What will it take for us to avoid a climate catastrophe and stem biodiversity loss? Will we continue to ignore incontrovertible evidence calling for change?Is humanity doomed to destroy itself?
We are facing the perilous combination of climate pollution and environmental degradation. Research reaffirms what we already know, human activities are systematically dismantling the planet’s interrelated ecosystem. A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report indicated that we have lost almost 70 percent of wildlife populations in the last half-century, we are losing dozens of species every year and one million species are currently at risk of extinction. A 2022 IPCC report states that rising emissions are outpacing our capacity to adapt. After 30 years of coordinated global efforts, we must concede that the pace of our actions is woefully insufficient. We are teetering precariously close to the brink of the collapse of civilization.
In 2022, the average ocean temperature reached record highs and the latest IPCC report clearly shows that we will almost certainly exceed 1.5C above preindustrial norms this decade, Unless we radically slash emissions, we are on track to blow past the 2C upper threshold limit which could trigger tipping points from which we may not be able to recover.
Research indicates we may have already triggered five dangerous tipping cascades. This includes the collapse of Greenland’s ice cap which will result in massive sea level rise, the breakdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which will adversely impact global weather patterns and disrupt agricultural production, and an abrupt melting of carbon-rich permafrost which could trigger runaway climate change.
Humans are slow to act and we see evidence of this on a whole range of serious social, political, and economic issues. According to the UN, climate change and environmental degradation are the most pressing threats to the future of life on the planet. These threats are being compounded by political polarization, assaults on democracy, the erosion of women’s rights, food insecurity, and growing inequality. In much of the world, we see violence, starvation, and death. Many of us who have managed to avoid the aforementioned are plagued with eco-anxiety and environmental dread. All around us, there are clear signs that we are approaching a precipice.
The rescuing power
While tragic events cause horrific human suffering they can also augur seemingly paradoxical benefits. It is easy to understand how we often overlook the ways that good things can come from bad. It is hard to see past the horrors to the realization that the worst of times have their own rescuing power. As Friedrich Hölderlin wrote in the late 18th century, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” Or as reiterated more recently by Dan Rather, “Sometimes major setbacks precede, and even spur transformational victories.”
Naomi Klein is among those who have addressed the ways that shock augurs change. Throughout history, cataclysms have led to unimaginable horrors, but they have also contributed to technological advancements, economic booms, and social progress. For example, the savage brutality of World War l killed 16 million people, but it also resulted in women gaining the right to vote. Similarly, Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has had tragic consequences, however, the savage depravity and unconscionable carnage have proven to be a boon for renewable energy.
In the U.S., failed Republican leadership highlighted by the Trump administration saw the Democrats win a trifecta (control of the Executive, the House, and the Senate). It also laid the foundation for bipartisan passage of 308 bills in 2022 or almost 95 percent of all the bills passed. President Joe Biden signed into law some of the most progressive pieces of legislation in American history including the Inflation Reduction Act. Democrats also won control of state houses across the country including trifectas in four states.
Two terrible events in 2022 further illustrate the ways that tragedy can spur progress. After the Mar Menor salt-water lagoon suffered massive die-offs, a citizen-led push forced the Spanish government to protect the lagoon by granting it personhood status. At the end of last year, a devastating flood in Pakistan helped to secure historic progress on the loss and damage fund at COP27. Perhaps the best illustration is the way that alarming rates of biodiversity loss culminated in a global “peace pact” with nature at COP15.
The situation is undeniably perilous, but the looming threats we face may be precisely what we need to goad us out of our complacency and force us to act. Perhaps we need to be teetering on the brink for us to finally take these threats seriously. Perhaps the confluence of crises is contributing to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for pervasive change.
What we must do to survive
To have a chance of keeping temperatures below the upper-temperature threshold limit emissions need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This translates to a 7 percent annual reduction in C02 emissions between now and 2030. Making such cuts will require substantial changes at every level and to do this we need more than an energy shift, we need a shift in consciousness.
The recently published book “Terminal Philosophy Syndrome,” by Jane Morrison and Michael Tobias was written for those who wonder whether we will escape extinction as well as those who embrace climate dystopia. The book explores how our awareness of the perilousness of our situation is a catalyst that spurs action or a pit of despair. This is a prescient topic for those who are feeling overwhelmed. The sheer magnitude of the polycrisis may be undermining our ability to act as people are being driven to apathy and despair and becoming increasingly resigned to a climate apocalypse.
Even though it is logically obvious that we are in crisis and barreling headlong toward society’s doom, reason alone does not seem to be enough to cause us to engage at the required scale. According to the authors, taking responsibility and empathizing with the natural world can counter the fatalistic resignation of those suffering from terminal philosophy syndrome.
We need to stop assaulting the planet on which we depend. We need to end our suicidal genocide against nature. We must take our place within nature while respecting its limits and protecting the diverse array of life that surrounds us. We are fundamentally dependent on the biosphere, it is the sustainer of life and life itself. Learning to live in harmony with the Earth’s biodiversity requires us to renounce dualistic thinking that separates us from the natural world and instills values that cause us to subordinate nature.
While rational thought has not augured societal change, there is evidence to suggest that cataclysms may be able to do what reason alone cannot. According to research in social psychology, when faced with serious threats we “turn to abstract conceptions of reality [and] invest more extremely in belief systems and worldviews, social identities, goals, and ideals.” Values-driven ideation, tethered to reality, can save us from ourselves.
