Life on a warming planet can make even optimists feel beaten. The climate news is so bad, the challenges so daunting, and the time to act growing so short that we can all be forgiven if from time to time we assume defeat is a given, that we're going to melt the poles and torch the rainforests and circle the planet in deserts, and there's just nothing we can realistically do about it. But the tougher things get, the more important it becomes to practice a radical act.
We are so deluged with climate problems that most of us tend to forget that we also have climate solutions. We face a difficult transformation, to be sure, but we also know that it is entirely within our power to rapidly reduce climate emissions, and to eventually even reduce the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, while building a bright green, sustainably prosperous global society as we go. Indeed, we can do it in a number of different ways. If the climate crisis is a war for the future, it's a war we can win.
In fact, the single toughest fight in this war is taking place in our minds. Polluting industries and planet-hostile business interests have dumped billions of dollars into bombarding us with propaganda.designed to convince us that climate change isn't real, to confuse us about its causes, to mislead us about the magnitude of the problem, to reassure us that nonexistent technologies will solve the problem without any substantial changes, and finally to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the costs of climate action.that almost all of us see building a climate-safe society as some near-impossible task. This is absolutely intentional.
We can't build what we can't imagine.
Stifling our ability to imagine a future in which we've successfully confronted the climate crisis is an excellent way to set low political expectations, to excuse delay, to disenchant the idealistic, to spread apathy and cynicism. The poet Diane Di Prima was right when she wrote "The only war that matters is the war on the imagination!"
It's a time to mobilize the forces of imagination in the service of the planet. This is a guide to dreaming constructively about building a bright green future. The goal is to give you just enough critical new information about climate change as a problem that you understand what success might mean, and enough insight into the systems now destroying the planet that you can start to imagine your own win scenario, start to create your own vision of what life could be like where you live once we've tackled the greatest challenge humanity now faces.
The future starts when you imagine it.
As you no doubt know, climate change is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses, in turn, come mostly from burning fossil fuels, growing livestock, and cutting down forests. How much of these gasses we release into the air will essentially determine the future of humanity. The higher the concentration of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet and the crazier the weather.
And it will be warmer and crazier for a long time. Greenhouse gasses build up in the atmosphere, and while (under the right conditions) they will eventually be reabsorbed by living systems, that process takes a fairly long time. If we pump out too many greenhouse gasses, we also risk triggering feedback loops that can make climate change much worse, for much longer. For instance, there's lots of methane locked in the Arctic's frozen permafrost; melt that, and climate change will worsen quickly, and that in turn could lead to drier forests and more forest fires, which in turn will make the planet even warmer, and... well, you get the idea.
How close are we to catastrophe? No one can say for sure. Humans have never seen rises in greenhouse gasses this high, this quick. We can only talk about the probabilities the best science available gives us for certain consequences occurring at certain levels of greenhouse gasses. The science strongly suggests that the highest "safe" level (the level at which the consequences we think would be ones we could manage) is 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (or 350 ppm, as the shorthand goes). Right now, we're at 387 ppm. Almost everyone credible agrees that 450 ppm—at which point we'll probably see a two degree Celsius temperature rise and a lot of climate chaos, but perhaps not a runaway climate crisis—is the highest level we can risk, and most climate advocates believe that we ought at very most peak at 450 ppm later this century and do our best to come back down to 350 ppm as quickly as we can.
That's not an easy task, because right now, almost every human activity—from driving cars to building houses, growing food to making clothes.has a "carbon footprint," a measurable impact on the climate. As we get richer, and make and buy and use more stuff, our carbon footprint grows. As more and more people crowd the planet, there are naturally more and more people trying to get rich. Put it together, and some very credible observers worry that if we don't change course we could be headed towards 700, 800, even 1,000 ppm; and the last time we saw levels that high, there were alligators in Antarctica and our ancestors were treeshrew-like little critters. At those kinds of levels, we will no longer be living on the planet Earth we now know.
If that were the whole story—more and more people, more and more stuff, tropical Antarctica—it would be a pretty grim future we're looking at, indeed. Luckily, that's not the whole story at all.
First, there's the fact that we know how to slow the rate of population growth: give women options. It turns out that in almost every place where women have demanded equal protection under the law, access to education and jobs, reproductive rights, and health care, the birth rate has fallen dramatically in a very short period of time. Given the chance to make their own choices, most women chose to have smaller families and to do more for each of their kids. That's why the two most powerful climate change solutions are condoms and women's rights.
If we push hard to see that women get access to the kinds of choices they want, we will see peak population this century. That is, we'll hit the mark of the most people ever alive together at one time on the planet, probably around 9 billion people, and then our planet's population will level off and gradually shrink. The better the job we do funding health care, pushing for democracy and legal reforms, building schools and alleviating poverty, the sooner peak population will come, and the lower that population will be.
That's good news, because it means that the population pressures on the climate (and on ecosystems and fresh water and food supply and all sorts of other limited commodities) will gradually reach a stable point, and we don't have to imagine the planet getting more and more crowded forever.
