An Honest Guide to Climate Change: Confronting the Problem
We know climate change is a problem, we’ve known it for a while now. We’ve known since the work of the Irish physicist John Tyndall in 1859 that the atmosphere grows warmer as an effect of greenhouse gases. We’ve known since the work of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896 that the combustion of fossil fuels escalates levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’ve known since the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm 1972 that rapid growth dramatically accelerates the rate at which greenhouse gases are emitted. At the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), we decided to work to disperse greenhouse gas concentrations in order to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate system. In 1995, world leaders came together to find solutions to the impending disaster. A Conference of Parties (COP) has been held every year for 20 years before it finally led to an agreement in Paris in 2015. Now we find ourselves in 2018, burdened with 160 years of mounting concern. We still know climate change is a problem, bigger now than at any point in human history, yet the political process continues to let us down while humanity marches towards its demise.
For the best part of three decades our leaders have been intoxicated by a deadly cocktail of fruitless pondering, posturing and pandering. Time and again they have fallen into a hopeless cycle of false solutions and self-gratification. If we discovered IJtunnel was suffering critical damage and in need of urgent repair, we would not simply limit the volume of traffic attempting to cross it; we would not adopt a week-on week-off schedule to ease the strain overtime, and we would not ask people to disembark their vehicles and cross by foot. We know that a risk of this scale, a matter of impending catastrophe, requires a rigorous, forensic approach, locating the cause of the problem and to fix it before needless tragedy transpires. If we can see the root of the problem so plainly then why do we allow our governments and corporations to swerve accountability when it comes to climate change?
Our politicians feed and thrive within a narrative, a narrative in which they recognise the urgent threat of climate change. Yet, the solutions they implement lack the magnitude necessary to avert disaster. They celebrate micro-achievements such as the introduction of hybrid busses, LED street lights, and recycling reward schemes, while claiming to lead the world in climate mitigation. Our governments appear to be dealing with the problem but are in fact doing very little in real terms. Blinded by this futile narrative, people take shorter showers, recycle, protest, like and share. These measures are important, but without action that matches the problem, they may all be in vain.
So why is it that governments with the necessary resources and technical knowledge at their disposal fail to meet the grievous threat of climate change? Perhaps the best way to understand this is to view our self-defeating relationship with fossil fuels as addiction. Fossil fuels power our economies, our societies and our lives in so many ways: to live without them seems impossible. Our governments display classic signs of addiction: they openly acknowledge the problem of impending climate catastrophe in order to deny the real solution. Typically, an alcoholic doesn’t deny they have a problem. Instead, they say “I’m working on it. I know I have a problem but I’m taking measures, I don’t drink spirits, I’ve stopped drinking before breakfast, maybe that will help”. For anyone who has been close to someone dealing with addiction, it’s easy to become complicit, to recognise that steps are being taken and to commend this behaviour because it’s so painful to confront the real solution. It hurts, it’s difficult and it ends in arguments. The hardest thing for an addict is to face doing what must be done.
The only way we will avert climate catastrophe is if we confront our problem honestly. It won’t be an easy task and it will require significant change, but if we hope to safeguard our future it has to be done. To find a solution, we must face reality and meet climate change with action that matches the severity of its impacts. Let’s use the last 160 years of scientific knowledge and experience as a motivation for a politics that confronts the true social and economic causes of climate change in order to find a solution for the benefit of humanity and all life on Earth.
Illustration: Pedro Kastelijns