Humans can and must learn to live with nature, and there are many who are leading by example. Research published in 2022 shows that humans can live alongside megafaunas like tigers, leopards, and elephants. In many parts of the world, people support local species. For example, the European Stork Villages Network (ESVN) is a cross-border collection of 15 villages in 15 different European countries that work together to protect storks along their migratory pathways.
These glimpses of the ways we can live in harmony with nature offer hope and this is critically important because once we lose hope, we lose our will to act and our collective action is the key to our salvation. We all have a critical role to play in averting disaster. As explained in the Terminal Philosophy Syndrome, we are all part of the crisis and there is something each one of us can do to address it. The combination of awareness and action can help us to cultivate hope that forms a bulwark against the misinformation of fatalistic doomers.
We should not lose sight of the gains that have been made and the reasons we have to be hopeful. Overall the quality of life today is better than it has ever been. Those who romanticize an idealized past are conjuring a fantasy that never existed. A century ago the average life expectancy in the U.S. was just 46, now it is around 80. The strides we have made in alleviating poverty are astounding. In 1900 half of the world lived in conditions of extreme poverty, by 2000 that number was cut in half and halved again in the years that followed.
Stepping back from the precipice
Perhaps we need to be precariously perched on a precipice before we act. It took the wanton destruction of 70 percent of the natural world and the extinction (or near extinction) of millions of species for us to agree on a pact to protect biodiversity.
The war in Ukraine, inequality, the climate crisis, and biodiversity loss stands out as lucid tests of our willingness to fight for a better world. The vast majority of the world opposes Russian imperialism and as we approach irreversible tipping points, we are also increasingly embracing the need to combat the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. We are increasingly looking at the root causes and appreciating the need for systemic economic reforms as we realize that our current system is not capable of delivering the changes we need.
While it would have been far better for us to have responded to these threats years ago, it is hard to argue with the observation that we are beginning to move in the right direction. At the 11th hour, after centuries of pillaging, plundering, and polluting the Earth we may be seeing the beginnings of the birth of a new consciousness. It would appear that it takes a crisis of epic proportions to force us to act.
Our situation is perilous, and the amount of work that remains is overwhelming As explored in Terminal Philosophy Syndrome, the question is whether we choose to jump off the cliff or step back from the precipice. Although decades of dithering make the outcome far from certain, we are seeing signs of an unmistakable trend.
As quoted in The Hill, Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., a climate scientist, professor, and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan said we are transitioning, and “there’s no turning back. In the coming years, we will create a clean energy world in which both people and the planet thrive.” Although Overpeck acknowledges that we are making progress, he is quick to point out that it is not happening fast enough.
Expediting action commensurate with the challenge
There are ways of exponentially expediting the pace of our efforts. Tipping points can refer to the triggering of irreversible climate-induced collapse, but social tipping points are changes in the collective consciousness that propel societal action. A recent study detailed ‘super-leverage points‘ which, according to the authors, could trigger a cascade of emissions-reducing tipping points that can augur what researchers call ‘the breakthrough effect’. This refers to the point at which carbon-free solutions become more competitive than existing carbon-intensive options.
The report was prepared by a team of partners including the University of Exeter, and it was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The study suggests that policy interventions in support of electric cars, plant-based meat, and green fertilizers would significantly reduce global emissions. According to the authors, these three sectors alone contribute 70 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As quoted by the Guardian, Mark Meldrum who works for the consultancy that produced the report claims these efforts “could set off a cascade to steer us away from a climate catastrophe”.
This research suggests super tipping points offer “plausible hope” that we can curtail emissions within the timelines specified by the IPCC. “We need to find and trigger positive socioeconomic tipping points if we are to limit the risk from damaging climate tipping points,” said Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter. “This non-linear way of thinking about the climate problem gives plausible grounds for hope: the more that gets invested in socioeconomic transformation, the faster it will unfold – getting the world to net zero greenhouse gas emissions sooner.”
Tackling disinformation and corruption
Having solutions is only half the battle, we must also confront powerful forces that are hell-bent on trivializing the problems and preventing solutions from gaining traction. Climate action is predicated on understanding the urgency of the situation and the potential consequences of inaction. A formidable cabal of corporate, political, and media interests leverages their tremendous influence to sway public opinion with disinformation. That is why disinformation is arguably the most pressing global sustainability issue. A science-based education is key, but facts alone will not win the day as long as Republicans and their media mouthpieces amplify lies and erode the perceived veracity of facts. The truth will not resonate as long as they are allowed to control the narrative and cynically misinform children.
There is much that we can do to resist lies and misrepresentation. We know the cognitive biases that allow disinformation to flourish and we have identified strategies to help us combat it. But we need to adopt new governance arrangements to address the root causes of this scourge.
The Climate Endgame
There is no doubt that the challenges we face are daunting, but we have the solutions. As explained by David Suzuki: “Considerable research shows existing methods and technologies could quickly shift the world away from fossil fuels.” Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, the author of the book, “No Miracles Needed,” wrote in the Guardian, “we have 95% of the technologies right now that we need to solve the problem”.
Corporations, governments, and civil society all have roles to play. Companies and industries can drive change by developing and investing in new technologies and practices that reduce emissions. Governments can regulate and incentivize and people can vote for political leaders who embrace ambitious fact-based policies.
The clock is ticking and we have yet to enjoin the struggle at anywhere near the required scale but it is not too late. If we can shift our mindset, expose the lies, and confront the liars we have reason to be optimistic about the prospects of finally doing what needs to be done. This is a now-or-never moment. As United Nations Secretary-General Guterres said there is “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, [and] blame-shifters.” We are at an inflection point and time will tell whether we step back from the precipice and redefine what it means to be human.