a record high for global emissions. Despite the scientific evidence, political urgency is still lacking to tackle a global problem that could have catastrophic impacts on life on earth. This inaction is causing an increasing number of what experts call climate grief; depression and anxiety over climate change especially among young people who are losing hope for their future. Contrary to what is needed, we still see a dilution of the intensity of this problem when communicated with policymakers.
There is definitely a need to be more politically appealing when communicating such bleak research outcomes with policymakers, but it is a moral duty towards the public to communicate the truth clearly. Especially that the climate change problem is not just an environmental disaster, it’s a problem that will and is causing massive inequalities, will potentially raise conflicts and weaken societies. Whether we reduce emissions or not the global average temperatures will rise and climate change impacts will become evident due to our historic emissions. If we remain on the current emission paths, the climate is expected to warm at least 4°C by 2100. With an increase in temperature of this magnitude, humans will be beyond the limits of adaptation while our ecological systems will be on the verge of collapse.
Institutional and technical reliance
Global problems require global binding solutions, however, what has been offered so far in terms of solutions are all weak and temporary fixes to a persisting problem. On the institutional side, the outcome of the latest conference of parties (COP) in Katowice has shown that the amount of progress made does not match the leap required to avoid an irreversible problem of this size as global politics is still focused on economic growth and global competitiveness. COP is definitely a useful tool, but it seems that its full potential is yet to be unleashed. On the other hand, technical solutions are led by ethical, green and sustainable products that are supposed to solve our crisis. The products that are manufactured in the same factories and using the same mechanisms and sold in the same markets that created the problem in the first place. This is not to say we should not improve the supply chains of the products we buy, but we should not expect greener products to solve our problems. Focusing on what we consume instead of how much is a common yet mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. As George Monbiot mentioned before “Regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems.”
“We are gambling with life on earth through our reluctance to take serious steps, while governments and corporations are shifting their responsibilities to citizens adding to their burden and asking them for more responsible consumption while in fact most of those citizens are fighting for their basic needs of food shelter, healthcare and education.” — Moustafa Bayoumi
Those weak fixes also include carbon trading schemes that have proved inefficient in addition to reliance on future geoengineering solutions including negative emission technologies such as carbon capture and storage. There is yet a need to research and heavily invest in these technologies. But there is a substantial difference between relying on them instead of using them to complement our solutions. Kevin Anderson, one of the world’s leading climate scientists mentions “We are asking our children to come up with this tech because we cannot be bothered to make changes in our lives today”. This inability to face the fact that we need to change the way we are living is taking us to a technological gamble that has been pushed by “the institutional apparatus that is preventing effective climate action and reducing the urgency for structural change” in the words of Dr Gareth Dale of Brunel University.
Challenging the status quo
We are gambling with life on earth through our reluctance to take serious steps, while governments and corporations are shifting their responsibilities to citizens adding to their burden and asking them for more responsible consumption while in fact most of those citizens are fighting for their basic needs of food shelter, healthcare and education. Governments should instead work on regulations for multinational companies. On the other hand, individuals have another role to play to prevent climate disaster, that is political engagement. The ancient Greeks were prophetic when they called a person who is not politically engaged Idiotes, our modern-day idiot. And the truth is we have all become idiots in our societies, leaving decisions influencing our future in the hands of a few ‘experts’.
There is a need to challenge the current socio-political structures that have created tax havens, excessive corporate power and complex financial systems that deforest, overfish, etc. We must rethink the systems we have in place such as subsidies that support high polluting industries. The systems that consider the environment as an externality, making flying cheaper than ever and making it unaffordable to have a sustainable diet. These systems are not only pushing us over global carbon limits but also creating massive inequalities that Joseph Stiglitz criticized European agriculture subsidies arguing that it has made “better to be a cow in Europe than to be a poor person in a developing country”.
Have we become so ignorant that we value some people over others … or even worse, we value money over people?
It’s not too late
We have lost a large window to act upon the climate change problem which would have made our task much easier by now, however, it is not too late. We can still tackle the climate crisis. In order to do this, there is an urgent need to reorganize our human society. There is a need for debating and discussing the paths forward. A need to summon political courage and boost localisation. A need to stop burning fossil fuels and start internalising costs of emissions and pollution. A need to find happiness in experiences instead of consumption. A shift from a linear to a circular and sharing economy. An aim of growing natural and cultural wealth while using wellbeing as an indicator of the state of society. A need for citizen pressure for a rapid transition.
One takeaway from COP was to see the determination of the civil society and the youth to challenge the status quo and influence change. It might be late to fully avoid the consequences of climate change but there is still room to lessen the outcome and adapt to those changes. Our future lies in no one’s hands but ours. It is people power that will solve this crisis, and the time to act is now.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a student in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University. His background is in engineering and his experience working with large corporations attributes to his interest in climate change debates and the societal transitions needed for a sustainable future.