My family and I have been on holiday, which has been wonderful except I started the trip by reading David Wallace-Wells’ devastating climate book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. This short, meticulously researched book about what climate change has done and will do without serious changes was a life-altering read.
You can imagine how excited my holiday companions were as the book worked its way into daily conversation.
“Did you know that at four degrees of warming,” I began over dinner one night, “Which we’re currently on track for, by the way, some areas south of the equator will become so hot they’ll be unsafe for human beings to step outside during parts of the year?”
Or, on a plane: “Did you know that each of our seats on this flight equates to three square meters of the Arctic melting into the ocean? Let’s make the trip worth it, I guess?”
At some point one companion promised to read the book if I promised not to talk about it anymore. I agreed. The vacation continued as planned and climate change stayed out of the conversation. A few days later, though, they started reading it, too. They didn’t have to say anything — I could see it in the faraway look in their eyes.
The Uninhabitable Earth makes clear that fossil fuels are the biggest creators of the climate crisis. Of the CO2 in the atmosphere today, 70% of it came from 100 corporations in the fossil fuel business. Most of that carbon dioxide was put into the atmosphere during our lifetimes. More CO2 has been put into the atmosphere over the past thirty years than the first 230+ years of industrialization combined.
We’re not paying for the sins of generations past. This crisis is the result of our actions right now. When we talk about global warming, we’re talking about the energy dependence that’s at the center of our first-world human existence. We’re not all the exact people mining and burning the coal or drilling and refining the oil, but our lifestyles are built on these emissions.
The centrality of energy to the problem cannot be overstated. Even in a world where everyone on the planet dramatically cut their carbon emissions, this would affect only up to 30% of what we’re putting into the atmosphere. Some use this fact to argue that any individual actions intended to reverse climate change are meaningless. If we’re only 30% of the problem, how can we be the solution?
This gives those of us in first-world economies a convenient and unearned out from our impact. It’s no coincidence that this feeling of helplessness coincided with our lifestyles becoming more carbon-dependent. While we doubt our ability to improve the situation, we’ve unquestionably made it worse. This past July was the hottest month in recorded history, and climate scientists are expressing increasing alarm at how much faster the changes are happening than even they predicted.
Why changing this is hard
Earlier this summer I was with my child at a playdate at a neighbor’s house. While talking to another parent who was there, climate change came up. I brought up Wren, the carbon offsetting service that I wrote about in my last email (and who I became an investor and advisor to shortly afterwards). I shared what a wake-up call it had been to see my own carbon impact for the first time.
The other parent reacted negatively. “I wouldn’t want to see that,” they said. Why did I think this was worth doing when nothing would change because of all “those people” who believe climate change isn’t real?
I was taken aback by the response. This person had previously expressed a concern for climate change, but when given the smallest invitation to self-examine and act, they became defensive and aggressive instead.
This was especially frustrating as the person was obviously wealthy, with undoubtedly a larger carbon footprint than “those people” that they blamed for the crisis. I tried to gently point this out, suggesting that while the political situation has to change, so do our own choices. We all have something to face up to. They weren’t having it, however.
This conversation brought to life one of the bigger challenges of the climate crisis: the fact that we all have to change, but each of us in different ways.
For a Republican who’s been encouraged to believe that climate change is either not real or God’s Will, this very mistaken belief will need to change for there to be large-scale action to keep warming within 1.5 degrees (where things get merely really bad rather than catastrophic). Without state-driven change, we have no hope of stopping this before the “uninhabitable” part of Wallace-Wells’ book becomes true.
While Democrats are more likely to believe in climate change, that belief isn’t enough. In fact, they may even need to change their behavior more than their Republican counterparts. The average Tesla driver, for example, likely has a bigger carbon footprint than the average Chevy Silverado driver because flying on planes is such a significant contributor to emissions (I’m positing that Tesla drivers fly more than Silverado drivers without hard evidence — this assumption may be false). The Tesla-driving environmentalist’s politics support conservation, but their lifestyle does not.
