If you’re unsure of your purpose in the fight against climate change, or want to find out where and how everyone else fits in, this guide is for you.
What drives us to do great things? Purpose. It’s a fundamental need. If you’re a barista at Tesla, do you know how you’re accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy? We understand how important this is. We try to design companies around this. It’s surprising to me, then, that we don’t ask this question more often in one of the biggest problems we face today… what’s your purpose in the fight against climate change?
If you’re wondering when you signed up to fix this problem, you were enlisted the moment you were born. Of course, that doesn’t mean your role can’t be that of a detractor. I hope it isn’t, and if it is, I want to show you how that fits in, too.
Let’s start with the problem. We will figure out a few principles to model the solution on, then come up with a model for change, and then choose which part we want to accelerate.
Greenhouse emissions aren’t just about electricity and fossil fuels. There’s so much more to it. The way we produce electricity is 25% of the problem. The remaining 75%? Agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, air conditioning in buildings and a few more small sources. Stopping climate change means attacking all of them, not just electricity.
That means taking on McDonalds, every butcher and beef farm in the world, and Shell, Total, BP, Exxon, and all other oil, natural gas and coal mining companies, electric distribution companies like EDF, Enel, and also every construction company, every concrete producer, and every industry that depends on them. More than that, it means winning.
If that’s not worrying enough, we are also going against human nature. Without getting to net zero emissions by 2050, we’ll be on track to raise the global average by 2 degrees celsius. This may not sound like much, but that’s the tyranny of the average – it hides the extremes. When the entire temperature bell curve moves to the right, those on the extreme ends find deadly heat waves and melting ice sheets. At just 2 degrees, the entire coral reefs of the world will die, leading to a massive disruption of the ocean ecosystem.
There is no external enemy. There’s no asteroid coming at us, There’s no expanding sun yet, forcing all nations to work together. We are the enemy. It’s difficult to get fired up for a cause when you’re on the wrong side of it.
Before we get to the nitty gritty of how to stop this change, let’s build up intuition for what climate change is and how it occurs.
Intuition for climate change
There are 3 main principles:
Greenhouse gases trap heat on Earth and make it warmer. These include CO2, CH4, N2O: Carbon dioxide, Methane, Nitrous oxide, and a few others.
The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the faster Earth heats up.
The higher the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the more they accumulate in the atmosphere.
Right now, we are at net positive emissions. Every year, we add more CO2 to the atmosphere. Even if we reach net zero emissions by 2050, we’ll keep adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for 30 years. Thus, we’ll keep increasing the rate of heating. Even in 2050, the planet will continue heating up – faster than today, but at net zero, the rate will stabilise.
Imagine a car on a super long path that ends in a cliff. We are pushing this car harder and harder, which makes the car keep going faster and faster. We will continue pushing for 30 years, and when we stop, the car will continue going at its current speed. This roughly translates to the car falling off the cliff. It doesn’t matter how long the path is, we will get to the cliff.
What we also need is a method to brake the car so we can slow it down after we stop pushing. In greenhouse gases terms, this means negative emissions. We’ll need to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gases in the air. The consequences of failure are severe. Droughts, floods, displacement of people, less available land for growing food, starvation, and a lot more covered in great detail on the internet.
So, what can we do about climate change?
1. Learn from the past
Before designing our feedback loops, we ought to learn where we succeeded and failed in the past. There are 2 prime examples we can learn from.
- Montreal Protocol, or the fight against the Ozone Hole.
- The failure to stop climate change in the 1980s.
2. Building awareness
What happens if this year the temperatures were cooler than usual? Like the dinner guest who says that smoking doesn’t really kill, because some great-grandfather and grandmother of his smoked and lived to 110. Similarly, Trump and others think that global warming is fake because the weather today, or this year was colder.
With climate change, we only have to worry about the too-hot side. We probably won’t be able to open the cold-faucet, barring some amazing innovation. All our focus now ought to be on reducing the hot-water-tap as much as we can.
Another misconception to tackle is that reducing emissions is going to hurt economic and social growth, which is the prime measure on which politicians are judged today. Given all the co-benefits that come with reducing emissions, the net cost might become zero.
When it comes to generating awareness, we are in a sweet spot today. It isn’t the government, or just a few powerful companies that control the media. Thanks to our social platforms, everyone can have a voice and reach a lot of people – climate change activists and detractors alike.
Now, let’s get into specific causes – after all just saying people need to be aware isn’t enough. I got to put everything together in an easy to consume package, too!
3. Things to be aware of
Trees, or forests, are great. They are a natural braking system for our metaphorical car. Via a process called carbon sequestration, they remove CO2 from the air. Photosynthesis takes in carbon dioxide and sunlight, stores the carbon in the bark, leaves, and roots (as cellulose) and gives out O2.
Planting trees seems to be the most straightforward way to combat climate change. However, we might be heading in the wrong direction – with rampant deforestation, especially in Brazil. When we burn wood (trees), we release all the CO2 they captured throughout their entire lifetime back into the air.
The overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture. We clear out forests to make space to grow crops and create grazing grounds for cattle.
How does me eating beef today result in a hotter Earth tomorrow?
Mass-produced grain-fed cattle need space, as well as grains. Thus, deforestation. That’s strike one: The process of creating meat leads to deforestation.
Then, come the cows themselves. They fart. A lot. One cow might not make much of a difference, but the 1.5 billion cows farting everyday is a lot. All this farting releases lots of methane into the air, which is a greenhouse gas. That’s strike two.
Strike three? There’s none yet, but I think plant based meats will be strike 3. They don’t fart, and don’t require clearing out large areas of land.
One car, one person vs one full airplane travelling the same distance. What causes more emissions per person?
In this case, it’s the car. But get more people in the car, and your emissions per person plummet. Further, we have alternatives to cars running on petroleum or diesel: electric cars. Electric cars reduce the footprint to almost zero, provided the electricity is green.
What’s worrying is that there’s no alternative yet to ships and planes. And on the whole, ships and planes account for 50% of transport emissions. Cars share will shrink more, but we have no game plan for planes and ships.
Our buildings need concrete, and producing concrete releases CO2.
The carbon footprint is a measure of total emissions of a person, an object (like airplanes), or a company.
For things you need and don’t have renewable alternatives (like airplanes), you can offset your emissions by paying a company to plant trees, funding solar research, or something similar.
4. Long term thinking requires a concerted effort
Short term thinking is an evolutionary instinct. People trying to get food on the table tomorrow don’t give a damn about climate change 10 years from now. We can’t stop these people burning wood for fuel. Not unless we have an alternative. There’s no moral high ground here – morality doesn’t come into the picture unless your basic needs are met.
It’s partly cultural, partly human nature. And given our human nature has focused on short term results and hyperbolic discounting, we have designed (or evolved) our culture to reinforce that. Businesses move in quarterly cycles and earnings. Policy makers focus on 4 year terms. Some people and organisations get it. They engineer themselves to go long. They build a culture around long-term benefits. They flourish.
A big part of fostering long term thinking is getting the incentives right. If it’s ingrained in the culture, even better.
For the not-so-average person who understands and can think somewhat long term, awareness suffices. “If we don’t do something about climate change, we might die, and our children definitely will die.” That’s a pretty strong incentive to do something about it.
Things get tricky when we get to companies and governments, which are detached from the people who work there. For them, the directive, like human beings, is to survive and prosper. The catch? Survive and prosper as long as I, the leader, am in power. This is usually 4 years in government, and for companies, can be up to 10 years.
In Politics, our 4/5 year political cycles aren’t enough to stop climate change. We’ve learned this from our failure in the 1980s. Problems on a 10 year time scale are problems for the next leader. Then it becomes a “10 year timescale” for the next leader, too. We keep extending this because there’s no hard 10 year rule. Temperatures are already up 1 degree from pre-industrial levels. We’ve somewhat acclimatised. We are like the boiling frog.
The Boiling Frog: If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
For policy makers, this role falls to the media and us, as individual citizens. Theoretically, they are our representatives. They represent our wishes. They have the most power to design incentives for companies and utilities that raise emissions: Using the law, and economic policies.
Policies work in two ways: subsidies and taxes. Subsidies are the carrot – they decrease the cost of something.
Taxes are the stick – they increase the cost of something.
A subsidy of 10$ per barrel on oil means that for every barrel a company sells for 100$, the customer only pays 90$ and the 10$ comes from the government. This encourages consumption of oil, as it’s relatively cheap for the consumer. Where does the government get this money from? Taxes!
Just like income tax, there are taxes on certain goods. A 10% tax (or duty) on a barrel of oil means that for a 100$ barrel, the consumer has to pay 110$. This discourages consumption, as the barrel gets more expensive. If you’re thinking this isn’t significant – plastic bag usage in the UK dropped 86% when the cost rose from 0 to 5 pence (6 cents).
Right now, we have subsidies of over $1 trillion for fossil fuels. This is insane. No wonder it promotes behaviour in the wrong direction? However, at the same time, there are some subsidies for renewable energy like solar and wind too. Subsidies can help a lot.
Tax what you want to punish, subsidise what you want to promote. If that’s not happening, it’s probably because it’s not what people want, or the wrong leaders are elected, or the companies with vested interest hold too much political power, or what you want is in the minority. That’s again why awareness is so important.
The iron law of markets is that if renewables become consistently cheaper and more dependable than fossil fuels, the entire world will move towards them. We can do this by making fossil fuels more expensive via carbon taxes, or making renewables cheaper via innovation and subsidies. These incentives are ones that come from the supply side. Every tax, be it a carbon, beef, or a deforestation tax attacks this side. Same for subsidies.
