One of the biggest issues that weighs heavily on the psyche of my generation is climate change. Chances are if you ask any millennial or Gen-Zer what the biggest problem facing humanity is right now, they would say climate change. You would also hear frustration in their voices, as we grapple with our bleak futures and the lack of action to save them. My generation and future generations had little to no hand in creating this massively problematic issue, but will be tasked with solving it. But something else I see in my generation is a passion. Millennials and Gen-Zers are by far the most socially progressive and environmentally aware generation the world has ever seen. But is it enough?
One of the coolest things that I got to do during my undergraduate journey was travel to New York City and debate with youth from all around the world how to best implement the Paris Agreement, a landmark global climate change agreement. It inspired me to see youth from all walks of life and from all different countries coming together in finding innovative solutions to climate change. It was refreshing to be in an environment, where no one denied climate change or its human cause.
Despite the energy, passion and engagement towards the pursuit of halting and reversing climate change, we see such little traction towards that goal. The reason for that is multi-faceted, but a BIG reason is that climate change is a global problem that impacts all countries in some way or another. Furthermore, every country emits or has emitted greenhouse gases, which means almost every country is responsible in some capacity for climate change. In other words, we would call climate change a collective action problem. And if you know anything about getting a large group of people to agree on something, you can see why this problem is hard to solve.
So let's just a rundown of what climate change is, what causes it, why we see little action on solving it and a little bit on the future outlook.
FOREWARNING: Climate change is generally depressing topic with a dire outlook, but if we do nothing, we will definitely seal our fate. So it's worth a try.
What is climate change?
Climate change, also known as global warming, is a phenomenon that describes a dramatic shift in earth's climate due to a rise in the average global temperature. It is important not to confuse weather with climate. Just because we experience an abnormally cold or hot day, that doesn't justify climate change. On the other hand, just because it snows when its supposed to snow, doesn't mean that global warming doesn't exist. Weather is the day-to-day condition of the atmosphere in a given area. Climate is composed of the general patterns of weather over a longer period of time and by examining these weather patterns, we discover changes to our climate. And we are now in the middle of a huge change in our climate.
Climate change has many manifestations. Some common ones are extreme weather patterns, such as stronger, more frequent hurricanes and cyclones, flooding, desertification (the expansion and creation of deserts), extreme and persistent droughts, extinction of various species, decrease in food security, rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels. It goes without saying that these are BAD. But how bad could they possibly be?
Well, let's just take one of those problems into account. Rising sea levels is one that is talked about a lot in regards to climate change, because it's a big issue. Nearly 2.4 billion people (40% of the world's population) lives near coastlines and rising sea levels puts their livelihoods at risk. This means that 40% of the world's population is going to experience a massive shift in their livelihoods sometime by the end of this century, a burden the world will have to deal with. Small island countries like the Maldives or Kiribati, for example, will simply CEASE to exist. Imagine that for one second. Your home, your country would be gone and submerged under water. Climate refugees would begin to exist and looking at the current states of refugees, this would cause massive problems. And then there is the economic damage to consider. The "blue economy" or the global economic activities that require the ocean in some form are estimated to be somewhere near $3-$6 trillion USD a year and supply the world with millions and millions of jobs in fishing, shipping and tourism.
In short, climate change would have massively huge impacts on our planet and would cause economic and humanitarian issues on scale humanity has never experienced before.
What causes climate change?
In short, humans. Human development has created societies that require the consumption of natural resources at a rate that is just not sustainable. In general, we view the environment as something to serve humankind and not as an equal, which has lead to this level of exploitation. Furthermore, we've heavily relied on carbon-intensive development practices, more specifically the use of fossil fuels to power our advanced societies. Fossil fuels and greenhouses gases are terms that are often associated with climate change, but what do they actually mean? And how does this cause global warming?
Fossil fuels form the base of many of are main energy sources today like coal, oil and natural gas that power the cars we run and the buildings we use. Fossil fuels, like the name alludes to, are the carbon-heavy decompositions of the lifeforms that were on the earth far before us, ranging from exotic ferns to even dinosaurs (rawr).
