Climate change is a wicked problem, without a singular cause nor a simple solution. The complex nature of the problem is what makes it so hard to solve. So many people contribute to climate change in so many ways; we live in a society that has been built on the burning of fossil fuels. To be in with a fighting chance of beating climate change, we must first understand what makes the challenge so troublesome.
Firstly, we are running out of time. The knowledge that burning fossil fuels releases CO2 which has a warming effect on the planet has been around since 1896 (Weart, 2012). Then in 1938 research showed that this warming was already happening. And now we find ourselves with just a few decades to act before hitting irreversible tipping points and creating a drastically different world. It is as though mother earth gave us an assignment over 100 years ago and now here we are, hours from the deadline frantically scribbling hopeful ideas on scraps of paper.
We are currently living on a planet that is 1°C hotter than it was a century ago (IPCC, 2017). If we stop all greenhouse gas emissions today, then we will see a further 0.5°C increase, bringing us to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial temperature. As there is a delay between carbon emissions and their effect on planetary warming, the pressure to achieve net-zero emissions is imminent. There is an increased danger with tipping points and positive feedback loops; once the temperature passes a certain level, it will keep increasing no matter what action we take. For example, the melting of ice sheets causes the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This gas then increases planetary warming which melts the ice sheets faster and the cycle is reinforced. To make this situation worse, we still have very little understanding of how these mechanisms work and how close we are to certain irreversible tipping points.
The increased temperature that we now live with is already having impacts around the world, causing an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. Floods that may have happened once a century now happen several times a century. People will die from heatwaves, crops will fail, and political instability and mass migration will become commonplace in a warmer world.
On top of this, we are without a concrete path to avoid the dystopian future that climate change presents. The first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin in 1995, a meeting where all countries come together to discuss climate change and try to come up with political solutions. But as different nations have different priorities, finding a consensus is difficult. When looking at who has caused climate change, just 10 nations are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions (FIND REF). Countries in the northern hemisphere have benefited from burning fossil fuels, they live in heated houses with sanitation, drive a car and control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. Citizens of the global south often do not live with these luxuries. They see themselves as being penalised by the elite for trying to create a better life. Why should they go without these comforts while others have benefited so much from burning fossil fuels? Especially after the USA unapologetically withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, despite being responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gasses ever emitted.
One could (naively) assume that every government wants the best for their citizens, but an improvement in living standards is often linked with an increased carbon footprint. As citizens of developing countries break out of poverty, they begin to consume more and have a bigger carbon footprint. They swap the bicycle for a motorbike, they purchase a fridge and increase their meat consumption. According to the World Bank, around 10% of the world’s population lives on less than 2$ a day, a significant improvement from the 36% of people living this way in 1990 (World Bank, 2015). Ensuring these people have access to a life of opportunity and prosperity is essential for our future. But trying to negotiate a path where everyone can live to a high standard is certainly not without its difficulties.
In 2015, COP21 gave rise to The Paris Agreement, the pinnacle of two decades of COP meetings. This agreement saw each nation make a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), basically, they were going to tell the world what they were going to do to help combat climate change. However, nothing here is legally binding, if a country does not achieve its goals there are no consequences. This highlights how we are still without a political system to really tackle climate change. No nation will create NDCs that will cause harm to their economy or society, each nation wants to win in a situation that requires significant sacrifice from all of the wealthiest nations.
What is more, are nation-states even equipt to enforce these NDCs? For example, companies manufacturing goods in China produce a massive amount of CO2, China was responsible for around 25% of emissions in 2019. But these goods are then transported to Europe and America to supplement the luxurious lifestyles of the global elite. So how much is China really to blame for their emissions if the goods are mostly consumed elsewhere? Is the way forward for China to stop production and reduce their emissions, but in doing so making millions of people unemployed? Or should the wealthy go without a new iPhone, stop buying into fast fashion and consume less red meat in order to reduce their impact on the planet?
So here we are, minutes to midnight, in the midst of a global pandemic which has done more to address greenhouse gas emissions than decades of political discussion. Each potential fix brings as many problems as solutions – there is no easy way out of this. But there is an ethical obligation for wealthy nations to facilitate the development of poorer nations, generating prosperity while forgoing the burning of fossil fuels. A new system is urgently required if we are to make a just and equitable society for future generations. However, how that new system will look is hard to imagine, and how it will be achieved even harder still.
By Ash Farber