Climate change is a difficult topic to cover, as there are a myriad of variables at play. And while we know that it is occurring because of human activity, there does not seem to be a consensus on a best path forward to combat its effects. More than likely, we will need to combine aspects of many solutions if we are to have a chance at achieving net-negative emissions by the end of the century. It is important to understand the severity of the problem and where the majority of emissions come from when discussing the climate in order to have a baseline for potential solutions. I will briefly cover that here but want to stick to a more nuanced problem hidden behind the fanaticism of impending disaster: our lack of story.
Who are the heroes and villains in all of this? Without a story, inciting global action will be nearly impossible.
But First, Why Do Anything?
At the heart of our moral obligation to do more for the environment lies a simple fact: those most likely to be negatively impacted by rising temperatures are among the poorest in the world, and they do the least to contribute to the problem. There is a stark correlation between energy consumption and global income per capita -- as incomes rise, so does energy consumption. This is great news for those climbing out of poverty and enjoying the fruits of the modern world but bad news for the atmosphere.
Growing populations indicate progress (something we should be happy about), but we are treading in dangerous waters. Much of the developing world relies on farming for their livelihood, and climate change threatens to destabilize the land sustaining their crops. As droughts become more common, the soil will be less moist. This will lead to food shortages. Malnutrition is already a problem; it will get worse. On top of that, many of these farmers will be unable to recover from a disaster -- if their crops are wiped out, they can’t simply purchase more seeds or land. This merely scratches the surface of the problem. Other topics include the following: climate refugees and displacement, wildfires, floods, poor air quality, socioeconomic barriers, political roadblocks, misinformation, collapsing economies, and much more. As stated above, this is not the forum for such topics, but all of them are important.
Before we get into the heroes and villains of this story, let’s take a look at where the emissions are coming from. An important number to remember (courtesy of Bill Gates’ newest book, How To Avoid Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need) is 51 billion. On average, humans emit 51 billion tons of CO2 and its equivalents into the atmosphere each year. Ultimately, these are the questions we need to be asking:
Where are the emissions coming from?
What can we do now to improve the situation?
Which sectors will require new innovations?
How much will all of this cost?
What political barriers will need to be overcome?
Can we formulate a strong enough story to incite collective action?
Here’s a breakdown of the different sectors and their respective contribution to greenhouse emissions:
Source: IPCC (2014)
This matters in our effort to build a story. In the next section, we’ll take a look at who is commonly seen as the enemy, who the heroes of this story are, and why defining a villain is not as easy as it may seem. The crux of our problem is this:
Globally, we have nothing uniting us in our collective effort against climate change. Put simply, we have no common story. All told, this will require the nations of the world to work together -- there’s no way around it. Here’s a use case to demonstrate what I mean:
Japan is entirely surrounded by the ocean. Because of this, the people of Japan are at a high risk of being impacted by climate change. For them, this could mean sea levels rising along coastal regions, the mass relocation of people, extreme meteorological phenomena, and an increased risk of diseases spreading due to warming temperatures. No matter how much the Japanese reduce their greenhouse gasses, it will not be enough to stop an impending disaster without buy-in from other countries; the United States, China, India, Russia, and others will also have to reduce theirs. The novelty of this requirement is a product of the 21st century. For almost all of human history, problems could be solved on a national level. That is no longer the case.
Personal footage of El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria hit in 2017. One study estimated that the hurricane set Puerto Rico's infrastructure back more than two decades. How long before the next storm comes along and sets it back further?
We Don’t Have an Enemy, But Who Could be the Hero?
Throughout history, Homo sapiens have been formulating stories to incite action against their problems. We attribute value to money on the basis that everyone believes the story of its utility. During the agricultural revolution, new gods were ascribed to societies and the story of human rights was invented. With the latter, large populations were able to come together under a common system. With climate change, there is no common story shared to spark action. There is no “Thanos” for us to pin as the common enemy. Addressing an existential threat to humanity by reducing our emission levels, retrofitting buildings, formulating political routes forward, or building new technologies will require cooperation. This is juxtaposed to say, a nuclear fallout, where geopolitics play a huge role. Here, the villain and hero are easy to depict.
A Quick Side Note:
A common belief is that the US Republican party is to blame for our lack of progress. A good thought, but climate denialism at that magnitude only exists in the United States. This means that other cultures are well aware of the need for change, but are still not taking enough action. To place all the blame on the party would be disproportionate and untrue. The same can be said for the oil companies -- another likely suspect. Here, we can refer to the chart above displaying emissions per economic sector. Let’s pool together transportation, electricity, and heat production -- the most common uses of oil. This makes up less than 40% of global emissions. Their disinformation campaigns are evil and grotesque, but that is not the same as responsibility. Ultimately, placing the responsibility on oil companies does not solve the problem of climate change having no narrative for the general public to follow.
Back to the Story:
So, who can be the villain in the stories we tell ourselves about climate change? You may be thinking, “Why not look to those that are most morally responsible as a starting point?” I think that is fair. The moral responsibility of climate change is dispersed throughout the world, which makes it difficult to do this, but we do know that the richest 10% of the world produce 50% of all emissions. Are we to be battling ourselves in this epic?
Alas, we’ve stumbled on the great Hollywood dilemma. Narrative is important, and soon the movie industry will need to adapt to the changing world. We can look at the difficulty of formulating a narrative on this topic through the lens of Hollywood -- think of the movies from past and present that have depicted climate disaster: Mad Max or The Road, for example. These movies are entertaining not because we recognize them as a serious possibility, but because they depict a distant future. As the effects of climate change become more apparent and impact more people, these narratives will no longer be entertaining -- who wants to watch a film about something that’s actually going on outside their window? Not to mention that, for the purpose of entertainment, collective action is a snoozefest compared to a single-hero story.
Paired with the Hollywood dilemma is an ever-increasing perception that the human condition is separate from nature. Our technological advances throughout the last few hundred years have improved life on Earth drastically. However, with that has come a rooted compartmentalization of an “us versus them” mentality: we are currently working against nature, instead of with nature. Soon, we will no longer be able to ignore the problem, and our perception of the world will come crashing down.
The Future Unsung Heroes
R&D efforts are important. Innovators are important. Scientists are important.
But they are not the full answer.
Generally and briefly speaking, we will need to combine the minds of many people to find ways to reduce green premiums -- that is, to level the playing field between the cost of fossil fuel based products and green products. (Think: it costs between 16-29% more to create steel through green methods than to utilize fossil fuels. What can we do to bring that premium down?) Ultimately, a lot of things will need to change. New energy grids that are able to send decarbonized energy from areas where it's generated with ease to places that are not so fortunate will be needed. Climate resistant retrofitting of buildings will need to take place. Mangrove trees will need to be planted. The list goes on and on. (Of course, all of this will only be possible through systemic policy and R&D efforts as well.) Now ask yourself this: who will be doing all of this work?
That’s right, field service workers. The unsung heroes of the future. We may not be able to place our finger on the villain of this story, but we can certainly see who the heroes will be. Everyone mentioned above, including those getting their hands dirty, must be thought of when discussing the narrative of climate change. Inclusion in the narrative will be paramount if we want to continue educational efforts, increase public attention, or bring about real passion for improving the lives of future generations. Only then can we turn collective action from being a boring plot to an enthralling story about saving the planet.
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