As a relatively anxious person, I have made a real effort in the last few years not to sweat the small stuff, and sometimes even the big stuff. I try not to worry about things I can’t fix, because my worrying doesn’t actually solve the problem. In a way, it’s about utility: good intentions without good actions are useless. In a world where so many bad things happen, sometimes you have to pick your battles.
That’s in part why I decided to focus my career on environmentalism — because I believe it is most certainly my battle to fight. Climate change affects every individual in the world, and I have the skills, knowledge and passion to help turn the tide. Climate change is a worry that I cannot ignore, nor do I want to.
In August, I listened to an episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily, in which Henry Fountain, the Times’ climate specialist, summarized the IPCC’s sixth climate change assessment report, which is too long and jargon-filled for the average reader to assess over a single cup of coffee. To me, the IPCC report is particularly insightful and distressing in the way it meticulously addresses every predictable facet of climate change with an unignorable degree of scientific certainty.
As Fountain describes, there are three main points to the IPCC report. The first is that the certainty of this information is greater than it has ever been, to the point where all wishy-washy language has been removed and replaced with concrete support and compelling data for each of the major conclusions. The IPCC is a council made up of scientists from 195 world governments, using emissions and temperature data collected by a wider and more precise array of sensor technologies than ever. If there had been any valid uncertainty among the scientific community before, there certainly isn’t now.
Already on edge, I was hit with the sucker punch that I knew was coming but still wasn’t prepared to hear the second message: “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered.” Our climate has deteriorated since we began polluting it, and it will continue to deteriorate for the next three decades, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on what we do now.
There is a very big and very unfortunate problem that isn’t discussed as much as it should be: climate change is delayed. We started intensely polluting the environment in the Industrial Revolution era of the late 1700s, and the first signs of climate change were already in evidence as early as the 1830s. Unfortunately, CO2 does not break down quickly in the atmosphere, but instead accumulates as we keep emitting it. By the time the first UN IPCC panel formed in 1988, the problem had already been snowballing for over 100 years, but it’s only in the last three decades that we’ve started taking action to address it. In effect, global warming today is still being influenced by the pollution we emitted in 1991, around the time the world first began to grapple with the issue.
I started thinking about what the world could look like 30 years from now. In 2051, I’ll be 53 years old, about the same age as my parents are now. If I go down the same path as them, I’ll be married with kids and own a home, but the worries they face now will be magnified by a more erratic and intense climate. I’ll have to deal with more frequent threats of my basement flooding; high winds dropping trees on my house; roads caving in because streams can’t handle the rushing water (all things that have happened at least once while I lived in my hometown). I’ll worry about my family and friends, maybe living hours away from me, dealing with the same issues. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will have grown to a scale the world has never seen, and we’ll have to learn to adapt.
And while the northeast is buffeted every winter by bitter storms, I won’t have even seen the worst of climate change. I’ll see the news reports of California’s wildfire season growing longer and heat waves increasing the risk of heat stroke in our older population; I’ll read about cities being completely submerged by rising seas, forcing millions to relocate. Our country will debate the ethics of taking in climate refugees displaced in part because of our own actions.
This hypothetical is devastatingly worrying — not least because it’s not even a hypothetical anymore. If the report released in August told us nothing else, it’s that a future of climate change is no longer deniable — even if the degree of pain and disruption our future selves will have to experience hangs very much in the balance. So if the world is going to keep warming until I’m a senior citizen, how is any action I take now worth it?
The third main point of the IPCC report has an answer. And this is a slightly more hopeful one.
According to the IPCC, “Scenarios with very low or low GHG emissions… would have rapid and sustained effects to limit human-caused climate change, compared with scenarios with high or very high GHG emissions...” Essentially, if emissions drop quickly now, the climate will still get warmer, but much less drastically than if we changed nothing. This isn’t the best news, but it does mean that what we do now matters, not just for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but within our own lifetimes. And it might even be quicker than that — some scientists believe that the lag is less than a decade.
There is another source of hope, too. In 1991, the world was well aware of climate change, albeit not in complete consensus. But the world today is not the same as it was in 1991. In the last 10 years alone, we’ve seen massive progress. We’ve replaced a meaningful portion of our dirty energy production with clean alternatives. America produces almost four times as much renewable electricity from the sun and wind as it did in 2010, and wind, solar and geothermal power provide more than 10% of our nation’s electricity. Zero-emission transportation technology is no longer a thing of the future, with electric vehicle sales growing annually. Climate change is a major feature of mainstream political discourse. Reports like the IPCC’s, written by scientists from around the world, prove that nations are coming together to address this crisis in a serious way. We are making tangible headway.
Unlike in 1991, we understand more securely that there is a problem, we know what we need to do to fix it and we’re making measurable progress towards doing it. There is every reason to feel hopeful that we are far more prepared to tackle climate change today than we were when we began. We have the capability now to limit global warming, if not stop it, and I hope that down the road, the 20-somethings of 2051 can start to reverse global warming.
I still believe that worry is useless, but its cousin – concern – can be the most useful tool in our arsenal. Unlike worry, concern is deliberate, educated and rational. More than 30 years into the battle, we know how to use our concern to spark change. While we know that we’re playing the long game, every change we make today will pay off in the future. It’s up to us to make it happen.
Image via Stuart Rankin, flickr, CC by NC-2.0. Image shows projected global temperatures by the year 2100 based on historical and present climate data and potential emissions scenarios. NASA’s data can be downloaded here.