It’s the rich and powerful of all political persuasions who need to change more than anyone. The richest 10% of society accounts for half of total carbon emissions according to a 2015 Oxfam report. These are also the board members, executives, and shareholders of the companies doing the polluting. The top of society directly profits from carbon emissions, produces more of them than anyone, and are the most insulated from its negative impact. This group holds the keys to making meaningful change while being incentivized to keep everything the same. The status quo is great if you’re the one in charge.
Creating a mass message for how to evolve in the face of climate change isn’t easy, because each of us needs to evolve in different ways. The climate crisis was created by all of us, yet our shared culpability allows us to attack the hypocrisy of our “enemies” instead of examining the hypocrisy of our own actions and inaction.
A theory of change
In my upcoming book there’s a chapter on what I call the thirty-year theory of change. The chapter explores how large-scale social changes happen, and theorizes that it typically takes thirty years for a new idea to become a new normal. I share numerous examples of this phenomenon (including exercise, recycling, organic food, hip-hop, and the creation of the internet), and left more examples of thirty-year changes on the cutting-room floor.
The reason for the elongated process of change is simple: change happens as power transitions from one generation to the next. This can happen peacefully (as we age or through retirement or death), violently (revolutions, overthrows, unjust uses of power), and by new ideas surpassing existing ones. But whenever power transitions non-violently, it takes time to do so.
A good example is the antiseptic method, invented by Joseph Lister in the 1860s. At the time, more than 90% of patients died from infection after surgery, but the cause of infections wasn’t yet known. A few years earlier Louis Pasteur had confirmed the existence of microscopic elements called germs for the first time, and he linked them to illness and infection. Lister applied Pasteur’s discovery to surgery, creating a sterilization technique that eradicated microscopic bodies and made surgery broadly non-fatal for the first time in human history.
You’d think such an achievement would be met with great celebration. It wasn’t. Despite its proven effectiveness, Lister’s theory was met with disdain from many leading doctors and surgeons. There are a variety of reasons for this, one of which being that if the antiseptic method was correct, these same doctors and surgeons carried some responsibility for the terrifying fatality rates among their patients. When entire hospital wards were stricken by mass infections and death — as often occurred — it was the doctors and nurses themselves who were transmitting the disease with their unclean hands and instruments.
Now that the antiseptic method is standard practice, we look back on these skeptical doctors with a judgmental eye. How crazy they were to doubt something so basic as the existence of germs! But if we put ourselves in the shoes of a surgeon back then, we can see why the theory was hard to accept: if what Lister said was true, this would mean we were complicit in the deaths of our patients. This is a very hard thing to face up to. It’s far easier to attack Lister’s idea than to confront our own (unintended, to be fair) culpability.
By the beginning of the 20th century the antiseptic method became established science and common practice. The change happened first in medical schools, where younger doctors were more open to Lister’s ideas. They had the emotional freedom to consider the science rather than feeling personally judged by it. Within thirty years, these doctors made up a growing majority of the medical field, and Lister’s new idea became normal.
This is also why today’s younger generation — like the inspiring, teenage climate leader Greta Thunberg — has been more effective and motivated to act on the climate crisis than previous generations. They can more clearly see the reality of the situation because they didn’t create it. They woke up to a world on fire that they had absolutely nothing to do with. They have the moral authority to call this disaster out for what it is. It’s easier to solve your friend's problems than your own.
This makes the rest of us more like the surgeons who resisted Lister’s theory. To accept the truth of what’s happening in our atmosphere requires a significant rewiring of how we view ourselves and the unintended responsibility that we share. This isn’t easy to do. If we wish to help solve the crisis rather than continue to enable it, however, this is precisely the kind of courage we have to find.
Keeping earth inhabitable
Since reading The Uninhabitable Earth, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my actions should change in regards to the climate. And to be transparent, I’ve been doing this while continuing to add to the crisis. I’ve had these thoughts while flying on planes, driving cars, shopping, and eating meat. I claim no innocence or moral or scientific authority on this topic. My list of things to change may very well be longer than yours.
But I’m also trying to be non-judgmental about it. I don’t want to be like one of those doctors who slowed progress because it would make them look bad. I need to see things the way they really are. This is what The Uninhabitable Earthopened my eyes to.
