Do you understand climate change? Most people don’t

“What would you care about, in case it was proven that climate change isn’t an issue anymore?”, someone asked me yesterday. I do think climate change is an important issue, but I would hardly lose focus in life if climate change was solved. I’d only be very happy! The thing is, this scenario, where climate change is solved is not some kind of utopia. In fact, we have all the tools we need to solve ut! So, why haven’t we?

Click here to read this text in Swedish.

Climate

Climate change is a problem on a too large scale. You don’t see it, you can’t feel it. You don’t even know how much your personal lifestyle contributes to climate change! The way humans try to comprehend climate change is interesting from a psychological point of view. How can we relate and fully understand it?

Even if most of us really don’t, it is still us who amplify it. It is you and me. We are the ones that buy products made by the industry that pollutes, we are the ones who fly for leisure. For about 150 years, we have been heating up the planet. I have studied how humans and the rest of nature affect each other both at university and in my spare time. I have learnt how little I know, how little I really understand. And I have learned how terribly little most people know and understand. There are so many opinions and perceptions about climate change, and what we need to do to solve it, that are not correct. One of them is the idea that we need to “go back to the stone age” in order to fix the issue, or that “climate change is too complicated, so we can’t do anything about it”.

Is it already a problem?

Climate change is in many ways different to many other problems. It can be discussed whether it even is a problem yet, although it is up to all of us to define what we even think is problematic, do decide what we like and what we don’t like. The earth is now on average about 1 degree warmer, since coal started being burned. In Helsinki, there is rarely much snow in the winters anymore, some animal species have moved away and there is a lot of smelly blue-green algae in the Baltic sea every summer. I am bothered by these things, but maybe most people are not? Maybe it’s not a problem yet, to most people.

Climate change is probably the most complex phenomenon in nature that humans have ever caused and been the subject to. The temperature of the earth is affected by probably a million different factors. Carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases is just a small part of it. Sea currents, solar winds and but also human construction! Locally, things such as large areas of black bitumen absorbs heat and warms up the air, the effect of large black areas could be bigger than local. The circulation of water has an effect too, that is known for sure, but it is very hard to predict exactly where it will rain more or less. All in all, it is very difficult to understand exactly what it would mean if the mean temperature of our earth was 3 C degrees warmer. It’s challenging to scientists, it’s very difficult to normal people. I’m writing my bachelor’s thesis on how media has reported on climate change. They have not done a very good job in the past, is my conclusion.

What’s up with the two degree goal?

You probably know that there is a global agreement that heating should be limited to two degrees. Why two? Last week I visited the national museum in Helsinki, and saw an exhibition about Finland during pre-historical times. About 6000 years ago, Finland was actually two degrees warmer than it has been during the 20th century. When the temperature dropped by 2 degrees, the Finnish human population declined about 80 %. The change in nature was too fast to adapt, and many died. Two degrees colder was a catastrophe, but a sudden two degrees warmer has a negative impact too. We will all survive at two degrees warmer, we have modern technology and science. Two degrees is what the temperature is historically known to have been changing. If we let earth heat up by two degrees, there will be effects but we will be okay. The problem is: with the current pace of emissions, we are heading towards 4 or 5 degrees warmer!! No one knows exactly what happens then, but there are many qualified guesses. In the history of modern mammals, no such rapid temperature changes have ever been recorded. Even when the last ice age in Europe ended, 10000 years ago: the mean temperature on earth changed less than this.

There are some sure things about what will happen. The sea levels will rise. This is a problem especially for poor countries. The Netherlands can probably afford to build a massive wall to keep the sea out. We here in the west, know and care too little about poor island-states. Honestly, most of us here don’t really care that much if some village drowns. We probably have a bad attitude towards these villages, an attitude that they will probably have some disaster anyways and will be poor and miserable with or without climate change. If they are going to be miserable anyways, why bother stopping climate change for their sake? This is not a conscious thought for most people, but probably an unconscious one.

Climate change is a different problem because the changes take place over a long time, they are slow but full of risks. There are signs that are not sure, like is the civil war in Syria now partly a result of drought caused by climate change? The climate of the earth is too complicated to say that because you drove your car to work everyday in the past 10 years, you have caused a civil war in Syria. In theory, it might be, that you and a billion other people with their cars, indirectly caused the suffering of Syrians today. We can’t know for sure about this specific thing, but we know for sure there are effects on people as a result of global warming.

Why are some people engaged in solving climate change, when others are not?

People who think climate problem is an issue, often have a few common ways of thinking.

