|Can YOU Fix Climate Change?
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Never before in human history have we been richer, more advanced or powerful. And yet we feel overwhelmed in the face of rapid climate change. It seems simple on the surface. Greenhouse gases trap energy from the Sun and transfer it to our atmosphere. This leads to warmer winters, harsher summers. Dry places become drier and wet places wetter. Countless ecosystems will die while the rising oceans swallow coasts and the cities we build on them. So why don’t we just like… prevent all of that? Well, it’s complicated. The public debate about stopping rapid climate change often focuses on a few key features, like coal plants, cars or burping cows. And so the solutions are often simplistic – rows of solar panels, biking to work, something something sustainability. And a huge talking point is personal responsibility. How YOU should change your lifestyle to prevent rapid climate change, which we will find out together in the next few minutes.
This is one of those videos where we want to encourage you to watch to the end, because to discuss real doable solutions, we first need to understand the problem.
A Fuller Picture
Modern industrial society as we constructed it in the last 150 years, is inherently destructive to the planet. Basically everything we do to make our lives easier, safer and more comfortable is making things worse for the biosphere. The food we eat, the streets we walk on, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we use, the way we move around and the pleasant temperatures we artificially create around us. While most people know about the serious impact of energy, beef, cars and planes, many major polluters are barely ever talked about.
The emissions leaking out of landfills are as significant as the emissions of all the jets in the air. More CO2 is released to run our homes than from all cars combined. And the emissions produced when making a new car is equivalent to building just two meters of road. So it is nice to switch to electric cars but they won’t solve anything if we keep building roads the same way. Fixing one small part of the industrial system is not enough. Each of the many different parts needs its own solution and many of them aren’t straight forward. But even where we know what to do, just because a solution exists doesn’t mean we are able or willing to implement it.
There are many gray areas in the fight against rapid climate change, the most prominent one is the divide between rich and poor.
Emissions vs. Poverty
There is a clear connection between the prosperity of a nation and its carbon emissions. In other words, richer people tend to cause more emissions. So the key to fixing climate change is simply for the world’s richest to cut back on their extravagant lifestyles right? While this would help, it wouldn’t make the problem go away. This is because 63% of global emissions come from low to middle income countries. Countries where most people are not living extravagantly but are trying to escape poverty at worst, and achieve a comfortable lifestyle at best. The unfortunate reality is that, currently, escaping poverty and becoming middle class creates unavoidable emissions. So asking developing countries to cut emissions just looks like an attempt to keep them down. It is very hard to argue that a region should protect their primeval forests and spend money on solar panels instead of burning wood, when it can’t meet basic needs for significant parts of its population. So, cutting back is not a popular demand, especially if the countries making these demands got rich by causing environmental damage in the past.
For billions of people, more emissions are a good thing personally. When we forget about this, we tend to propose unworkable solutions. Take concrete. 8% of CO2 emissions are released by the concrete manufacturing industry. Okay cool, stop using concrete, right? But right now, concrete is also a cheap and easy way for growing populations in developing countries to build affordable housing. And there are many examples like that. Even rich countries aren’t immune from disagreeing about rapid climate change solutions. Banning coal, gas and oil from the energy mix is slowed down by heated discussions about what should replace them. Citizens can be strictly against nuclear power but also oppose wind or solar infrastructure in their backyards. In principle all of these issues can be overcome – but there are things we don’t currently know how to overcome. The most problematic one is food.
Emit or Die
We will soon need to feed 10 billion people, and we don’t know how to do that without emitting greenhouse gases. Because of the nature of modern food production that requires fertilizers or manure, it is impossible to have zero-emissions food. Rice alone emits so much methane each year that it practically equals the emissions of all the air traffic in the world.
What’s worse is that the foods we like the most emit the most. 57% of food emissions come from animal-based foods, although they make up only 18% of the world’s calories, and 37% of its protein. And as people across the world grow richer, they want more meat. Traditional diets in most cultures were primarily plant based with a little meat on top. But with the rise of industrial style meat production and factory farming, meat has become a staple food; a regular indulgence in developed countries and a symbol of status and wealth in developing countries. Today, about 40% of the world’s habitable land is used for meat production in some form or another, the size of North and South America combined. This is land on which we could otherwise allow native ecosystems to regrow, like forests in the Amazon, and suck carbon out of the atmosphere, but instead most of it is used to feed animals.
The available solutions are uniquely able to make everybody on the political spectrum, rich or poor, unhappy. Meat is highly emotional and there are a lot of whataboutism arguments floating around, like comparing it to the worst sources of emissions. In the end it is pretty simple: eating less meat alone won’t stop climate change, but we also can’t stop climate change without eating less meat. The same holds true for other things that are less crucial to our survival but frankly not realistic to make go away. Like air travel, oversea shipping, mining and the production of devices that play YouTube videos.
So what does this mean? Do we need to give up our way of life and can the poor never achieve it? Can’t some technology save us so we can continue to drive our big cars and eat meat every day?
Solutions vs. Expenses
In principle, this technology already exists: Direct Air Capture of CO2 draws carbon dioxide from the air so that it can be stored underground or transformed into products. So why aren’t we implementing it in every industry, everywhere? Because with the technology we have right now, this would cost some ten trillion dollars per year, or half the United States’ GDP. This money has to come from somewhere and currently no one is offering it. Just dumping these costs on massive polluters like steel mills and coal power stations would double the cost of their products – and so these industries that operate on very tight profit margins would go bankrupt.
