People have short attention spans
Puzzles beset us; it’s part of the human condition. The climate change conundrum is a puzzle best summed up by recognizing the difficulty many people have when tackling a problem whose solution takes longer than their lifetime. Acting now to procure a usable planet in 200 years falls outside the boundaries of everyday problem-solving. It’s almost religious in nature because it requires a leap of faith — action and sacrifice today will somehow lead to a better future for your great-great-grandchildren. But there is no guarantee your actions today will not be undone in the future if there are no torchbearers to carry on.
The problem is more daunting when we see it play out in real-time. Decades of environmental protection policy rolled back in four years to increase profits. We know the future will certainly include a significant portion of the human race who’s intellectual and emotional capabilities only allow them to view the world as a zero-sum game — if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. They are driven to keep taking until they have it all. Solving future problems is not their game; maximizing immediate wealth is their focus.
But ultimately, climate change is not a zero-sum game. We have only one planet. If we lose it, then we all lose. If we effectively manage climate change, we all win.
A long time coming
We commonly place the starting point for climate change and global warming at the industrial revolution — the moment in history when widespread use of fossil fuels started driving the world’s economies. But the reality is, the industrial revolution was simply an inflection point on a technology curve, which had been building since the first primitive Homo sapiens cracked rocks together to fashion sharp cutting tools. The technology curve appears linear in its early stages, but don’t be deceived; it was merely building steam. Ideas beget new ideas, and technology grows on the back of what came before.
It took us 180,000 years to finally have steam engines pull train cars across continents, but even so, most people in 1870 were still riding around on horseback. However, in the next 150 years, we managed to populate the earth with 1.4 billion working cars, fly rocket ships to the moon and other planets, and almost double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This change demonstrates how the technology curve works.
Exponential rates of change are fascinating to watch, but also scary when you consider the implications. During the first 100 years of Anthropocene climate change, there was little recognition of how human activity affects the climate and global warming. Agreement to the Montreal Protocol wasn’t until 1987, and a year later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established.
But thirty-two years later, we remain stuck in a time-warp arguing about established facts, not solutions, with people who consider climate change a hoax. The climate is rapidly changing, and human activity is driving those changes, these are the facts. If we want to debate this, then we should back up and have a serious discussion about whether the earth is flat — an argument that still flares up on the edges of reason and critical thinking.
Neither critical thinking nor long-term planning are strengths for much of the world’s population. The old adage “seeing is believing” holds sway over most human perception. “Because the world looks flat from where I stand, it must be so.” This common way of perceiving the world creates the uphill battle we face in mitigating climate change. We can’t see the climate changing on a day-to-day basis, so even if we intellectually connect, we don’t emotionally connect. Let’s face it; most of us focus on the short term, not the long term. Some of us have no choice in this matter, but for those of us who do, we should hang our heads in shame.
Human beings are genetically wired for survival. This wiring means food is at the top on a list of daily needs. The average minimum caloric requirement for maintaining the human body is 1800 calories per day. The world produces enough food to feed our global population, but even so, more than 820 million people are undernourished, and 1.9 billion are food insecure. Let’s take them off the list of those who can worry about climate change.
Next on the list, after food, is shelter. Habitat for humanity estimates 1.6 billion people have inadequate shelter. With no secure place to live, people cannot focus on a problem taking 200 years to solve. Their full attention is devoted to the next 24 hours. I will scratch them off the list also.
If we wrap food and shelter into the broader category of poverty, we can expand our list to 3.4 billion people, or half the world’s population. When daily survival takes all your energy, there is none left to devote to climate change. At least half the world’s population has a good excuse for ignoring climate change, leaving us to wonder what the other half is doing.
Addressing climate change requires a consistent, long-term approach. The truth of the matter is, the ability to implement meaningful change rests in the hands of a small portion of the world’s population. I am not saying we, as individuals, shouldn’t do our part. Instead, it is a recognition that certain groups, in positions of power, have the ability to implement change with wide-reaching impact — change affecting thousands or even millions of people.
A popular but unworkable solution to climate change is to rely on individuals to solve the problem. Republican advocates for addressing climate change (yes, there are some) emphasize incentives as the solution to entice individuals and companies into climate change mitigation. These efforts will undoubtedly have some positive effect, but they will also certainly not herald in a major change.
Regulators and policymakers hold the golden key to unlocking real change, which must be global, not national. The sad and uninspiring leadership responsible for withdrawing the USA from the Paris Agreement is merely a visible reflection of a deeper issue: a belief that climate change is a future problem and disconnected from our short-term considerations.
Electricity: an example
Electricity in the USA offers an excellent example of how regulators can implement significant change. Demand is growing, and this growth provides a meaningful opportunity for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Clean electric power has a knock-on effect, and movement towards cleanly-sourced electricity reduces the carbon footprint of electric cars, consumer goods, homes, offices, factories, and more.
However, the real climate-change leverage electricity provides is through the regulatory regime surrounding it. Utilities are prisoners of both state regulators and federal policy. Regulators, in turn, bend to the prevailing political wind. Since politicians are elected by the people, it is here we see the pressure point. Voters can mandate clean energy through the ballot box and force actions with far-reaching consequences.
Fossil fuel use for electrical power generation is widespread, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that electricity accounts for about 27% of the total U.S. greenhouse emissions. A move toward mandating clean, emissions-free power for electricity generation will eliminate a quarter of the annual USA greenhouse gas emissions.
Clean electricity takes on two forms. One is electricity produced via fossil fuels, but all greenhouse gases are removed at the power plant. This idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. On the outskirts of Houston, Texas, a prototype natural gas electric power plant is set to produce emissions-free electricity using Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) technology. Assuming the prototype works, then this technology becomes a viable option for a green, clean future.
Another path towards emissions-free electricity is through generation from clean primary energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) divides renewable energy into five categories: biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar. These all represent naturally replenishing energy sources, but this does not necessarily make them clean.
Wood is part of the biomass category, but burning wood releases carbon dioxide (CO2). However, hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal form a subset of renewable energy sources that classify as “clean.” These sources emit no greenhouse gases. Hydroelectricity traditionally provided the largest source of clean U.S. electricity, but in 2019 wind power surpassed hydro. During the past two decades, wind-generated electricity moved from being a negligible power source to supplying over 40% of the U.S. renewable energy.
Clean energy for electricity generation is rapidly gaining popularity. Some states are on board, but many are not. The easiest and most efficient way for individuals to make a significant contribution toward long-term solutions to climate change is by voting for leaders willing to make the structural changes necessary for a viable long-term future. Please exercise your right to vote and remember: Be careful what you vote for — you may get it.
Electricity, a pressure point for mitigating climate change (by William House; Medium)
Climate Change First Became News 30 Years Ago. Why Haven’t We Fixed It?(By Andrew Revkin; National Geographic)
Wired for survival, not Climate Change (by William House; Medium)
World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics 2020 (Source: Action against Hunger)
Hunger and Undernourishment (By Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie; Our World in Data)
Nearly Half the World Lives on Less than $5.50 a Day (Source: The World Bank)
Who is really to blame for climate change? (By Jocelyn Timperley; BBC)
Feature Image: Climate Change – A Long Road (Modified by Archean Web) – Original Credit: Jesse Bowser (https://unsplash.com/@jessebowser) from Unsplash (https://unsplash.com/photos/c0I4ahyGIkA)