Thirty years from now, what will the world look like? By that point the Earth’s climate will have most likely altered life as we know it — how dramatically depending on whether serious changes are made between now and then. In what ways will a post-climate change society differ in its assumptions of right and wrong, and the default values we’re taught to accept? Today we use energy without thinking twice about it, but how will that change when carbon emissions are taken seriously in the future?
Thirty years from now is 2050, when Greta’s generation will be in power. These generations will be responsible for the task of trying to save life on our planet from extinction. (That sounds hyperbolic but, terrifyingly, it might not be.) In what ways will our climate reality change their values from ours today?
I can imagine five areas — and I’m certain there are and will be many more — where our daily defaults will need to change. Things we do now without thinking about it, but future generations will see differently. The question is what we can do to start changing these values now, so that in thirty years they might be new defaults.
- The end of business travel. Planes are a huge pollutant, but a world where we no longer see distant loved ones and where tribalism increases by a lack of cultural exposure is problematic. We benefit from the accessibility of travel and will need cleaner versions of it in the future. A lot of business travel, however, could be done away with entirely. The internet, videoconferencing, remote working, and similar developments mean that most business travel exists because of social expectations. We should change those. The CEO of the videoconferencing company Zoom has taken only eight work trips in five years of leading his company, and just last week the venture capitalist Fred Wilson semi-endorsed this in a blog posttoo. Today we see personal travel as elective and business travel as a requirement. This belief could change. Companies looking to lead on the climate could have a positive impact right now by ending business travel in their organizations.
- Ground not air. Sending something overnight or via two-day shipping may similarly be seen as an unnecessary and wasteful luxury. Before Amazon Prime, this is how everyone saw getting something overnighted or sent by air. It wasn’t done except in extreme circumstances. Amazon normalized a very expensive luxury by training us to think that getting toothpaste shipped overnight is “free” and better than going to the store. Carbon-emitting delivery by air will eventually be seen as an obscene abuse of natural resources. (Another carbon hacking tip for families: have a set day each week when you place your weekly Amazon order to avoid unnecessary boxes and shipments.)
- Vegetarianism as default. Consumption of animal products (cow and dairy especially) is a major contributor to warming. The assumption that other organisms exist on this planet as food for humans should change (and I say this as a carnivore). Maybe a new default will be to eat vegetarian six days a week and to eat meat once a week. Climate change, ecosystem degradation, and mass extinctions could force this to be the case.
- Used not new. The production of new goods is a significant pressure on the environment. Buying used things — and repairing things rather than throwing them away — is the most responsible form of commerce. While some may view this as a serious attack on capitalism, this doesn’t have to be the case. As the Wall Street Journal wrote about used goods websites last week, reselling products can be big business. Repairing and buying used products will fit into a new way of measuring value and growth: our ability to get more from less. As resources constrain, this will become a necessity.
- Carbon offsetting. Adding carbon-absorbing materials could become a very normal and necessary part of life, like mowing the lawn today. This could happen through something like Wren, by companies working to become carbon-neutral like Apple is doing, or in more direct ways, like the recent project to plant 350 million tress in one day in Ethiopia. What if we all spent one day a month planting trees in our regions? What kind of long-term benefits would that create? Growing up I was taught the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a folk hero who planted apple trees throughout early America. Might our future heroes be tree planters, too?
This list is incomplete, but shifting our default beliefs and behaviors in this direction could have an impact. Emissions would lessen and it would pressure companies and governments to respond with new defaults and changes of their own.
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells writes that if Americans used the same amount of energy as the average European, global emissions would drop considerably. If the wealthiest 10% did the same, emissions would decrease further. This is simple stuff. It’s not going to back to the Dark Ages. Practical adjustments like these must be part of any sustainable solution.
These are things I’m personally working towards, but I also acknowledge that my lifestyle still calls on me to break these rules. I’m about to go on a book tour that will make my carbon footprint bigger than it’s ever been. But because it’s expected and how things are done, I’m doing it anyway. Harming the environment feels painless because the costs are collective and our social expectations don’t yet demand different choices. But as the crisis grows our leaders will shift. As expectations change our behavior will too.