Getting the government to pay for it seems logical but a lot of state resources are actually tied up doing the opposite, like subsidizing oil and gas which seems counterintuitive but follows clear incentives. By artificially keeping fuel prices low, shipping and everyday goods are kept artificially cheap too, which has a major social impact on billions of people around the world. That creates political lobbies and incentives that perpetuate this cycle that makes it so hard to cut off fossil fuel production.
Meanwhile, very costly solutions for a far-off problem like carbon capture seem like they can wait, as technically nobody benefits from it right now. Some argue that a move away from capitalism is the only solution to this mess, others insist that markets should be even freer, without any interventions like subsidies and some suggest that we need what’s referred to as “degrowth” and to cut back as a species overall. But the truth is at least as of now, no political system is doing an impressive job at becoming truly sustainable and none have really done so in the past.
We also don’t have the time to figure this out and do a lot of experiments. We must implement solutions now. Not just to halt the release of all possible greenhouse gases, but also to start reducing the amount of CO2 in the air. It’s too late to just mend our ways, we have to actively correct our past mistakes. With every year we waste, more extreme changes will be unavoidable.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath. Rapid climate change and the world we live in are complicated. So here is where YOU, dear viewer, come in again.
Could YOU Please Fix It?
Could YOU please fix the climate? A narrative of our time is that we are all responsible for rapid climate change. That everyone needs to play their part. Why don’t you buy a new electric car? Why don’t you replace your gas stove with an electric one? How about you double glaze your windows, stop eating meat and switch off your lights? Shifting responsibility from the largest carbon emitters to the average person, you, is much easier to do than solving problems. There’s an extra bonus if solving rapid climate change sells a new product. If you don’t have the money or time for these things, you should feel bad. It’s an effective message because it is true.
The quickest way to cut CO2 emissions would be if all rich populations on Earth drastically changed their lifestyles and if the people on the rise would not seek to achieve it. Favoring the climate over comfort and wealth. If you are able to watch this video, this includes you. But we’ve just witnessed a global experiment in staying at home, not using transport and consuming less during the coronavirus pandemic. And all it did was reduce CO2 emissions by 7% for 2020. Asking average people to solve rapid climate change breaks down when we look at the scale of the problem.
Personal contributions toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions are nice, but they are dwarfed by the systemic reality of global emissions. The concept of your personal carbon footprint was popularized by the oil producer BP in a 2005 ad campaign. Arguably one of the most effective and sinister pieces of propaganda that still seriously distracts all of us from the reality of the situation. If you eliminated 100% of your emissions for the rest of your life, you would save one second’s worth of emissions from the global energy sector. Even the most motivated person can’t even make a tiny dent. When we put together the dangers of rapid climate change, the scale of emissions and the lack of consensus over how to solve it, the challenge seems insurmountable. It can cause decision fatigue and moral licensing, where you no longer feel bad about behaving in a counter productive way.
We have struggled a long time with this, which is why this video took us so long to make. So. What can you actually do? There are many different takes and they are passionately discussed. We don’t know who is right, so we can only offer you the Kurzgesagt perspective and opinion.
Opinion Part: What can you ACTUALLY do?
We need a different way to think and talk about rapid climate change. An all-encompassing systemic approach, nothing less than changing the fundamentals of our modern industrial societies. As discussed in frustrating length, the personal responsibility angle is overplayed. For systemic changes in technology, politics and the economy of this magnitude, we need to influence the people at the levers. Politicians need to know and feel strongly that the people care, that their own success depends on tackling rapid climate change. When governments and local politicians are reluctant to change laws that affect their biggest tax contributors or campaign donors, we need to vote them out and vote in people who respect science. We need to hold them accountable for implementing the most effective climate change strategies. Not waste our time with things like banning plastic straws but by moving the big levers: Food, transportation and energy while not forgetting the smaller ones like cement or construction. When industries fight against changing their ways, for fear of losses or in an honest attempt to protect their own, we need politicians to change the laws and incentivize the deployment of existing technologies and massively invest in innovation for the fields where we don’t have great solutions yet.
There is no reason that the profit interests of industries could not match the need to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible. And if they still don’t cooperate, harsh punishments and regulation need to force or bankrupt them. It's still unrealistic that change of that scope can be forced onto a worldwide economy quickly enough, because many low carbon technologies still need a lot of time and research – which means they are expensive. But more companies will make more efficient carbon capture systems, tasty meat alternatives, better batteries, cement alternatives and so on, if there is a clear and growing demand. And if you are affluent enough, you can do your part by investing in these things right now while they're still expensive.
These are the mechanisms that will drive the prices down later on. So, this is basically what you can do. Vote at the ballot, vote with your wallet. There are too many opposing interests and complicated grey zones. In the end, if we truly get the systemic change we need, everybody will be unhappy about some aspect of it. Only if we all accept that some solutions will have negative impacts for us, can we have an honest conversation and make progress. Everybody will be a little unhappy, and that is okay. This is the best you can do. You can deal with the reality of the situation and promote your priorities through your behavior and your actions. And while you do so, you can eat less meat, fly less or get an electric car. Not because you should feel guilty if you don’t or because you naively believe that you alone can stop rapid climate change – but to do your tiny, tiny part for the systemic change we need.
This video was supported by Gates Notes, the personal blog of Bill Gates, where he writes about global health, climate change, and more. Check out gatesnotes.com to learn more about ways the world can work together to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions, or use the link below. And in the spirit of transparency, if you want to learn more about how we handle Sponsorships like this one, we also have a medium article describing how we do it.