When United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres spoke passionately about the frightening prospect of a climate catastrophe recently, he called it “the defining issue of our time.” Everything in his powerful speech was backed by science. Yet, because secretaries-general cannot say everything, it was incomplete.
What Guterres did not say is that global warming is the flip side of the unprecedented growth of productivity, wealth, income and consumption, mainly in Western countries, but also in China, India and elsewhere. He also did not say that these trends cannot possibly continue, because infinite growth will collide with the physics of a finite world.
Global warming began with the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago, but has accelerated over the past 60 or so years, because of the colossal use of fossil fuels (first coal, then oil and now gas). Further growth is projected. World population, 7.6 billion today, will be around 10 billion in 2050 and more than 11 billion by the end of the century. Life expectancy has risen from 51 years globally in 1960 to 72 years today. People need to eat, work, move and be housed. With growth in wealth has come an appetite for carbon-spewing products and activities.
Since 1970, the number of cars in the world has quintupled, to 1.3 billion. Twice that number is projected by midcentury. The number of airline passengers has increased tenfold to 4 billion; it will double within a decade. The number of methane-producing cattle has grown by 50 percent, to nearly four billion, a trend accommodating more demand for meat and dairy products. A staggering 45 million metric tons of e-waste are generated annually around the world, with an increase of about 20 percent expected by 2021.
Meanwhile, nature is shrinking and biodiversity is endangered.
Guterres did not declare that the past can be prologue only at our peril. He did not question the logic of the global economy, namely relentless growth, nor did he point out that it is not only the climate-change deniers who are antiscience, but also technology enthusiasts and renewable-energy optimists who fantasize that it will be possible for a booming population to live in the style of today’s middle class.
The earth’s capacity is already being tested. The weather is acting up. Plastic is inundating oceans. Entire species are disappearing. Obviously, this goes beyond climate change, but it shows that we are living beyond our means, at the expense of future generations.
Guterres made the case for shifting to renewables, but he did not say that technical solutions are unlikely to “decarbonize” the world economy while also allowing the population to rise, the poor to prosper and the rich to continue to live as they do. Guterres also did not point out that such delusions keep climate change on the political back burner, as well as mute intellectual honesty and ethical responsibility. The facts suggest that urgent action is essential to reposition rich economies, while decency requires radical decarbonization in the North so that the global South can escape poverty.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are the cumulative result of emissions past and present. Picture a bathtub with a blocked drain and an open faucet. It will overflow unless the faucet is turned off or water scooped out. Governments are either denying the issue, downplaying it or arguing over who should take the lead: those who filled up most of the tub or those who are adding to it now. In terms of equity, it is useful to look at per capita numbers; in terms of impact, totals matter.
It has been said that we are the first generation to experience climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. Unfortunately, this may mean preventing only worst-case scenarios. Given the longevity of carbon dioxide — hundreds of years – our planet will continue to heat up even if drastic remedial action is taken immediately. Conversely, the longer emissions continue unabated, the greater the effort and the higher the costs will be to deal with the consequences.
The 2015 Paris Agreement was a major achievement and outlined what needed to be done. But it did not guarantee forward movement. No industrialized country is on track to meet its Paris commitments. The efforts of the European Union, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand have been deemed insufficient; those of Argentina, Canada, Chile, China and Japan highly insufficient; and those of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States critically insufficient. (Russia hasn’t even ratified the agreement, and the Trump administration has announced that the US will withdraw from it.) The gap between ambition and action will make it even more difficult to enact the deeper emission cuts needed to keep global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the maximum acceptable warming.
At current emission rates, a net-zero state must be achieved in less than 20 years. This means two-thirds of the world’s estimated reserves of coal, oil and gas must remain in the ground. Incremental changes will not suffice. Nothing less than a global Moon shot will do.
The 11,500-year Holocene epoch, which allowed civilization to develop and flourish, is ending, to be succeeded by an unpredictable geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after its dominant force, humans. This is a concept that transcends borders. The earth is now a single system undergoing shattering, human-induced change.
Guterres mentioned a powerful, time-tested yet utterly underused tool, carbon pricing. Spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now costs nothing — aside from the costs to society and the planet. (The World Health Organization reports that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to dangerous air pollutants.) To reduce global warming, we need incentives for producers as well as consumers to switch to carbon-free products and services. Ignoring environmental damage is like running a business and reporting the revenue but not the costs. Markets work best when significant costs are included in prices, without distorting subsidies. Even now, the G-7 countries — the world’s richest — subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of $100 billion a year.
If a serious price were put on carbon, behavior would shift toward sustainability. Meat and dairy products would become more expensive, and plant-based food cheaper. Low airplane fares would be a thing of the past. The money raised could go toward research, renewable energy, power storage, forestation and mitigating the effects of climate change in the global South. Even if the carbon dividend were returned to taxpayers, it would still change incentives.
Organizing decarbonization at the proper scale and speed is the challenge upon which the survival of the human species depends. Scientific, technical and financial solutions are attainable, yet globally negotiated and coordinated action is required, as Guterres spelled out urgently.
He could not ask whether governments will do what logic, long-term national interest and humanity demands. Put another way: Will governments work together to ensure that the collective interests prevail over those who, for profit, exploit the global commons?