Can humanity solve climate change, and if so, how?

by Bernice Maxton-Lee

It’s a few seconds to midnight, and the climate clock is ticking. Some say it’s already too late to stop climate change, that no matter what we do now, the emissions already in the system have kicked off chain reactions that will take us to 450 parts per million (ppm). That’s the tipping point of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that will trigger runaway climate change. That means Game Over.

Patrick Chappatte (There’s no way back | Chappatte.com)

But if you aren’t ready to give up all hope, buy a Ferrari, and party like it’s 1913, what kind of solutions might actually help? What can humanity do, in the scant 8-10 years left to prevent runaway climate change?

Here are some brief ideas, which are discussed more at length here and here.

  1. The approach needs to be radical, but also simple enough (without being simplistic) that people can get behind it.
  2. It needs to address the whole system, not individual elements of it.
  3. It needs to strike at the heart of the problem: fossil fuel combustion.
  4. It needs to take care of the human realities: first and foremost, livelihoods.

Radical but simple: think ‘fish and loaves’

Innovative ideas like bitcoin for Brazilian coffee farmers sound sexy, but extends the complexity way beyond what is helpful or necessary. But working out how to scale up a fossil free energy source for German farmers, who are deeply dependent on vast amounts of diesel to plough, seed, fertilize and harvest their fields, take animals to market, anesthetize the animals before slaughter, process the meat…. that’s an immediate fossil-based problem that needs a solution. It also needs governments to support farmers while they make those expensive and uncertain transitions. Funky financing and new currencies won’t solve climate change, and they also aren’t necessary. There’s plenty of money out there – we just need to change our ideas about who gets it, and how. You don’t divide up a cake by hiring a private equity manager. Jesus didn’t have bitcoin, but I’m told those fish and loaves got shared out just fine.

Think of the whole system

What if I ride my bike to work? Or stop using plastic bags? How about solving deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil? It’s true that many tiny trickles, coming together, make a deluge. But if dams, and destruction, and extraction are allowed to go unchecked, those tiny trickles dry up before they have a chance to grow. That’s the problem with putting too much focus on individual elements of the global system, while ignoring the phenomenal weight on the other side of the ecological scales. And while all those individual elements are important, they are tiny in comparison to the megalithic industrial activities of energy production, global transportation, or construction.

Strike at the heart of the problem

What about offsetting carbon emissions? This is the idea that planting trees, increasing wetlands, or reducing emissions in one area, can essentially buy credits somewhere else, balancing out the global carbon budget. But like many supposed solutions cooked up by economists to problems of physics, the maths doesn’t add up. Global construction is a fossil fuel nightmare – all that concrete, steel, and glass produce terrifyingly large volumes of greenhouse gases. Cement, iron, and steel produced 10% of global emissions all on their own in 2016. Manufacturing and construction added in another 12% of total global emissions. No amount of offsetting can negate those carbon emissions – and remember we have 8-10 years to reduce emissions by 60%, and 18-20 years to come to a full stop.

Take care of the human realities

So should we be heading down to the Ferrari dealership, or lying in a darkened room, waiting for the end to come? It’s tempting at times to feel despair, but there is still hope – if we stop wasting energy and empathy on ‘solutions’ that will only delay our dwindling chances of success. We don’t need to reinvent finance, or relocate to Mars, or help some cool start-ups invent an app-based carbon neutralizer that will allow us all to go on burning fossil fuels and poisoning the biosphere. We need to face reality, and start making fundamental changes to our societies, economies, political structures, and ultimately our value-systems. That sounds like a lot, but it starts at the basic level of livelihoods. And that needs to start with humanity – seeing people not as expendable economic inputs, but, well, as humans.

And from a position of humanity and of empathy for the biosphere, basic solutions need to be found to shut down construction and all the sectors and functions that feed into it, from low-cost labourers on building sites in Indonesia, to fabulously well-paid executives in powerful cement companies in Switzerland. Oil and gas extraction, processing, and combustion needs to stop, completely. Manufacturing of short-life consumer products, the kind that are designed to break or become obsolete within a few years, must stop. All the people who work in those sectors will need financial and emotional support, and alternative positions that make them feel okay about their lives.

None of this needs to happen through the market. Actually, it cannot happen through the market, just like a fox cannot run a care home for senior chickens. The market is geared to maximise profit. Trying to change that incentive to make it more responsible, with all the powerful vested interests that don’t want it to change, will take far longer than the 8-10 years we have to stop atmospheric carbon emissions reaching 450ppm.

It does not require 7.7 billion consumers to consciously buy-in as informed decision-makers. Most ‘ordinary’ people are too busy and distracted just trying to get on with their lives, make a living, stay alive in many cases, and get through every day in one piece with a little dignity. If solutions can be created that don’t seem to add complexity or burden, or require them to make informed decisions, that support them in those lives they’re trying to live, that will make for a smoother and more successful transition. It would require a small number of very determined, visionary change-makers who fully understand the problem and who are not motivated by financial profit.

This will sound terrifyingly Marxist to those raised in the post-1980s free market world. More terrifying, even, than a world of wildfires, killer heatwaves, and regular pandemics? Is it more terrifying than melting ice caps, disappearing winters, droughts in the tropics, wave after wave of migration, and water wars? Perhaps. We will see. The jury is out.

The specific steps needed to cut emissions. What societies need to do (www.graememaxton.com)

What different groups should do: How to save the world – To Do List (www.graememaxton.com)

Bernice Maxton-Lee is co-author of A Chicken Can’t Lay a Duck Egg: How Covid-19 can solve the climate crisis and author of Forest Conservation and Sustainability in Indonesia: A Political Economy Study of International Governance Failure.

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