Then, there’s consumers on the demand side (you and I). Aware citizens boycott dirty fuels and dirty meat. Aware citizens demand their companies to do the same. Aware citizens stop contracting with companies that aren’t sustainable. Aware company leaders direct their companies to do the same. It’s renormalisation on the global scale.
5. Fostering innovation
Not only do we need to get to net zero, but we need to go negative: Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Incentives to foster innovation will help with the transition plus create new kinds of brakes to stop our car from falling off the cliff.
Innovations need money though. Private money is easier: All you need is one wealthy person who believes in saving the world. This is how Bill Gates decided to fight climate change, via The Bill Gates foundation. Public money is tougher: You need leaders to assign a big enough budget for innovations. This won’t happen if they believe the problem is a hoax. We still want public money though – it’s an order of magnitude greater than private money.
It’s like we’re going to space again. Funding NASA brought about 2,000 other innovations like LASIK, ear implants and artificial limbs. What’s the climate change fight going to uncover?
Some innovations include:
Innovations in renewables
This is probably where we’re doing the best. The cheaper and more efficient solar and wind get, the more people adopt them.
Innovations in meat
Lab grown alternatives, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are a big thing because it’s a win for the environment. No cows for beef means no excess methane nor deforestation to create grazing grounds.
Innovations in building materials
Remember we still have to tackle concrete? Say hello to bioplastics and new composite materials. They may prove to be stronger and cheaper than concrete.
All these ideas (and 100s more) require smart people like you and I, as well as funding to find a solution.
6. The feedback loop
With all these components in mind, our feedback loop comes together. We build awareness, which elects political leaders aligned with the fight, who foster green innovation and drive more awareness, and pass laws that make it hard for companies and people to thrive while polluting. Given the awareness, we judge these leaders over a longer term, with meaningful metrics, like % reduction in emissions.
The policies to drive more awareness get more people aligned to the cause, which stabilises the leaders in power, as long as they are working towards the goal. We stop falling for party tricks like “a cold-winter is proof of no global warming” and do our part for the world, too.
At the same time, the detractors fund their own research about how climate change is fake. Driven by profit, some companies with vested interest in oil and gas may do the same. And they, too, shall try and convert people to their side. Don’t believe in climate change, here drive this new car, it’s a sweet guzzler.
However, these loops are still confined to the country level. Remember, we’re gearing for the global optimum.
This is where the Paris Agreement comes in. It’s a measurement of who’s in front, and who’s last on the emissions scale. It’s a global leaderboard. Taking a page from school classrooms and social networks: We are status-seeking, and want to rank first on the leaderboards. So do we as countries.
The agreement turns this into a competition. All it asks is for countries to report their emissions, similar to the TCFD. Once we have this leaderboard, we can do lots of interesting things, like penalising countries not doing anything about their emissions, and helping out countries that need support.
The most important part is reaching critical mass — building up enough energy to reach activation. I don’t know the exact number, but there’s no harm in overshooting it. Oh, how I wish we could overshoot the number of people aware about the urgency of climate change. The Extinction Rebellion, a socio-political movement that fits this model well — considers the activation energy as involvement of 3.5% of the population. That’s about 2 million people in the UK. Can we reach it?
With this guide, you know more about the current state of things than the average person.
- You know how eating mass-produced beef “causes” climate change.
- You know how cars and airplanes pollute. You know that we don’t have a clean energy alternative in sight for airplanes and ships.
- You know we are still pushing our metaphorical car faster, when we ought to start braking.
- You know now what it will take to get there.
Everything you do affects this feedback loop. That’s the essence of the feedback. It changes as you change.
When you don’t tell your friend about how beef is bad for the environment, you’re removing one extra obstacle from the demand side, which lets the beef industry thrive a bit longer. When you vote for someone who doesn’t care about the environment, you’re telling the world it’s okay in my country, or my state. You’re falling for the short term game, and hindering the world to move towards a sustainable future.
Given enough small steps, we can get to a future none of us can imagine, because we can’t imagine compounding. We end up over-estimating in the short term and under-estimating in the long term. Perhaps that’s why the long term goal sounds almost impossible to me, while the things I can do today seem possible!
And of course, personal behaviour isn’t all we need to change. We can do more. We can insert ourselves into any part of the loop and accelerate it further.
This might be a common civilization test before The Great Filter. Are we the first ones here, or did civilizations on other planets already destroy themselves?
It’s the grand balancing act. When your species is too small to affect the globe, or lacking enough autonomy to go against basic instincts, short term thinking prevails. These guys blow the rest out of the park. They keep growing, and if all goes well, they reach a stage where they are on top of the food chain, just like us humans. Then, this species reaches a tipping point where short term actions leave the entire globe worse-off. But it worked for millions of years before hand. Would this species have the courage to switch?
I hope we do.
There’s some speculation involved. Somethings might not turn out like I imagine. We might even end up destroying Earth. A meta-goal of this guide is to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people find value in this model, the closer it comes to reality.
Original source: https://medium.com