Earlier this week I posted Part I of this duo of articles on climate change. In Part I, I used the above quote from Jeremy Rifkin to describe global warming. I realise that the trouble with this kind of language is that it’s so dramatic it can come across as unbelievable, or it can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness and as a result encourage us to do nothing. The trouble with not using such language, on the other hand, is that we underestimate the seriousness of this problem, and procrastinate when it comes to finding solutions. And we simply do not have any time for procrastination. So please don’t despair. Try to accept this challenge (easier said than done, I know), and face it with optimism and the hope that climate change could lead us to create a better, more sustainable world (more on this later).
In Part I, I covered the basics: what climate change is, what its effects on the planet are and could be, and why there is still resistance when it comes to the idea that humans are causing global warming. In this post I want to consider firstly what climatologists say needs to be done to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and why we should do it. Second, what mainstream media (for the most part) indicates we are doing – or rather not doing – to tackle climate change. And finally, some good news about things that are being done that we seldom hear about, and why the future might not be so bleak after all.
Again, it should be noted that in this post I have relied heavily on Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution[i], as well as the IPCC’s climate assessments for information.
What do climatologists say we need to do to stop climate change (and why should we do it)?
If we continue at our present rate of fossil fuel burning/releasing copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere the global temperature is expected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2036. Scientists predict that this amount of warming could lead to a feedback loop that would heat the planet even further, possibly resulting in a subsequent rise to 3 degrees Celsius. A 3 degree rise is something which we will – most likely – be simply unable to survive.[ii]
In 2007 the IPCC presented its fourth assessment report on climate change (the IPCC’s reports are released every four to five years, and are regarded as the largest scientific study ever undertaken). In its fourth assessment – put together by over 2,500 scientists from more than 100 countries – the IPCC concluded that to avoid a rise of 2 degrees we need to cut CO2 emissions to 350 ppm (parts per million) at the most, from their current 385 ppm.[iii] The IPCC’s fifth assessment (released yesterday, Sunday 2nd November 2014) is even more emphatic in its call to prevent the 2 degree rise, concluding that we must source most of our energy from renewables by 2050, and phase out fossil fuels by 2100. The next big climate summit will happen in Paris in December of next year. It is at this summit that world leaders must reach an agreement that will cut emissions to keep us below the 2 degree limit.[iv]
It is – understandably – difficult to feel motivated to tackle a problem like climate change. This article from The New Yorker points out the difficulty of creating a literature of global warming: “Fictional characters, like flesh-and-blood citizens, have more urgent concerns than the state of the climate twenty years hence.” It is incredibly hard to turn our attention to something that is not – as yet – impacting our daily lives. Philippe Squarzoni delves deep into the problem of climate change in his graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science in both a global and personal way. He points out, in this interview with Grist.org, that “[t]he problem with global warming is that you simply can’t be afraid all your life.”
And yet I believe we do have to allow space in our thoughts for this problem. But why? Why should we care, when most of us won’t live to see the worst effects of climate change anyway? It seems a little clichéd, but one of the things that has motivated me to think more about global warming was realising that the 4 and 5 year olds I currently teach will be around in 2036 and beyond. If I can help them avoid even some of the catastrophic effects scientists are predicting, that’s something.
What are we doing to stop climate change? (the bad news)
It’s easy to feel depressed about global warming when most mainstream news coverage focuses on the problem rather than the solutions, and on what we are not doing, rather than what we are. Here are some examples of headlines from my news feeds over the past few weeks that focus on the negative: “Australia a laggard rather than a leader on climate change” (The Guardian); “7 industries at greatest risk from climate change” (CNBC); “Global warming ‘will make our winters colder’” (The Independent); “Harper Named World’s ‘Worst Climate Villain’ After Damning Report” (The Huffington Post); and “Did global warming give rise to Boko Haram?” (The Telegraph).
The current and predicted future effects of climate change are awful, it’s true; and there’s no denying that world leaders have a history of failing to adequately respond to this threat. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, for instance, governments were unable to come up with any sort of binding agreement to cut emissions,[v] and the 2014 summit in New York wasn’t much better.[vi] Some leaders in particular (Australia’s Tony Abbott and Canada’s Stephen Harper)[vii] have been especially unhelpful when it comes to facing up to global warming (Tony Abbott recently stated that coal is “good for humanity”[viii]).
