Climate Change Needs To Make More Sense
Mother Nature vs. Human Nature
Here we go folks, it’s time for…. climate change! A completely non-contentious topic where conversations vary from “Is the science clear?” to “What can I even do about it?” to “Why aren’t we doing more?”
As someone who is surrounded by liberal viewpoints and also believes that, indeed, the climate is warming, the fact that I have so many darn unanswered questions and conflicts should be telling about the situation we find ourselves in today.
Given how big a problem I think warming will be, I’ve been doing more and more reading on the issue itself and possible solutions. Unfortunately, the more I learn the harder it gets. The more information I gather the more it seems we’re talking about the wrong things.
Below is an attempt to summarize the central discrepancies, roads to nowhere, and fixes for the future that seem apparent thus far.
Everything we have is due to everything’s that’s happened
To set the stage a bit: the ways we entertain ourselves, the ways we eat, the buildings we live in, the ways we travel, the ways we shop, the things we can shop for – all of it is the culmination of hundreds of years of technological improvement. That progress is in some form or fashion based on fossil fuels. Could there have been some alternate timeline where oil wasn’t discovered and everything was based on something else? Sure, but that’s not what happened and here we are.
Now though, we’re all thinking “huh, we kind of put ourselves in a bind here didn’t we? Seems like how we live is making the very thing we’re living on less livable”. Turns out almost every single part of our lives involves fossil fuels that cause emissions that aren’t good. Petroleum is either used as a direct ingredient - rubber, medicine, fertilizer, plastic, and concrete to name a few - or as an indirect ingredient – if it needs heat or electricity to run, most of that power comes from oil.
You and I didn’t invent any of this, but we sure use all of it. I took a long hot shower yesterday. I then ordered a tube of toothpaste off Amazon that will arrive in a big box tomorrow. Later I threw out my Halloween costume, but not before cooking up a big juicy steak. I want what I want when I want it, and companies will continue to give it to me.
That’s the world we’re living in, and I have a hunch a lot of people are similar to me.
How bad is the problem? It’s hard to figure out.
Stop using goddamn Celsius! Can anyone please explain why the people who seemingly care the most about climate change keep talking in language that 300 million people can’t understand?
How on earth is anyone in the U.S., one of the biggest emitters, ever going to act upon climate change if people keep repeating “well the research is saying we have to keep it under 1.5°C or else we’re doomed.”
Here’s some PhD level math I had to do on my own to figure it all out:
1.5°C is 2.7°F
We’ve already gone up 1.1°C, which is ~2°F
We only have 0.72°F left until that 2.7°F mark
All of this is compared to the average global temperature in the pre-industrial period
Scientists can’t quite agree on what years “pre-industrial” should refer to, but working backwards from our current average temperature of 57°F, it was probably around 55°F
Americans don’t respond to Celsius, a 2° change sounds small, and 57°F sounds like sweater weather. Mother Earth needs a better marketing team.
What’s our current playbook?
This is where I’m the most confused about the messaging right now. Ever since the 1.5°C/2.7°F target came out, we hear updates every few years to tell us how terrible we’re doing. Ask yourself: will it be at all surprising when they come out in 10 years and say “we just blew right by 1.5°C and now we’re heading for 2!” We’ve been emitting more and more since 1800; are we magically going to unwind 220 years of civilization to get to *zero* emissions?
When Covid happened, Americans were forced to stop doing everything, and emissions fell 13%. Only 87% to go! And then after Covid we went right back to normal.
Adding to my skepticism that we have any shot is the toolkit we’ve been given thus far.
Like what about recycling? To create the plastic water bottle in your hands, oil had to be taken from the ground, then the oil had to be heated by a furnace (that was also run by oil), and then it had to be combined with other chemicals and formed into shape, all of which took machines that run on electricity which most likely came from oil. Let’s say we choose to recycle that water bottle. 90% of the damage has already been done, and turns out most recycling just gets burned because we don’t have the capability to recycle. We used to send it to China and they would dump it into the ocean, but they got tired of that. Given how expensive it is to correctly recycle, very few towns in the U.S. actually have the ability to recycle at all.
Planting trees is another high hope/low return proposition. Same with recycling clothes. Electric cars are much more climate friendly while you’re driving them (no emissions), but a ton of oil still went into making them (plastic, metals, batteries etc).
Aren’t we getting more sustainable though?
It feels more and more like “sustainability” is out there to make us feel good but doesn’t actually do much good. Doing something is doing better than nothing, but don’t we keep seeing that we need to do so much more than “something”, and that we need to do it quickly? Big Oil ad companies came up with the phrase “carbon footprint” to try and put the climate onus on individuals. Part of me thinks they had a hand in “sustainability” as well.
Even if we got to zero emissions right now, the planet would still keep changing as it adapts to the most recent few years of warming. We’re partially screwed now and we’ll be more screwed later.
Where does this bring us? The human species will find a way to adapt; it usually does. “When I was your age, people used to go to mountains and ski down them on snow!” “When I was your age, people actually lived near the equator.” Some changes will be inconvenient, others disastrous. We will change with them.
But selfishly, I want my world to stay the same. I actually want my childhood world back.
Don’t make me turn this car around.
Here’s where this keeps leading me to. If humans, and corporations run by humans, aren’t going to change in time, and all our small-ball tactics don’t move the needle, doesn’t that mean the only way to win is to take our emissions out of the atmosphere?
Yes, carbon removal is insanely expensive. But in terms of where to focus and where to spend dollars, it kind of feels like the only way we hit any of these goals we keep not hitting. Instead of mitigation, it’s reversal.
Either everyone stops eating meat, stops driving, stops building, stops flying, and stops using electricity, or we find a way to make sure none of those activities use any oil. Does that seem likely? If not, then we’re kind of in hail-mary mode.
So shouldn’t 90% of climate-related investment go towards something that doesn’t depend on human-behavior change?
We’ve been emitting for centuries and we’re going to continue to emit for decades more. We’re just used to it. We’ll get better and better, but let’s get going now on cleaning what we’ve sullied.
I have no idea what happens and how quickly it happens if you remove 50% of the carbon from the atmosphere. Do the ice caps immediately re-form? Does weather go back to “normal”? Or do we create an alternate 1985 like in Back to the Future 2? (Biff was such a big emitter).
I have so many more questions, but logically I haven’t been able to convince myself that reversal isn’t the only real solution we have. Time to keep learning.
P.S. My favorite book I’ve read on this so far? The Story of C02. Highly recommend.