This summer’s heat wave in Europe, like last summer’s wave of forest fires in North America, galvanized public awareness of climate change.
Those events were cases of extreme weather, which are expected to intensify with global warming but are not intrinsically what is meant by climate change.
While denying climate change makes ostriches with their head under the sand look smart, accepting it opens a bewildering array of questions, both diagnostic and prescriptive. So much communications effort is made to insist on what “scientists say” that we may forget that science is an iterative, combative yet collaborative effort in which consensus is unusual – think Galileo.
A related conundrum, uncovered more than a decade ago, is that the more a person understands and embraces the mathematics of climate change, the less likely they are to believe that they need individually to do anything about it. Few scientists think that abolishing plastic straws will move the needle, although many applaud the spread of “awareness”.
Insofar as greenhouse gas levels are at record highs and all trends point to quite a few places in the world being inhospitable to human life as we know it before the end of the 21st century, collective action is growing more urgent by the day. Soon we will have to put aside talk of “win-win” solutions and talk about trade-offs between different interest groups and even generations.
Take the transportation sector, one of the most emissions-intense sectors as well as one where responsible mitigation initiatives are widely deployed. It’s popular to call for slowing down, but actually climate change will increase the need for goods – food, for instance – to be moved around the world to optimize the balance of needs and natural endowments. This is notably the case for Italy, known as a global food superhouse but one of the most dependent on trade to achieve enough calories for its population to thrive.
People, too, may be on the move, if it turns out that one of every five cities will experience climate conditions that have never been tried by homo sapiens in the past, as predicted by Zurich-based scientist Tom Crowther.
Consider Africa, where the population is expected to grow quickly in the coming decades, and where two-thirds of rural people currently live more than two kilometers away from any road. Coping with climate change – both through adaptation and mitigation – will require rather massive infrastructure investments. That will be to provide basic network services and also to maintain assets that are susceptible to climate change. A minimal bill for road work alone is $78 billion through 2030, according to a new World Bank report. That’s two times the GDP of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa.
And consider the frequent stories we hear of coastal communities in less-developed nations being devastated by flooding, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Fostering resilience almost certainly requires toughening up urban infrastructures – meaning a lot of concrete and steel. The alternative is increasingly precarious lives, move out-migration and poverty, which catalyzes existential coping activities that exacerbate negative climate trends. In Uganda, for instance, farmers resort to slash-and-burn swidden agriculture because it’s hard otherwise to extract enough calories from the land to offset the work required to grow crops on it.
The monetary scale skyrockets when global needs are considered – reaching as high as $97 trillion by 2040, with the bulk going to road and electricity sectors and in particular to replacement and upgrading rather than flashy new builds,, according to the World Economic Forum.
As doctors are famous for saying: “It’s going to get worse before getting better.”
Investors – in this case including public capital and policy makers – are by now able to make lifecycle assessments of costs and benefits. As Celia Sapart of Utrecht University notes, that wasn’t the case in the deep past, when ancient Rome and China embarked on large-scale peatland drainage and rice-paddy cultivation and – according to atmospheric trace evidence buried in the ice of Greenland - triggered a sharp uptick in greenhouse gas emissions that was tamed only by drastic population declines linked to the fall of the Han Dynasty and the decline of the Roman empire.
The next phase in Anthropocene storytelling must be about finding ways to reach trade-offs that produce the best possible results. That also means working up narratives that help identify what that means in terms of duration – short, medium or long term? – and how to navigate the slippery and tyranny-prone utilitarian calculus of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”.
Humility is a good starting position, though won’t get us far. One useful paradigm has been to consider climate change as an extreme case of a “wicked” problem. Wicked problems feature no evil witches but are rife with self-referential paradoxes that can generate vicious cycles.
A classic example is the large-scale industrial farming being done in the American Midwest. For much of the 20th century this was viewed as a “feed the world” miracle, but the tide has turned on that view due to soil depletion, biodiversity loss and agrochemical pollution. Paradoxically, though, scientists now think that giant wave of monocropping reduced global temperatures by as much as half a degree. Adding to the surprise is a new study that warns that growing cover crops in winter – a “climate-smart” technique aimed at making soils healthier and reducing erosion – may increase global temperatures as the plants crowd out snow cover and reduce surface albedo, meaning solar reflection.
In recent years a new category = “super wicked problems” – has been defined. Among the special attributes of this class is that time is running out for a solution, and that those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution.
The latter point is a reminder that we all, in varying ways, contribute to climate change – a starting point for looking at the trade-offs we’ll be forced to consider.