  1. A fear of risk. A feeling that we do not know what we are doing, and that there might be far-reaching domino effects of changes in our atmosphere. That the effect will be so large both socially and environmentally, that civilisation will end up collapsing. We just don’t want to take the risk. Things might end up much worse than a drowned island in the Philippines and rainy winters in Finland.  Global famines when agriculture collapses if temperatures and rain-patterns end up being totally unpredictable. Global flows of migrants, fighting over the only places that are good to live in anymore. Is the fear exaggerated? I don’t know, I don’t think so. We can prevent this from happening, why take the risk?
  2. Solidarity between rich and poor countries. We should not change the planet in a way that means humans need expensive technology to survive and thrive. It should be possible to live a good life on earth in totally natural conditions. So these natural conditions can’t mean people have to afford huge walls to keep the sea out of their homes!
  3. We think there is a value of its own, in nature. We think it’s wrong to change the climate faster than animals and plants can adapt. Even if everyone would be vegan, humans would kill millions of animals by destroying their homes, if we let the climate climate change too much, too fast.

Most people are not engaged in solving the too fast climate change, that is caused by people. One might feel one’s own impact is too small, you can’t see the effect of your efforts and you don’t get any visible benefits from making an effort. Instead, you prioritise solving concrete problems, that are easily visible to you and affect yourself directly.

Solving problems here or now, or solving hypothetical future problems?

Most human problems are here and now. Such as poverty, both relative and absolute. If you can’t afford something you think is necessary for a decent life, it’s a huge problem right now. We don’t talk about the risk of possibly becoming poor in 20 years. Human trafficking and other human rights violations. We talk about those that happen right now. We help victims who have already been trafficked, by providing them with support, education and integration into mainstream society. Famine. We help people who starve right now. Domestic violence, we talk about it because it happens, not because it might be happening in the future. Mental health problems are also not fixed until they are definitely there, we don’t treat depression proactively.

People who are against strict climate policies say we should not focus on problems that do not fully exist yet. That we should not speculate and treat problems just in case. I think that we should treat climate change just in case, because it probably isn’t just in case, it probably will be just in time. I also think we should treat a whole lot of other problems just in case. Society should support people at risk of becoming depressed and at risk of becoming poor. We should educate girls before they are trafficked as sex-slaves. The reason for not doing this is often stated as money, but preventive measures are usually much cheaper. The same applies for climate change, it makes financially sense to fix it now, not later.

There is already a solution

Renewable energy and vegetarian food. By changing our diets and agriculture, as well as our energy production system: we can already decreased greenhouse gas emissions by about 45 %. On a personal level this means to eat less meat and call your energy provider to ask if you can buy wind or solar power from them. Climate change is an extremely complex problem, but there are a few very easy solutions to fix the largest part of it. The rest of the problem will be fixed when science advances and population growth slows down. So, we already have the solutions, we are just too stupid to use them!

We have the needed technology, we just need to be willing to pay that little extra for it. Both as individuals and businesses. If you and every other private consumer spends 100 euro more per month on supporting renewable energy, and 100 euro less on travelling by fossil fuels, we have already solved a large part of the problem. If you cycle to work, instead of taking your car, we have taken another step. If you own a business, you can transition to renewable energy too, it’s constantly getting cheaper. There are positive possibilities for changes on a state level too. The most obvious example is countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE who really can afford to switch to renewables, and their state economy would benefit from stopping to subsidise oil. In many countries, we can have our public transport run on electricity and biogas. We have the technology, we just need to make the investment. Humanity is now richer than ever, so it’s completely realistic to make these investments.

We do not need to go back to the stone age. I’m always a little bit confused when I talk about slowing down climate change and someone starts talking about the stone age. What do modern photovoltanic solar cells have to do with the stone age? We can fix climate change and still take warm showers, use electricity, enough food and an endless supply of Netflix series! Swap your pulled pork for pulled oats, you won’t even miss pork after a while. Your life won’t look that different after we fix climate change. The difference will be that travelling will be more expensive, when we use less fuels for aviation. Clothes and consumer goods manufactured overseas might get more expensive, when energy and shipping gets more expensive. But when a normal, middle-class Finnish person can afford to fly on vacation to Thailand only every five years, instead of every two years, or one can only buy one new pair of shoes every year instead of five, we can’t really compare it to the stone age, that’s ridiculous.

You’ll still be able to afford lots of shoes, but bought secondhand. You can still take the more energy-efficient train to Thailand every year (current route is by the Trans Siberian to Beijing, and via Hong Kong and Vietnam down to Thailand). On top of this, you’ll be able to travel anywhere by virtual reality! The point of stopping climate change isn’t to stop human development. The point is to stop shooting yourself in the foot. Why make climate change worse when we have the means to fix the issue?

The change we should make in our daily lives is so minor,  and still it could do a great deal to solve a difficult issue with huge risks. Why take the risk if we don’t have to?

Climate change can be solved. And don’t worry about me, I’ll have stuff to do after that’s solved. I think I’ll start with problems such as the out of control population growth, littering of the oceans, helping poor people both near and far, supporting development to end hunger crises, support gender equality to have an impact on domestic violence and sex-trafficking, and of course: support my loved ones around me to feel mentally well. And myself, make myself happy too. So lets fix climate change so I can get more time to deal with these other problems too!

 

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