Comforting lies hide horrifying truths
Wind turbines gently slice through the air, generating the energy that powers our lives. A majestic sunrise creeps over the horizon. A glistening vibrant green meadow awaits a flock of grazing sheep. Ahhhh, bliss. A picture of sustainability. A future that’s increasingly becoming a reality, or so it would appear. Only, just like the darkest of comedies, this picture is a facade. An aberration. A myth.
In stark contrast to that picture of sustainability and the never-ending fight to ‘solve’ the climate crisis, 2022 was marked by an unwanted record. Carbon emissions reached a new all-time high of 36.8 billion tonnes. So what’s going on? The contrast is an outcome of some rather inconvenient truths that lie under the surface of the battle to solve the climate crisis. Here are eight such inconveniences.
1. COP meetings are a sham
Seeing as it just took place it feels fitting to begin with the Climate Change Conference (COP).
COP 28 ended with a historical back-slapping achievement. For the first time, fossil fuels have been referred to as the driver of climate change. Yeah, that’s the historical achievement, stating the blind obvious. It tells you everything you need to know about this rambling circus.
There’s hope this historical achievement could spell the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. Do you know what we can be confident of? It won’t be the end for fossil fuels. Why so much confidence? Look what happened after the previous ‘historical achievement’ of striking a climate deal at COP 21 in 2015.
The Paris Agreement has been a disaster, with emissions continuing to increase ever since.
After 28 conferences you might be thinking surely the UN would accept that maybe, just maybe, this approach isn’t working. And it’s an approach that will never work because the delegates can never question the cause of increasing emissions.
That cause centres on a global economy that has become gigantic in scale. The global economy is so big that it has led to ecological overshoot. Essentially we use way more energy and resources in a year than the Earth can renew. And it’s been that way since the 1970s.
Overshoot is the reason why atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are increasing every year. But the global economy will continue to grow because the critical belief that holds modern society together is economic growth. And as long as economies are compelled to grow, emissions will be an outcome. You can’t have one without the other.
That’s why COP meetings are a waste of time. They can’t question economic growth. It would be a bit like the Council of Cardinals questioning a belief in God.
So we’re left with a circus that ducks and dives, desperately avoiding that which must not be questioned.
2. It’s not a climate crisis, it’s an ecological crisis
Moving swiftly on, what makes COP meetings and the whole climate crisis agenda so questionable is that we’re not facing a climate crisis at all. We’re facing an ecological one.
The interconnected nature of the environmental problem was powerfully revealed by the planetary boundaries framework in 2009. The study identified nine processes that are critical to maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth system as a whole.
You wouldn’t think it though, would you? Apparently, a changing climate is the one and only problem, which explains why institutional changes and the strategies and actions that feed from them are focused on ensuring the global average temperature remains below 1.5°C. Actions to reach the goal revolve around achieving net zero by 2050.
Creating an achievable objective makes it appear that rather than radical transformative change, we only need to decarbonise economies; rather than questioning the sustainability of high living standards fed by consumerism, we need to reduce individual impacts by reducing waste or recycling more or driving electric cars.
Each assumption feeds into a rather palatable conclusion, current lifestyles can be maintained, we just need to make a few tweaks to how we do things, and everything will be okay.
3. High living standards are unsustainable
Living standards are really what this is all about. There is an unwavering belief that we can reduce emissions while maintaining, and even increasing, prosperity.
But the high and rising living standards that have accompanied modern society have a gigantic ecological footprint, hence why we’re in a state of overshoot.
Our footprint on the Earth is why we produce over two billion tonnes of waste, every year. Global waste is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. Waste is just one element of that massive footprint.
Individual footprints are correlated with incomes. The higher the income, the bigger the footprint. More people with higher incomes means that the footprint will get larger. A larger footprint just means overshoot will get worse, which translates into increasing emissions, increasing phosphorus loading, increasing habitat destruction — you get the idea.
The inconvenient truth is that high and rising living standards are incompatible with forming sustainable societies. And that’s one inconvenient truth.
4. This is not a fight to ‘solve’ anything
The strangest truth has to be the narrative that we’re in some grand battle of the ages.
Who exactly are we fighting against? The Earth? The climate? Emissions? Ourselves? This isn’t the final boss in a game.
So often the narrative revolves around a fight to solve the climate crisis. The assumption is that we’re faced with a technical problem that can be overcome through technological innovation.
Underlying this assumption is yet another — we still have time to maintain the environmental conditions we depend on. But this is a lie. Whether we like it or not, changes to the climate are locked in. Things are never going to be the same again.
It’s not about fighting some enemy, it’s about adapting to a future that is still unknown. That doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
5. Changes to the climate are locked in
On the topic of the future, we know we’re hurtling towards a bleak one due to climate models. It’s models that have led to the IPCC’s 1.5°C target. A target that has become biblical in its importance.
Because global average temperatures haven’t quite hit the target yet you’ll often hear the well-versed narrative — we still have time!