The reason the use of these fossil fuels is problematic for our environment is because of the difference between live vs. dead carbon. Live carbon is the carbon currently in our atmosphere, in the plants, and in our bodies, or otherwise put, carbon currently in the carbon cycle. This is the amount of carbon that all lifeforms on have adapted to live with. Dead carbon is the carbon buried deep in the earth, packed together by the heat and pressure of the core of the earth. When we start introducing dead carbon, through the burning of fossil fuels, into our environment, we are disturbing the chemical composition of our environment and adding more to the carbon cycle.
PSA: In the bathroom when you have the choice between paper towels and hand dryers, GO FOR THE PAPER TOWELS. They use the already live carbon, while the hand dryers use fossils fuels, a.k.a dead carbon (not good).
To make things worse, carbon dioxide (CO2) (the oxidized waste product of burning fossil fuels) is a greenhouse gas. This means that due to the molecular makeup and shape of CO2, it tends to reflects infrared photons from the sun, a.k.a heat, back down to earth. This is the premise of a greenhouse; let heat in and trap it there. Now our atmosphere is essentially becoming a big greenhouse.
CO2 isn't the only greenhouse gas, but it the one that gets the most attention as it is the most prevalent. Methane, whose smell you probably know oh too well, is actually x25 more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Sulfur Hexafluoride is an astonishing x22,800 more effective than CO2. These molecules, however, are found in lower amounts in our atmosphere than CO2 is, therefore, CO2 takes up most of the conversation around greenhouse gases.
Why can't we solve it already?
I think taking into account the scenarios I just laid out, any rational person would agree climate change is a huge issue that we need to get under control. And soon.
This main issue here is that since the industrial revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, our societies have been built and powered on carbon-intensive energy processes. To realize change of that scale would require a massive shift in the way that we power our societies, and a change of that nature would be painful, at least in the short term.
Other big roadblock in the way of solving climate change is that it is inherently a global issue. Rise in global temperature and its effect don't adhere to political borders and neither does pollution or the emission of greenhouse gases. So the greenhouse gases that the US, China and India emit will have effects in places like Africa and Pacific island nations. In short, a GLOBAL response is needed to solve climate change. But getting 193 countries to agree on a way to do that is complicated and slow to the say the least. Imagine trying to order a pizza and agreeing on toppings between three friends. That's doable, right? Now trying ordering a pizza that pleases a 193 people (that'd also have to be a pretty big pizza).
When you mix national interests, domestic politics, economic advantage, capabilities, climate vulnerability, etc., getting everyone to agree and to act is enough to give even the best negotiator a massive headache.
Science is also an issue, because there isn't solid agreement in the scientific community. Although a large majority of scientists agree that human impact has caused a noticeable trend in upward global temperatures since the pre-industrial age, there are some differing opinions on how much CO2 will cause this "doomsday scenario". Climate change science is relatively new and scientists around the globe continue to work tirelessly in their research. One major trend is emerging however.
An average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, and even 1.5 degrees celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), is very, very problematic.
Don't be fooled. Scientists around the globe are pulling the fire alarms, and while they can't pinpoint an exact date, they do agree something needs to be done. That something is reducing emissions.
Humans are, by evolution, reactionary. Humans are also engineered to find the path of least resistance, a path, which as of today, leads to us putting more and more carbon into our atmosphere. To change that habit, like most change of habits, is a challenging, painful quest.
I try and live an optimistic life, but I also study the most depressing of things. And that forces me to be also be a realist. As of right now, without a MAJOR shift in the way we life and use resources, an "overshoot scenario" is likely. By overshooting the 2 degrees celsius threshold, we would be forced to develop technologies to bring us back down; however by then, the damage will have been done.
This dystopic future would have humankind using technology to sustain and control climate and ecosystems, something that should be self-sustaining. Those efforts would require so much time, attention, money and energy. In the long run, I argue it would be WAY worse off with having our environment having to be constantly propped up by humankind. Like the greek mythological titan, Atlas, we may live in a future where we have to constantly hold the world up. What kind of way is that to live?