Is It Too Late to Save the World: A Climate Change Investigation
As emissions rise, protesters block the streets and apocalyptic scenes seem less and less like fantasy, we have to wonder — are activists like Greta Thunberg capable of saving the earth? Or is this the end of the world as we know it?
What does the end of the world look like? If a decade of cheesy action movies has prepared us to answer just that question, we'd say: giant waves freezing in mid-breach along the coast of Florida. Skyscrapers tumbling down onto each other in fiery demise. The statue of liberty buried up to her throat in snow.
Instead, the end of the world looks like heaps of plastic straws in the ocean. It looks like too many shopping bags of fast fashion. And in many ways, it just looks invisible — kilograms of carbon seeping into the air from almost every human activity.
When we built the human civilisation, we intended to build something permanent. So far it’s always felt that way (unless you were stressing about Y2k). And when we imagined the end of it, we could only do so through the lens of external factors. We pictured asteroids coming to hit us. We pictured alien invasions or solar flares. It’s always been harder to imagine that the end of human life was self-inflicted. It’s a blow to our pride to imagine our great civilisation brought down by coffee cups and plastic straws. But lately, that seems like the reality.
How did we get here? How did homo sapiens (a Latin phrase meaning “wise man”) get to the point of obliterating the ground beneath our own feet? In many ways, we can trace our problem back to the Industrial Revolution. This period brought developments in steam power, textile manufacture and mining. And these developments meant a rise in factories that were all more or less dependent on fossil fuels. The Industrial Revolution went hand-in-hand with a flourishing economy. The average worker wage increased as well as the average life expectancy. It was a Gilded Age of glamour as humans strived to do and create what was never before thought possible. And all developments seemed more or less positive.
But the Industrial Revolution also birthed the first large-scale human pollution problem. Increased coal consumption in the factories led to significant air pollution in cities like London. In 1863, Britain passed the Alkali Act in an effort to regulate the air pollution. In 1898, the Coal Smoke Abatement Society became on of the world’s first environmental NGOs. These small efforts to fight against air pollution could but hint at the monumental problem ahead.
Scientists can pinpoint the Industrial Revolution as the point at which the global temperature started rising. When factories began burning fossil fuels, they were essentially taking carbon that had been “locked away from the natural cycle for eons” and releasing it as carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Despite efforts, that process was barely policed back then, and now we’re seeing the effects.
The bottom line is that we’re releasing more carbon dioxide than the earth can cope with. As carbon emissions rise, the temperature rises with it. And a rising temperature has far-flung effects on land-degradation, water pollution and biodiversity. The problem of climate change is complicated and relies on a series of interconnected zones.
The United Nations 2019 Global Environmental Outlook document identified five key areas affected by climate change: air, biodiversity, oceans and coasts, land and soil, and freshwater. Each zone is struggling with particular issues. One in up to six species could be threatened with extinction by 2050. Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by more than 40% between 1990 and 2014. And 70% of the world’s reefs are facing harmful bleaching. As statistics in each of these problematic areas climb upward, we seem closer and closer to the end of the world as we know it.
The World as We Know It
The response to climate change has grown significantly since the 1898 Coal Smoke Abatement Society. Awareness about the state of the environment has grown from a blip on the political radar to possibly the most contentious and important issue of our time. In 1992, the UN Earth Summit resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was the first step in acknowledging the serious problem presented by climate change. It started a trend. By 1997, the UN had formed the Kyoto Protocol, a legally binding target for countries to reduce their emissions. Then, in 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the US Vice President Al Gore for his efforts to spread awareness on the issue of climate change.
Still, the biggest testament to environmentalism was undoubtedly the 2015 Paris Agreement. 175 countries signed on in an effort to “accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future.” The UN seems to understand that climate change is high on its list of priorities.
The efforts of the UN have been compounded by individual laws. In the UK, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the unsustainable nature of the fashion industry in February. It sought greater environmental accountability from retailers in the world’s second most wasteful industry. However, in June, the Government rejected every single one of the EAC report’s proposals for limiting our environmental impact. Despite a growing global awareness, there's a sense that governments are not taking the issue as seriously as they should.
The UK introduced the 5p plastic bag fee in 2015 in order to reduce the impact of plastic waste. While this was definitely a step in the right direction, we have to wonder if the Government was just putting a bandaid on a knife wound. Is a 5p deterrent from plastic waste really going to solve the climate change problem? In December it was announced that the 5p charge would double to 10p. But surely the earth is worth more than pence.
Theresa May’s net zero carbon emissions target for 2050 made headlines for one day. Are these targets achievable? Phillip Hammond suggested that the £1tn price tag would require cuts to public spending. Boris Johnson has committed to maintaining the targets. Still, the biggest obstacle no longer seems to be the (admittedly colossal) price tag, but rather a lack of follow through in UK Government. Just as the EAC report ended up in a discarded pile of landfill rubbish, it’s hard to imagine these emission targets coming to fruition.
As we take one step forward, we seem to fall two steps back. In the face of rising waste, rising pollution and rising emissions, we simply can’t afford to do that. Otherwise we’ll genuinely be calling for our own extinction.
Our Own Extinction
Scientists are divided over whether we are currently experiencing a sixth mass extinction. In response to this debate, a protest group called Extinction Rebellion (XR) has appeared, determined to stop that fateful event. Since May 2018, the group has organised a series of non-violent blockades and protests. Their goal is to create a sense of urgency about climate change. They need the Government to understand that the climate change problem is worth more than 5p and empty rhetoric
And they're not alone. In March, students in 64 different locations around the UK walked out of their classes to march for climate change awareness. The youth climate strike was an offshoot of Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysforFuture movement. Thunberg also recently spoke at an Extinction Rebellion protest, declaring that "humanity is at a crossroads." XR and Greta Thunberg have a lofty set of demands. But we worry their strategy puts blind faith in the idea that awareness must translate into action.
The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has called these Extinction Rebellion demands “unrealistic.” They added that in order to achieve net zero by 2025, 38 million cars would need to be removed from the roads and 26 million gas boilers would need to be disconnected. The ECIU throw out these ideas as if they’re just fantasies. But what is getting rid of cars and gas boilers is the only way to ensure our survival? And if we can’t, as the ECIU say, grossly inhibit our environmental impact, then is it already too late?
Even the most pessimistic commentators couch their comments with subjunctive verbs. “It may already be too late” to save the planet, Prince Charles recently opined. Our atmospheric carbon dioxide level is currently 390 parts per million (ppm). The Geos Institute reports that we cannot sustain this level without large-scale catastrophe. (Cue the Day After Tomorrow graphics). 350 ppm would be a sustainable level, they add, but achieving it won’t be easy. We’ll need to massively transform our infrastructure, our transportation system, and our lifestyle.
Our thoughts? It may well be the end of the world as we know it. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Our generation should be ready to respond to big changes in lifestyle. Even more than that, we should be ready to push for big changes. We have to take action. We have to ensure that the end-of-world catastrophic hellfires remain as loose plot devices for the cheesy blockbusters rather than a genuine future facing down our children’s generation.