Issue #021 Published: 11-12-2018 // Written by: Paris Palmano

An Honest Guide to Climate Change: Understanding the problem

One need barely scratch the surface of the climate debate before hearing this argument: “the climate is always changing, its natural”, and, at risk of appearing to agree with Trump, this is absolutely true. For the past three million years Earth’s climate has been in one of two stable states, with small changes in solar radiation providing the energy to push it from one to the other. When in its cooler state, the planet has an ice age. When in the warmer one, Earth's climate is very much as it is now and has been throughout the two million years of human existence. The Agricultural Revolution, which occurred ten thousand years ago, allowed humans to transition from a nomadic lifestyle. With climate stability came the possibility to cultivate land: no longer did humanity have to travel to survive. This brief ten thousand years of climate stability is what our society depends on. 

So, when asked to imagine the impact of 4°C of atmospheric warming above preindustrial levels by the year 2100 as the current climate models predict, it proves difficult to get one's head around. Earth’s climate hasn’t reached 4°C for 50 million years and humanity has never experienced anything like this. It is a truly terrifying spectacle that we are heading towards this in our lifetimes. As climate change progresses, our chances of sustaining the ‘goldilocks zone’ in which life is possible, are dwindling fast. Humanity’s use of fossil fuels is pushing our climate out of its stable system and closer to a critical tipping point: the cliff edge of climate catastrophe. 

Contrary to popular belief, climate change does not abide by linear progression. Over a century of human industrial activity has set in motion a pattern of exponential warming, known as runaway climate change. As sea and land ice melts, much of the light that would have been reflected into space is increasingly absorbed by the darker ocean or land, warming the atmosphere further and causing more ice to melt. Thawing permafrost releases massive deposits of methane into the atmosphere, escalating this cycle further. In this way, climatic cycles generate their own momentum beyond, and separate to, human activity. Beyond a certain threshold, runaway climate change will transcend human control.

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the risk of crossing critical tipping points in the climatic system, rise extremely high between 1°C and 2°C. Faced with this unacceptable level of risk, it was impossible for the governments of the world to continue with business as usual, and almost 200 countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement in 2015: a treaty pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, or ‘well below’ 2°C. The 2018, the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on 1.5 degrees’ struggled to find the words to describe the level of risk we are now facing. So, although vested interests spread climate denial in the public imagination, this is not an issue at the political level, beyond the glaring exception in the white house, of course. 

The political problem we face is one of accountability. The Paris Agreement has allowed developed governments to mislead their citizens into believing that effective action is taking place. When politicians announce: “we have signed this agreement and are committed to it! We are doing much better than all these other countries”, you take it at face value. This encourages a dangerous narrative of positivity. A narrative that commends doing a little better than last year, when a little better isn't going to be enough. This vicious cycle of self-gratification fuels political inertia. Our politicians get away with avoiding serious debate around climate change because they have no mandate. There is little public pressure on governments because the public don't want to engage with climate change either. In fact, we are psychologically predisposed to avoid engaging with such ideas.

Studies by the American psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, show that humans are more likely to respond to threats that are personal, abrupt, and in the moment. To those of us who are sheltered from the effects of climate change, it is easy to think of it as a distant problem - gradual, impersonal and framed in the future tense. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that when humans experience uncertain, future threats, they are likely to put off immediate solutions. We share an optimism bias: the illogical, yet comforting idea that disastrous events only happen to other people. Unfortunately, the longer we allow climate change to progress unchecked, the higher the probability that it will become irreversible. 

At this stage we hit another hurdle in the human psyche. When humans feel fearful it causes us to withdraw from an issue. Not wanting to spread fear, politicians avoid talking about climate change because dealing with it head on not only challenges social conformity but goes against human evolutionary programming. Sociologist Stanley Cohen explains that climate change denial is not about not knowing or refusing to know, it’s about choosing not to notice or talk about it. We maintain a social world in which climate change is either ignored or normalised. 

So, everyone is dodging responsibility. Our governments are focused on maintaining a culture of ‘keeping people happy’ and their citizens continue blindly because it's the easiest thing to do. But keeping people happy in this context, is deadly. We must break free from this self-defeating narrative. We need to start being honest with ourselves and with each other if we hope to engage with the threat of climate change in a meaningful way. American Novelist James Baldwin wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”. To truly understand the situation we find ourselves in, is to know that we must do whatever it takes.