If you believe in climate change, then presumably you believe what scientists tell us about it. That means you believe the United Nations when they tell us the world will be 5°C hotter (~9°F) than pre-industrial levels by 2050. This temperature increase is more than enough for the oceans to swallow our cities, stop all food from growing, and doom to extinction every species short of the cockroach. For all intents and purposes, climate change is a meteor that lands in 2050…it’s the end of human civilization.
And it’s 37 years away.
I bet you didn’t know you believed that.
Your first reaction will be to reject this information as false or exaggerated, but this forecast is roughly consistent with projections from the International Energy Agency and various departments of the US government. Your brain will fight it, even with the numbers on the page staring back at you, because the collapse of civilization is simply beyond human comprehension. To really internalize this information means you would need to accept things like:
- You are among the last people that will ever walk the Earth
- Your children won’t survive to middle age
- All of the beauty, culture, and scientific discoveries we’ve unlocked will return to the ether from whence they came.
Forgive my French, but that is some heavy shit. Yet our ability to understand and feel threatened by this information is hindered by the fact that things don’t seem that bad right now. Sure things feel a little “off”, but how can we be so close to oblivion when life is (generally speaking) so good, modern and happy?
The answer is exponentials. Climate change does not follow a linear path (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc…), it follow an exponential path (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc…). Global temperature is increasing exponentially, fueled by humanity’s exponential rise in energy use, population, and economic growth. As you can see from the chart, exponential functions look like a hockey stick: they stay low for a long time, and then rise very suddenly and rapidly once they turn the corner. Everyone has some experience with exponential growth in their daily lives…any bank account with compounded interest will follow this curve, and exponentials are the reason that sickness spreads so rapidly through your child’s school.
Yet humans aren’t wired to understand exponential growth. We just aren’t. We’re wired to think linearly…we age one year at a time, we eat one meal at a time, and every day has precisely one sunrise and one sunset. We evolved this way because most of the time it serves us well to assume that tomorrow is going to be a lot like yesterday.
To get your mind around this, let’s do a short thought experiment. Click to watch the video below, which should help personalize the concept of exponential growth (all at the expense of the Yankees, which makes it entertaining).
If that thought experiment had the same effect on you as it did on me when I first saw it, then “welcome to my world”, as the saying goes. You’re starting to understand why I felt compelled to quit my job and reorganize my entire life to start working on this problem.
We are 37 years away from the end. That means climate change isn’t a problem for our children or grandchildren, it’s a problem for us. It’s you and I that are going to have our natural lives cut short, you and I that will bear witness to the collapse of human civilization. Fighting climate change isn’t so the hippies can save the polar bears, or so the scientists can save the Arctic ice. It’s a battle for all of humanity to save itself.
With this unthinkable scenario looming over us, we can view the future in a rather binary way. On one hand, if we do nothing on climate change (or even too little), humanity will be destroyed. We will be actors in final scene of the saddest story ever told: a species full of promise and beauty that destroys itself through its own hubris.
On the other hand, if we decide to meet the challenges of climate change head on, we will rapidly transform the world with new systems for energy, economics, and governance. We are instead actors in the greatest story every told: a species on the brink that pulls together to save itself from oblivion, surviving to achieve its full potential out amongst the stars. The odds are long, but we all love an underdog…so I remain excited and optimistic about the future, and I hope you’ll join me in writing this story.