Before I talk to someone I’ve just met about climate change, I like to first ask, “Do you want to go to the moon?”
I mean, going to the moon might be kind of cool. If someone built a moon colony that had food, toilets, breathable air, water, and internet, I’d consider it. (Internet? Really? Yes, really. There is a hard limit on how much stuff a can fit on a rocket before it’s too heavy to take off. If I can’t bring my CDs and books, than I’ll need internet. Non-negotiable.) But going to the moon has trade-offs. It means never standing outside, breathing fresh air and feeling the breeze on your skin, ever again. It means looking out the window, if there even are any, out into a chalky wasteland. Low gravity, which causes a myriad of health problems. But you can watch the Earthrise, be on a new frontier of human civilization, and get away from all the craziness on Earth.
But how keen I am to go to the moon depends a lot on what happens with Earth’s climate. If things go well, there’s no point rushing off to the moon. If things go poorly, going to the moon might be a good idea. So my infuriating answer to ‘Do you want to go to the moon?’ is ‘what’s going to happen with climate change?’
To which, even more infuriatingly, there is no one answer. The story of climate change has not been written yet, although we’re writing a little more of it with every kilogram of greenhouse gasses that are released into the atmosphere. But from where we stand currently, there are four scenarios of how climate change can go for the next eighty years or so. These scenarios are complex, detailed, and require a lot of nuance in explaining them. But since this is a blog and there are only so many hours in the day, I’ll majorly oversimplify them here.
Actually, how best to oversimplify climate change (you have to oversimplify it when talking about it, after all, it is a multi-century global phenomenon) is a problem I am fascinated by and have explored previously. I’ve been practicing how to condense climate change into an article or a LinkedIn post, but here I thought I’d try and sum up the future of the human race in a nifty little picture. Does it get any simpler to a picture? I mean, it needs some context, but this sums up the problem quite well, I think. Here you go:
This is a matrix. It shows four futures for climate change, which consider two primary factors to come up with the different possibilities for how climate change can go this century. We can start with the factors under consideration:
- Do we reduce our greenhouse emissions (inaction vs mitigation)? This process is called ‘mitigation’ by academics and is the great question of climate change. You may have heard the term ‘net-zero’ flung around by policy-makers, or talk of emission cuts or reductions. This is what those statements are referring to. We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (from burning oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) to zero by 2050 and cut usage by 50% over the next decade. This is achievable, but not easy. If we manage to reduce emissions, we end up in the right side of the climate matrix. If not, we end up on the left.
- Do we adapt to climate change (adaptation vs maladaptation)? How well the human race will adapt to climate change is an open, uncertain question at the moment. Humans are remarkably adaptable and can already survive in a wide variety of climates all over the planet. However, climate change is creating new extremes to adapt to, making new problems and hazards hard to predict with much certainty. Adaptation can mean many different things, from behavioral changes, to new protective measures to preventing flooding or forest fires, or new technologies to monitor everything from weather to crop health. If we adapt well, we end up in the top half of the climate matrix. If we do poorly, we end up on the bottom half.
So these two elements, adaptation and mitigation, are our primary matrix factors. We either succeed or fail at either of them, giving us several futures for how climate change unfolds. While it would be foolish to make specific guesses or general predictions, I am confident these four scenarios cover the basics. So let’s dive into them. In order of least to most preferable, we have:
Calamity: Calamity is a potent mix of failing to reduce emissions and failing to adapt. The world gets warmer, the effects of climate change grow progressively worse each passing decade, and we cannot adapt to the changes. This would be disasters, with mass migration (which is not trying to spook anyone about immigrants. Most migration is within countries rather than between them) food and water shortages, severe natural disasters of all kinds, high sea-level rise, and possibly the destruction of cities and critical infrastructure. While it probably wouldn’t lead to the extinction of the human race, we’re far too widespread and resilient than that, climate change would be a destructive force unparalleled by history.
The good news is that with every new commitment, piece of legislation, and action on climate change, calamity gets a little bit less likely. Don’t let a climate catastrophe keep you up at night, the odds of global upheaval are, thankfully, getting smaller.
New Vulnerabilities:: Let’s say we reduce emissions through aggressive action. There is a coordinated global effort and the reluctant parties are supported or shamed into compliance, and we reach zero emissions by 2050. That would be cause for celebration (I’d be overjoyed, but I’d also need to start working on my resume. Won’t be any need for a climate change specialist in that case) and we would have tamed climate change into something we can manage as a global civilization. Sounds great, right?
Mostly. The big problem with an entirely mitigation focused climate change response is that a lot of vulnerable people are going to be in even more precarious situations due to changing temperatures and rainfall patterns. If there isn’t enough funding and action put into adaptation, we will have a world with limited warming, but also one where the most vulnerable will still struggle enormously. In the very long-term, this option means stable climate, but global catastrophes for the poor and disadvantaged all over the world.
Ongoing Adaptation: If we fail to reduce emissions but get very good at adaptation, we could potentially just adapt to our constantly changing world as rising temperatures create an entirely new climate. This will mean constant adaptation, and could still lead to disastrous climate change for much of the world if not adaptation actions and funds are not shared easily. But the human race would endure even in the face of continuing climate change for the next few centuries. Yes, centuries. Climate change, especially in the higher end of emission scenarios, can go on for the next five-hundred years. Ongoing adaptation means a very long struggle and dealing with an increasingly fraught climate.
Win/Win: Alex goes back to school or learns how to code at the ripe old age of 59! Climate Change Specialists have gone the same way as telegraph operators, thanks for everything, bye now. Because climate change has been mitigated, adapted to, and now we can focus on the rest of the problems facing this one! Win/win means successful adaptation, mitigation, and a fair and equal sharing of resources, knowledge, and technology to beat climate change. There will be struggles along the way, to be sure, but the vast majority of humanity is saved and Earth’s climate can be carefully monitored and kept stable for tens of thousands of years.
So, do you want to go to the moon? If we’re facing calamity, I do. But if we’re looking at a win/win, let’s not bother. Earth is lovely, if we can keep it. And no, I can’t predict which scenario we’ll end up facing. But that’s really up to us, and collective action and holding elected officials accountable can move the needle closer to win/win. But climate change is a marathon, not a sprint. So a lot of planning, engagement, and discussion over a long timeframe is critical.
So, let’s put the moon in our back pocket and see what can be done here.