Climate Change: Addressing the Issue by Changing Tack

Reframing the Narrative to One of Fostering Resilience to the Impending Catastrophic Climate Change

words and photographs Christina De La Rocha

If he wasn’t the mega best-selling author that I have not managed to become — dare I say, yet — I’d say, poor Jonathan Franzen. Every time he opens his mouth, people go ballistic. The latest JF hatefest happened in the wake of his essay in the New Yorker which suggested that after 30 years of failing to stop gushing greenhouse gases despite knowing the dangers of doing so, we should stop telling ourselves the fairytale that we’re going to stop before it’s too late. Instead, we should switch mental gears and work on preparing ourselves for catastrophic climate change. Such reframing of the narrative might not only free us up to finally make progress, it would help us start building resiliency into our communities and political structures, our means of food production, and Earth’s ecosystems. That he’s right, is a point people seem to have missed. I guess it’s more fun to rage against someone who, whipping out his poetic license, conflated thought experiments — a tactic nobody ever Twitter-slapped Einstein for employing — with those rigorously constructed and even more rigorously tested iterative calculations that can be used to explore the behavior of the Earth’s climate system known as climate models.

So, as a former professor who used to teach and do research on the cycling of elements through the biogeosphere and its ties to climate but quit because why spend 60+ hours a week adding tidbits to a trove of human knowledge that might get shortly wiped out by civilization crashing, I’d like to report what Jonathan Franzen’s essay got exactly right.

First, he’s absolutely correct, given our track record, it is unlikely, verging on impossibile, that we will reduce our expulsions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere enough quickly enough to avoid extremely disruptive and destructive climate change. I’d like to add that, even worse, it’ll really start hitting us at exactly that point when we’ll be struggling to feed 11 billion people and the tens of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and other livestock and pets that we keep. The cry from the scientists really first went out in the 1980s and since then, the total amount of carbon dioxide — which we’re using here as a reasonable stand-in for all greenhouse gases — that we release into the atmosphere every year hasn’t decreased, but nearly doubled.

Annual Global Emissions vs Land-use change, Gas, Oil, Coal
Figure 1: Since the time scientists began loudly sounding the alarm about greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming, we haven’t reduced our emissions, but increased them from less than 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year to more than 40. Figure courtesy of Le Quéré et al (2018) The global carbon budget 2018. Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 10, 2141–2194. (This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.)

Part of that is because population has also nearly doubled, going from about 4.8 billion people in the mid-1980s to about 7.5 billion people now, bringing with it 3 billion more people who are consuming energy and releasing greenhouse gases. But part of it is because people tend to spend what money they have to spend, meaning that as the average person’s economic condition has improved, they’ve been buying more stuff, burning more fuel, using more electricity, and eating more animal products, all of which means they’re supporting the production of more greenhouse gases.

It also serves as a lesson in the limits of technology’s ability to save us. The great gains we’ve made in the energy efficiency of lighting, heating, and engines over the last three decades haven’t caused a comparable drop in per capita energy use. Because, people! What money we saved on energy bills, we spent spent buying more stuff, driving bigger, more gas-guzzling cars, and by plugging more stuff in. So the average person’s yearly release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has not decreased since the 1980s, despite the major gains in energy efficiency.

Global Annual CO2 Emissions per capita, 2000-17, USA dominates
Figure 2: Although there has been a slight decrease in average per capita release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere since 2000 in “rich” countries such as the USA and the countries of Europe, this has been almost exactly balanced by an increase in per capita energy consumption in rapidly up and coming countries like China and India and, to a far lesser degree, the rest of the world (RoW). Thus the average per capita release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere across the entire world has not decreased since the year 2000, but slightly increased. Figure courtesy of Le Quéré et al (2018) The global carbon budget 2018. Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 10, 2141–2194. (This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.)

Given these bare facts (and the others JF presented in his essay), we can keep dreaming of a world where we’re all carbon neutral, eating organically grown, mostly vegan meals, and powering our heating and homes with solar panels, but it would be stupid to bet the ranch on us getting there at all, much less in time to avoid more than the 1.5°C of global warming that will be dangerous enough.

His second point is also spot on: that does not give us carte blanche to say fuck it and go out and buy an SUV. We need to keep working toward carbon neutrality even if we won’t get there in time to avoid catastrophic climate change because every bit more greenhouse gas we add to the atmosphere continues to make the situation more dire.

You also can’t argue with his third main point, that the more we can prepare ourselves for catastrophic climate change and/or to strengthen the communities that we already have, the less likely it is for all hell and anarchy to break loose when the crunch comes. (Incidentally, this also makes economic sense, with a recent study suggesting that the world would net a nearly 400% return on investment of $1.8 trillion into storm and flooding warning systems; into building roads, buildings, and bridges better suited to the changes in climate; into switching farmers over to more heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties; into protecting mangrove swamps; and into protecting and preserving water supplies.)

I like to think of this approach as prepping for doomsday like an anti-prepper.

This is my new dream: What if we all woke up tomorrow morning and decided to spend our pre-climate catastrophe time, not only not just pretending it isn’t going to happen, but also not running off and building ourselves compounds in Montana stocked with water filters, guns, powdered eggs, and freeze-dried green beans or buying ourselves citizenship in New Zealand. What if we all woke up tomorrow instead all fired up to pull together and start working, right now, on creating a more beautiful, more sustainable, more climate-resilient world for all of us members of the Earth’s surface biofilm. Thus when climate change comes truly barreling down, we will have minimized its chances to destroy lives and property; drive hunger, famine, deaths to heat stress; and destroy what wildlife and wilderness (and corals! and pollinators!) we have left. 

I could at this point, leave you with a list of my suggestions for specific things that I think you could do, but I won’t. You are the person who lives where you live, has the skills that you have, and knows who you know. I’m sure if you’re interested in ‘heeding the call’ you have ideas already how you could work on fixing up your own life, your own community, or your own country to be more able to absorb the blows that climate change will dole out. Through your church or grassroots group, you may even already have great ideas for how to reach out a hand and help the parts of the world still reeling from the economic extractions of colonialism (etc) shore up their own shores. Because people are smart that way.

So I will end this instead with a paraphrase of a most beloved quote: the time has more than come for us to ask, not what the world can do for us, but what we can do for the world. Such generosity would, very strangely, all be in our own best interests.