And what can we do to save it?
By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
By now you’ve probably already heard the news and if you haven’t, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you: The world as we know it has just under 12 years left before it’s gone for good.
This of course doesn’t mean that in 12 years the world is going to turn into a completely uninhabitable ball of fire. Not entirely. What climatologists are projecting is that we only have a dozen years to make some radical changes to our global carbon footprint to prevent us from hitting the catastrophic warming temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius. That might not seem like a lot, but on a global scale, a 1.5 degree rise in temperatures can spell absolute disaster for our environment and is likely to completely destabilize many of our natural processes.
What will climate change look like?
We’re already seeing the effects of global climate change on our weather patterns. Storms and other natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and forest fires are already increasing in frequency and severity. Entire species of plants and animals are being wiped out at a vastly accelerated rate: According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural ‘background’ rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.”
The human cost of climate change is already adding up and it’s affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. With stories such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hiring private firefighters to protect their home during the horrific 2018 California wildfire season that claimed the lives of 98 civilians and six firefighters, we get a glimpse into what climate change will look like in our current capitalist system: Those who can afford private protection, who can afford to relocate to safer areas, will do so. Those who can’t will be most at risk.
This ties into a much larger problem. The ones who have the most to lose if we cannot control our carbon emissions are the ones with the least overall impact on climate change. Those who can afford to escape the effects of climate change tend to have much larger carbon footprints. In the current system, it seems nearly impossible to find a way to make those responsible care about what they’re doing to the environment and what they’re doing to their fellow human beings.
The impact of the individual
This isn’t to say of course that individual actions have no impact whatsoever on the global carbon footprint. Limiting a personal carbon footprint, when done as a collective, can absolutely help. The problem is that many of the options offered to the individual for reducing a personal carbon footprint aren’t conducive with the system that we live under. When you’re forced to live far from your workplace because there’s no affordable housing near your office, it’s impractical to demand that you live car-free. If you’re already eating on a budget, shopping organic and focusing on more expensive, less impactful food choices is the last thing on your mind. When most of your consumables are packaged in single-use plastics, it seems utterly counterintuitive to turn around and put the onus on the consumer to hunt for the one or two more environmentally-friendly options. Within a capitalist, consumerist system, people are forced to participate to a certain extent; we can really only make use of the options that are presented to us. We often can’t afford to do otherwise.
Turning off lights, being mindful of your personal waste, reusing materials instead of disposing of them, shopping responsibly, and keeping your carbon footprint in mind are all absolutely valuable methods of reducing global carbon emissions. But it won’t be enough to stop global temperatures from reaching that 1.5-degree rise.
If not the individual, then who’s killing the world?
It seems utterly pithy to say that the relatively broad concept of capitalism is destroying the planet, but, well. It is.
Climate change researcher Richard Heede concluded years ago that only 90 fossil fuel and cement producers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of overall carbon dioxide emissions from the past two centuries. Many of these companies are investor-owned and have very familiar names: Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell. State- and nation-owned fossil fuel companies also account for a good portion of this number as well. These companies are still extracting fossil fuels despite the fact that even burning just our remaining reserves would be enough to push us over a two-degree Celsius rise. It’s undeniable that corporate industry is largely responsible for the oncoming climate disaster. Without serious intervention on the part of our governments and global treaties, it won’t matter how many Meatless Mondays we partake in or the fuel economy of our personal vehicle.
Returning to an individual level, there is also a wealth discrepancy between individuals who have a higher impact on the environment and individuals who have a lessened impact. According to a report by British charity Oxfam, the richest 10 percent of the global population are responsible for approximately 49 percent of total lifestyle consumption emissions. It’s easy to see how this might be the case—at the end of the day, a private jet or personal yacht will consume and produce far more carbon emissions than your 20-year-old Honda Civic.
“[Climate change] is a crisis driven by the ‘haves’ which hits the ‘havenots’ the hardest,” the report stated.
For us to have any real hope of combatting this issue, we need to hold those truly responsible for global carbon emissions to account.
The impact of the collective
Our power and our greatest hope are in collective action. Climate change has been cited many times by many people as the greatest threat to our species right now, and it’s a threat that we have very little time to mitigate.
Climate change must be one of our biggest priorities when voting—and yes, whatever your feelings on the state of our undeniably problematic voting system, we have to turn up to vote. Question candidates on their ties to the fossil fuel industry. Demand better practices and stricter regulations on all carbon-producing industries. If you have money to invest, invest it in clean energy initiatives. It’s been proven that people, when given an affordable option, will purchase ecological and goods. The fossil fuel industries have throttled these options in the past, and that’s not just a paranoid statement. The General Motors EV1—a mass-produced electric car option that was scrapped in the ’90s—is a good case study for how large corporations have hamstrung environmentally-friendly consumable initiatives. We can’t let this happen in the future.
Educating yourself on and supporting Indigenous land rights and laws is also directly tied to combating climate change, since much of traditional Indigenous law concerns the preservation of the land. Show up to protests, be loud, and be an “obnoxious environmentalist.” Talk your friends into coming with you and be frank about the reality of impending climate change. There’s a sweet spot between the two poles: Comforting people into inaction by assuring them that humanity on the whole might survive despite the looming threat of climate change-induced global catastrophes and scaring people into inaction by making it sound like it’s too late to do anything at all. We need to find that middle ground that will spur people into doing what needs to be done while we still have time.
In some ways, yes, it is already too late. Climate change is already occurring. But we have this slight chance, this scant decade left in which we can salvage what’s left before all hope is truly lost.