Technology and the climate
This list neglects what we know is responsible for 70% of emissions: fossil fuels. But changes involving fossil fuels and energy are unlikely to come from consumer actions. They’ll come from technological breakthroughs that make our current ways of life sustainable (the nonviolent version of change) or from disasters that force us into dramatic adjustments (the violent version of change).
Technology and capitalism are big causes of the climate crisis, and they’ll also be drivers of the solution or lack thereof. One could argue that the most optimistic cases for all five of the areas I just laid out are in new, capital-intensive technologies. It’s only because of videoconferencing and the internet that business travel could be made obsolete. Air shipping is wasteful unless delivery by carbon-neutral drones becomes possible. Eating meat will be problematic until lab-grown, artificial meats are developed. New ways to manufacture goods with much less waste may happen. Investments are being made into machines that will absorb CO2. And for the biggest challenge of them all — fossil fuels — there are significant opportunities in renewable and nuclear energy.
But even if technology provides the answer, we need time to develop these moonshots and to create whatever the Moore’s Law of CO2 removal will hopefully be. That means greater efforts towards conservation now and in the future, and new metrics to define success. We’ll need to ruthlessly focus our energy on measuring and limiting carbon emissions and resource exploitation, and on growing a sustainable and healthy way of life. We’ll need to learn to rationally grow, protect, and invest in these values the same way we do financial value today. This is all-hands-on-deck, society-wide kind of stuff.
How ready are we?
Though the United States leads the world in wealth and power, right now it’s a 0 out of 100 on climate readiness. Our institutions are more focused on denying the existence of climate change than preventing or preparing for it. And when the climate crisis does come, the US government’s instincts will be to militarize, subcontract, and monetize the crisis, turning global warming into a new budget cash cow. Asia and Europe are better equipped (even the UK declared a climate emergency) in that they’re honest about the problem and are making preparations. (Check out this piece about NYC’s neglect of the Hudson Tunnel to see how badly America is dropping the ball in comparison.) But now the fires in Brazil, the globe’s new climate superpower, are turbo-charging even the worst predictions. Things are dark and feel like they’re getting darker. There’s a lot of Doomsday talk these days.
But in The Uninhabitable Earth even David Wallace-Wells admits optimism. We created the crisis and we have the ability to address it. There are reasons for hope. But they require us facing up to a lot of hard truths first. The Uninhabitable Earth is the place to start.
Hanging Laundry in Sardinia
This has been a long and heavy message. Thanks for sticking with it. I want to close with a poem.
Hanging laundry in Sardinia,
shirts, towels, and patterned blankets
dangle from a clothing line awaiting their pins;
Except for the wet flap of taut linen
and the scrape of gravel beneath my sandals
the air is silent, hot, still
like a lover who has given in
to a cloud of resentment
and sees little hope that
the nature of things can or will ever change.
To be here now, in the August of a warming body,
with no air conditioning or niceties
beyond a roof, running water, and a non-floor on which to sleep,
I feel what I imagine is empathy for the ancients —
though this may just be time-traveling narcissism, I admit —
that came before and whose memories
are carried in prehistoric atoms of hot breath
that I inhale and exhale
as I shift between the hanging blankets
like a capo evading a hit in a Godfather knockoff.
The Sardinian flag is four squares of red
with a face donning a Kamikaze headband filling each;
A jackpot of violence and determined independence
as a succession of rulers — Moors, French, now Romans — staked their claim;
Today the four faces of resistance droop,
conquered and neutralized,
from the facades of restaurants, wineries, and marinas
where they symbolize the completeness of victory
of the new wealthy conquerors, capturing trophies in viral snapshots
and “can you believe how cheap this is?” dinner bills.
Do the old ways of resistance and independence remain?
Are they in the nose-to-bumper driving
through the island’s rocky curves?
Are they in the party promotion of a Sardinian man
handing out fliers for low-cover dance parties on the beach
where pleasure unapologetically rules the night?
Or is it that today we are all Sardinia,
islands in oceans of collective creation and destruction,
independent (so we think) before waves of salty then soapy water
wake us, and we find ourselves hanging
from a line, waiting to be worn again.
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