Climate Change Will Be A Slow-Motion, Multi-Generational Train Wreck. We Should Talk About That.

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Ben Schulz, a behind-the-scenes CleanTechnica colleague, often sends me interesting stories he finds in German newspapers such as Süddeutsche Zeitung. Loosely translated, the name of that one means the Southern Germany Times. It is frequently referred to by its initials — SZ. Because I visit its website frequently, I have even found my way onto its newsletter email list.

The other day, an item from SZ landed in my inbox. I clicked through and discovered this prophetic, poetic, and utterly terrifying prologue to a longer story:

The more bitter the truth, the better people believe in beautiful lies. One of the most dangerous: Climate change can be stopped, and the wealthy industrialized nations do not have much to do — modernize energy production, change agriculture, reduce meat consumption, fly a little less. Does not sound so bad.

But optimism has proved harmful so far. Instead of getting people to tackle the challenges, it has acted as a sedative…..Politicians should act. This is what they are elected for. But they should do it so that it does not hurt. Economy and prosperity should continue to grow. [As the saying goes,] “Wash my fur but do not make me wet!”

If, on the other hand, politicians announced such painful measures as would be necessary, they would no longer be elected. So they have given it a pass so far. The consequences: the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere rose once again to a record high in 2018 worldwide. Meanwhile, the first consequences of climate change are even felt in Germany. Extremely hot summers will soon not be unusual.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, people got used to hearing an expression that went like this: “Tell it like it is!” What it meant was: Forget all the flowery sugar coatings we normally hear from our leaders. Tell the truth, no matter how painful that truth might be. Here’s SZ telling it like it is:

There is no right to freedom to buy everything. A country that emits almost ten tons of carbon dioxide per capita every year can hardly ask China to produce fewer greenhouse gases before its own emissions drop significantly. In China, emissions per capita are lower at between seven and eight tons per capita. Overall, however, the country is blowing the largest amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and Beijing continues to rely on the construction of power plants and factories.

If it stays that way , the 1.5 degree target will not be achievable. Even in order to comply with the legally binding two-degree ceiling per capita, emissions worldwide would have to drop well below two tons per year writes the Federal Ministry for the Environment.

But China, India and other poorer countries claim the right to wealth and growth as in the West. Rightly so. So the West has to significantly reduce its claims. It is not enough just to make environmental pollution a little more expensive and to hope that the market will do the rest. That is unjust because this strategy is mainly at the expense of those who already have little. Rather, rules are needed that strike everyone, rich and poor alike.

Ah, social justice rears its ugly head. We, the haves, have more than any people in the history of the world. But having all that stuff has placed an intolerable burden on less developed countries which are expected to breathe the filthy air we send them along with the trash we don’t want piling up in our own backyards.

This will only work if the handling of the most important products and means of production — mobility, food, housing, digitization — is done according to criteria of reason. And not just with the goal of maximizing profits. This means, for example, coal combustion must be stopped immediately. Combustion engines must disappear from the market, with transitional deadlines, but as soon as possible.

Even for e-cars there should be (horespower) and speed limits. For packaging, recyclable material prescribed. Meat consumption must be more expensive. Air travel could even be contingent. At the same time, public transport needs to be intensified and promoted. The plans for how this can be implemented. The experts must develop according to the specifications of the parliaments.

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Recently, in the US, those on the right have been wagging their fingers and warning that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her band of merry climate pranksters are coming for our cows — and airplanes — as if that alone should be reason enough not to address climate change. Guess what, people — eating beef and jetting around the world may be luxuries the human race can no longer afford if we are to keep our planet habitable.

Society must accept that such measures can no longer be avoided. Consumers are responsible for acting as far as they can. But they must also empower their deputies to regulate what is needed. Anyone who sees freedom restricted here is right. But there is no right to freedom to buy everything you can afford. This view has always been irresponsible, anti-social — and in the face of global warming, it is at an end. Of course, no eco-dictatorship may be built. But even in a country with democracy and market economy, the freedom of the individual stops where the livelihoods of all are threatened.

In other words, climate change will require the end of the “Me Generation,” the selfie-mad masses who take bazillions of photos of themselves but never turn the camera outward to see the magnificence of the world around them. It will require the abandonment of leaders who think governing is all about them, who cavil about the size of the audience with no thought about the content of the message.

It also means the end of consumerism, the disease that infects all of humanity with the craving for bigger houses, faster cars, and more things. Of course, our entire economic system is built on the acquisitive urges of our species, so breaking our bad habits will be painful.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Credit: Chiquo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

But might there be a bright tomorrow that awaits us if we mend our ways? Might humanity come to accept the wisdom of Abraham Maslow and strive for self-fulfillment instead of self-aggrandizement? The most vital piece of the puzzle is constructing a post-consumer society in which everyone is a valued member of society and free to contribute to the human experience without being consigned to a life of hunger and poverty. Surely humans, whose scientific name means “wise person,” should aspire to nothing less.

Talk Among Yourselves

So, how do we begin? A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at Yale University finds that talking about climate change with family and friends is a powerful tool for confronting the climate denial promoted by fossil fuel apologists. The study finds that such discussions help those close to you to learn more facts about the climate crisis, which in turn leads to greater understanding and concern about the issue, according to a report by ThinkProgress.

Matthew Goldberg, a Yale social psychologist and lead author of the story, tells the Los Angeles Times that talking more about climate change is “massively important, particularly because we are not doing it enough.” The study found that many people do not realize that 97% of all climate scientists agree human activity is a primary driver of climate change. ThinkProgress recommends this simple way of getting that point across in conversation: “We are as certain that humans are responsible for recent climate change as we are that cigarettes are dangerous to your health.”

In an email to ThinkProgress, noted climate scientist Micheal Mann said the study “casts doubt on claims in some quarters that the climate change issue has become too ideologically-driven for facts to matter. [It] confirms what might seem common sense. The more people actually understand about the science of climate change, the more they are likely to accept the scientific consensus — that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat to human civilization.”

Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist, tells ThinkProgress, “Meaningful discussions and dialogue is how humans learn. This study clearly shows that non-polarized discussions within a trusted social network can lead to increased understanding and acceptance of climate science. Engaging in, rather than avoiding, climate change discussions is something that we should all be doing.”

“In other words,” says Joe Romm, senior editor of ThinkProgress, “talking about the climate crisis to family and friends motivates them to learn about the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and humans are the cause — along with other key facts. Increased understanding of the consensus in turns leads to an increase in understanding and concern about the climate.”

So go forth. Spread the word. The climate crisis is real. And it will take all of us working together to deal with it effectively. Just buying a Tesla or recycling your plastic bags won’t be enough to stave off calamity. We need leaders who understand the gravity and the magnitude of the problem if we are to have any chance of addressing the multiple challenges of climate change effectively.

In the final analysis, if the people will lead, their leaders will follow. Make your voice heard. The planet you save might be your own.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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