It’s no wonder, with all this focus on how lazy, villainous, and doomed we are, that climate depression is now a thing. I used to feel hopeless, too. I didn’t want to think about the future because it seemed like there was nothing to be done. But then I discovered – thanks largely to my boyfriend and his interest in sustainability and the green energy movement – that there is actually a whole lot to be done, and a whole lot of people who are already doing it.
What are we doing to stop climate change? (the good news)
In The Third Industrial Revolution Jeremy Rifkin puts forward the hope “that we can arrive at a sustainable post-carbon era by mid-century and avert catastrophic climate change.”[ix] Rifkin writes that the third industrial revolution can be made possible through the combination of Internet communication technology and renewable energies, and works on the implementation of five pillars:
(1) Changing to renewable energy (solar power, wind power, geothermal energy, and biomass).
(2) Changing the way we collect and store energy from big centralised power plants to “micro-power plants” that can gather energy wherever it might be (i.e. your own house could become a micro-power plant).
(3) Creating a storage device that can be placed in every building to save generated energy for later use.
(4) Using the Internet to create an online grid where energy can be shared.
(5) Changing our mode of transport to electric vehicles that can also share energy through a grid.
So is Rifkin’s dream actually possible? The first step at least – converting to renewable energy sources – is becoming much easier to accomplish as the price of fossil fuels rises (because of scarcity, and also because of carbon taxes in some countries) and the cost of green energy falls (due to advances in technology).[x] Rifkin estimates that grid parity (when the cost of renewable electricity becomes the same or less as the cost of electricity from traditional sources) is fast approaching. A recent report by the European Commission compared the costs (financial and environmental) of green and traditional energy sources. What it found was that renewable energy sources were significantly cheaper: wind turbines cost about $115 per megawatt-hour (MWh), solar around $125 per MWh, and hydro less than $50 per MWh. Natural gas, in comparison, costs about $160 per MWh, and coal $200.[xi]
Many countries are already turning to renewable energy in a big way, particularly in Europe, but also in Japan, the US, and China. In Germany, for example, green energy accounted for 249,300 jobs in 2007.[xii] Denmark is also using renewable energy to create a more sustainable society by sending its trash to heating companies to be recycled into energy (watch this fascinating TED talk for more information on Denmark’s innovative sustainable ideas).
Green energy is not just good for the environment, it’s also becoming very good for business. In this video, Alex Magnin outlines how running a business sustainably can actually increase profit. Mining companies are beginning to use solar and wind energy to power their sites, since it is 70% cheaper than using diesel fuel.[xiii] The green energy industry is big, and it’s only going to get bigger. This is good news not just for our planet and our health, but for our wallets, as well.
The examples I’ve mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). There is so much more going on in terms of renewable energy and ideas for fighting and adapting to climate change (this video on desertification, for example). We are confronted with a serious problem, it’s true, but there is hope. I encourage you to seek out news sites that report on the progress being made, as well as the problems we continue to face (Grist and Clean Technica are good places to start). Watch the documentary Carbon Nation, and this super-hero plea from This American Life’s Ira Glass.
I can’t predict the future of our planet’s struggle with climate change. I suspect we will fall somewhere between complete disaster and a green revolution. But hopefully the challenge we face with global warming will encourage us to try to create a better, more sustainable way of life for ourselves. I think the climate change graphic novelist Philippe Squarzoni sums it up well:
What does give me hope is that it’s possible. It’s not too late … If people start running – because the warming has started and it’s going to last a long time – we can probably avoid the worst scenarios, the gravest consequences. That is the message of hope.
Enough said. Time to go out and face the challenge.
[i] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.
[ii] Theconversation.com, “Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius: the philosophy and the science”
[iii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution
[iv] Grist.org, “What you need to know about the next big climate report”
[v] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution
[vi] The Guardian, “UN climate change summit in New York – as it happened”
[vii] Huffingtonpost.ca, “Harper Named World’s ‘Worst Climate Villain’ After Damning Report”
[viii] The Guardian, “Australia a laggard rather than a leader on climate change, says Wayne Swan”
[ix] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution
[x] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution
[xi] Grist.org, “Why clean energy might be cheaper than you think”
[xii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution
[xiii] Cleantechnica.com, “Renewable Energy Can Cost 70% Less Than Diesel Power At Mining Sites”