But the Earth isn’t some static benevolent system. Naturally, the 1.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions we’ve released since the start of the industrial revolution are bound to have an impact on the world around us.
The cold hard truth is that positive feedbacks have become self-reinforcing.
So even if we stopped emissions today emissions would still be released through natural sources like melting permafrost.
If we stopped emissions today warming would continue due to impacts like the continued melting of the highly reflective polar ice caps.
If we stopped emissions today “sea levels would continue to rise for centuries, due to the time-lags associated with climate processes and feedbacks.”
In other words, we are locked into a planetary emergency. The idea we still have until (add a date a few years into the future) to win the ‘fight’ against climate change feeds into the myth that we don’t need to make adaptations to lifestyles.
If only that were true.
6. We have no idea what the future holds — we just know it will be really bad
Talking of that sacred 1.5°C target.
The preeminent climate scientist James Hansen has written extensively on this subject arguing that “global warming of more than 1°C…would likely constitute “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with climate.”
But, 1.5°C is the threshold, isn’t it? The target is 1.5°C. We just need to keep temperatures below 1.5°C.
The really inconvenient truth is that models can only tell us so much. Ed Lorenz’s metaphor of the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Peking can set in motion a chain of events leading to rain rather than sunshine in New York, illustrates the complexity in non-linear systems like Earth.
He argues that even if we could forecast how every flap of every butterfly wing impacts the weather, it would only improve the accuracy of forecasts by a few minutes because forecasts are limited by a two-week threshold.
If the earth system is too complex to predict weather forecasts accurately beyond that two-week limit, then we can’t say with a high level of confidence what the climate will look like in the decades to come. While useful in giving us the foresight to know our actions are destabilising the climate, models are limited in their accuracy.
Even if Hansen is proven correct (a fact he readily hopes not to be the case, given the consequences), it no longer matters. The IPCC can hardly turn around and say whoops, we’ve made a mistake; actually, we have to keep global warming below 1°C. The goal has been set, and now it’s locked in stone.
And even if you’re clinging onto that 1.5°C target, the reality is that “1.5°C will be reached around 2030 regardless of the emissions path.”
7. It could be catastrophic when we stop burning fossil fuels
Everyone bangs on about decarbonisation as if it’s our ticket to sustainability, but what’s often neglected is that decarbonisation could come with its own risks.
Burning fossil fuels releases aerosols alongside those greenhouse gases. Unlike greenhouse gases that absorb the sun’s heat, aerosols reflect heat back into the atmosphere (in a similar way to clouds).
There are fears that an aggressive phase-out of fossil fuels will lead to a ‘climate penalty’. This is where the aerosols that were being consistently released from burning fossil fuels dissipate in a few years, leading to a sharp spike in global warming by as much as 1°C in as little as ten years.
A recent paper has disputed this fear arguing “global average temperatures…do not show a near-term spike in warming.” But herein lies the problem when you start meddling with such a complex system like Earth.
As soon as we turned on the engines of industry we unlocked a host of wickedly complex unintended consequences that no one could have foreseen at the time.
8. We‘re relying on technology that doesn’t exist
A very inconvenient truth about the battle to solve the climate crisis is that goals like net zero aren’t possible without technology that either doesn’t exist or is in its infancy.
Take Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The IPCC considers CCS vital in reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The idea is that carbon dioxide is captured and then stored deep in the Earth’s crust, essentially creating an artificial carbon sink.
The technology sounds promising but with 27 fully operational CCS facilities worldwide the industry is in its infancy. To have any tangible impact CCS would need to be scaled enormously.
To gauge the scale required, since Shell’s Quest CCS facility opened in Alberta, Canada, in 2015, it has captured just over 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year. If CCS were to play a role in achieving net zero it would need to capture a large percentage of emissions. For argument’s sake, 4,000 such facilities would be needed to capture four billion tonnes of CO2 per year (10 percent of global CO2 emissions).
An obstacle to scaling is the vast cost. Shell received $865 million from the governments of Canada and Alberta to build and operate Quest. CCS isn’t designed to create any value outside of capturing CO2 so the only incentive to build and maintain such a facility seems to be for ulterior motives. In the case of Quest, it’s not coincidental that the facility is in the same state as the Alberta Tar Sands, the world’s most destructive oil operation.
The Canadian government has much to gain in investing in such a facility which feeds a perception that any continued operations at the Tar Sands can be offset by Quest.
Critics aren’t so convinced, with some arguing Quest emits more CO2 than it captures.
The horrifying reality
It can be awfully comforting to bury your head in the sand — that’s what climate myths are designed to do. They inspire positivity, hope, optimism. They also serve a vital purpose.
Myths are being weaponised into truths to help justify the status quo. They present an illusion of change. They feed into the idea that sure, we have a problem, but nothing technology can’t handle.
The inconvenient truths tell a different story. They reveal a bitter, ghastly reality that no one dares admit. Whether we like it or not, we are facing a crisis where the opportunity to escape has long since passed. That crisis will translate into unparalleled suffering, unrest, and chaos. No amount of back-slapping will prevent it.