But what about the other part, what about the climate impacts of getting rich? Nine billion people is still a lot of humanity, and if all of them lived like North Americans do today, we'd be packing bikinis for Baffin Island in no time. Yet it's unreasonable to expect that the billions of people in poorer countries stay poor while we stay rich, in order to protect the climate. After all, the CO2 up in the atmosphere now is mostly CO2 we put there: Greenland is melting not because a Bangledeshi farmer sowed her meager crops, but because of the driving and shopping and eating we have taken for granted. She can, and should, quite rightly call horse pucky on us if we tell her we get to keep taking foreign vacations but she can't buy a new roof and a lamp so her kids can study at night.
He has, in short, a right to development. So do billions of other people in the developing world. They're young (the median age in Africa, for instance, is only 19 years old), they have dreams (most of them have watched TV and seen how the wealthier parts of the world live, and they have every right to expect more than they've got). If we're going to find success in dealing with climate change, we're going to have to find a way for them to get much better lives without destroying the planet.
That's where we come in. Climate experts, such as Lord Nicholas Stern (former Chief Economist at the World Bank, and an expert on the economics of climate change), say that if we want to greenhouse emissions to level off at 450 ppm, we need to bring humanity's average carbon footprint down to about one metric ton of CO2 apiece. For many people, that's more than they're emitting now. But we here in the United States each of us spews out something closer to 25 metric tons. That means two things: first, that other people can't live like us without melting the ice caps, and if they're going to grow more prosperous, they'll have to do it in a better way; and second, that we can't live like us either.
In order to live a climate-fair lifestyle, we need to reduce our climate impacts by something on the order of 95 percent. At first glance, a number like that makes us think that we'll all be freezing in the dark, gnawing on soylent green. And if the way we do things now were the best way they could be done, well, we all might have to get our Charlton Heston on. Fortunately, we know that's not the case, and that there are lots of ways to enjoy the prosperity we want at a fraction of the impact we have today. In fact, we are so insanely wasteful, inefficient, and crappy at design that we could easily cut our impact by a quarter and end up saving lots of money in the process.
Cutting the other 75 perfect of our emissions is a little trickier.
To start with, we'll need a massive shift to clean energy sources like wind and solar. That costs some money, though it turns out not nearly as much as we thought, and not anywhere near as much as having to move our whole country to the North Pole.
But clean energy, though vital, is not enough. For a variety of reasons that are too complicated to go into here (if you're interested, Google Saul Griffith), there are practical limits on the amount of energy we can get from wind and solar in the time we have to make this change. We can get a lot, but not enough to supply everyone on the planet with an amount anything like even half of what we use today. The safest bet would be to assume that we can provide a limited amount of clean energy, but that we'll still need to find something like another 50 percent in emissions cuts elsewhere.
Even with the best efficiencies we know how to muster, and all the solar panels and wind turbines we can slap up, we're still going to need to figure out how to cut about half our emissions in new ways. To cut those emissions and live well, we need to not just do things differently, but do different things.
Partly, that means eating differently. Meat in general.cows in particular.is hard on the environment. Food waste, the distance food travels to reach your plate, and factory food all have clime implications. Overall, we can probably reduce the our food impact down to a small percentage of what it is now by shifting what and how we eat.
But the biggest thing we will need to do is redesign our cities.
There are a bunch of reasons to focus on cities. First, where we build and the way we build have enormous impacts on our carbon footprints. Put homes closer together, in compact walkable neighborhoods, and people don't drive as much; serve those neighborhoods with good transit and sidewalks and bike lanes, and many people will give up driving most of the time. Make the infrastructure high-tech , and these neighborhoods get even more climate friendly. If the homes in those neighborhoods are well-designed and built to save energy, water, and materials, the people who live there will find their carbon footprints are even lower (and their utility bills are too). Encourage smart urban living and people get even more climate-friendly in their consumption, by, for instance, belonging to a great gym instead of owning a crappy home version, and being able to share or rent many larger items (say, electric drills) instead of having to buy them themselves. And the fewer the number of gyms and drills, the lower the city's carbon footprint. Add to all this the shift to urban lifestyles already underway, with their emphasis on quality of life, health, and outstanding experiences instead of more stuff.think Barcelona, Copenhagen or San Francisco.and you can start to see the outlines of low-carbon high living.
We can be rich, but we've got to redefine what rich means. It won't mean driving Hummers, eating steak with every meal, and living in a McMansion. It will mean something better. And, because we live on an increasingly urban planet, it will also mean a way of life that billions of others can replicate without cooking us to catastrophe. If we show how to do it, they can follow us into a climate-friendly future.
Alex Steffen is the executive editor and CEO of WorldChanging. Worldchanging's Sarah Kuck also contributed reporting. This is the first part of a series about the ways we can redesign our cities to solve the climate crisis. Continue reading the second entry, "Building a Better Future: Imagining Zero-carbon Solutions." Illustrations by Jennifer Daniel.
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