From droughts and wildfires to storms and floods, the number of climate-related disasters nearly doubled in the last 20 years – but political and business leaders are still failing to rein in climate change, the U.N. leaders warned last month.
But the situation remains far from hopeless, author and environmental scientist Paul Behrens says in a book that deviates from the often-gloomy climate literature.
“The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”, published in September, lays out two very different futures for the world.
In paired chapters on subjects such as food, energy, climate change and economics, he alternates between pessimistic and hopeful views – much like many ordinary people, he said.
Gathering data for the book – which has 75 pages of references – made the assistant professor in energy and environmental change at Netherland’s Leiden University an advocate for hope, he said.
Just don’t call him an optimist.
“Optimism is a sort of relaxed state of thinking things will turn out okay because they have in the past. I think hope is the kind of emotion you can have even in the darkness and I think that’s kind of what we’re in right now,” he said.
In an interview, the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked him to bust some of the most egregious and long-standing climate myths.
Population growth causes climate change
Behrens called this argument “eco-fascism” and said the amount of goods and services people consume, rather than the number of people in the world, is the biggest issue.
The 10% of highest earners globally emit half the world’s carbon emissions – through things like frequent flying, shopping and SUV driving – so cutting back consumption among the rich rather than population growth among the poor is the real issue.
“It is the richer people around the world who are pushing the planet to this situation,” he said.
“If there were 1 billion people on the planet, perhaps that would be better – but you could have 1 billion people consuming 10 times as much stuff as today and you’d still have the same problem.”
Besides, population growth is levelling off and last year the United Nations revised down its population estimates for 2050, he said.
Climate-related migration would be a disaster
While the human cost of forced dislocation from homes would be huge, preparing for and managing expected migration associated with climate change could ease the blow – and hold the line on emissions, Behrens said.
Directing migrants to parts of the world where populations are shrinking, for instance, and excess housing capacity exists could avoid “huge amounts of cement emissions and electricity emissions” associated with construction booms.
Moving migrants in this way avoids “building the infrastructure twice because as the homes go empty in Europe, Japan and America, there’ll be more homes being built in the rapidly growing regions,” he said.
That means “in one sense, migration is also a climate (emissions) mitigation policy.”
That is particularly true because materials such as cement and steel are difficult to make low-carbon, said Behrens, who is doing research to calculate the level of such emissions that could be avoided through migration.
As well, remittances from migrants to their families back home have been shown to reduce poverty, hunger and fertility rates, he added.
The future is a choice between hell and paradise
As the world looks ahead at climate threats and the opportunities of a low-carbon future, “one of the myths is that it’s a binary outcome of cataclysm and violence, or utopia”, Behrens said.
“Although as humans we love to think in those ways, it’s just not true. We’re going to be somewhere in between those two extremes,” he said.
Current levels of biodiversity loss and planetary heating are “incredibly grim”, he said.
But big systemic changes in how food and energy are produced, and in how economic systems function, are happening too, even if they do not seem to be happening fast enough, he added.
Installation of renewable energy – particularly solar – has happened far faster than repeated International Energy Agency forecasts predicted, and big shifts in energy systems can happen remarkably quickly.
It took 50 to 60 years for the world to move from wood energy to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, Behrens said.
But the more local systems of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries needed for the energy of the future are, for the most part, easier to install than the large centralised systems that have been the norm, he said.
The new systems also allow faster improvements because each new version of a smaller, more modular technology is a new opportunity to lower costs and improve efficiencies.
We’ll know when we’ve reached the climate tipping point
We won’t, because natural climate tipping points typically play out over centuries and can be hard to spot, Behrens said.
They are different from societal tipping points which can be hard to predict but happen very quickly, whether it’s the legalisation of gay marriage, restrictions on cigarette smoking or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We may not know when we pass a tipping point but the chances of passing one could increase quickly” as warming continues, he said, with the world already having warmed more than 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
Scientists say the threat of catastrophic climate shifts is likely to increase significantly if the world passes 1.5C of warming, which could happen within a decade.
There is also a chance tipping points, like the loss of the Greenland ice sheet loss and changes in fundamental ocean currents, are lined up behind one another like dominoes and could cause accelerating changes to the climate.
But modeling such complex changes is difficult – and it’s possible we won’t know that we’ve already passed a tipping point, perhaps for several decades.
“It’s almost like we’re running this race and we don’t know where the finish line is,” he said. “All we know is, the less warming the better.”
Tackling climate change would be like combating COVID-19 – not fun
COVID-19 restrictions and economic slowdowns may have cut emissions temporarily but it’s “false” to say addressing climate change would feel the same, Behrens said.
Coronavirus measures have “meant less social interaction and less fun” whereas significant parts of what we have to do to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss could mean “more fun and better health”.
For example, about 1,000 people die prematurely a day in Europe from air pollution. Making cities more walkable and friendlier to cyclists, and better equipped with clean public transport, could help save thousands of lives.
“It also means never having to smell the fumes of diesel again… because every time you smell that diesel exhaust, it’s taking time off your life,” with children the hardest hit, Behrens said.
Having more parks and forests would not only capture more planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but provide physical and mental benefits, from lowering rates of heart and lung problems to curbing stress, he added.
The problem is so big that individual actions don’t matter
“People sometimes have a problem with individual behaviour change because they say that detracts from the (need for) systems change,” Behrens said.
But “we need to do both” because “individual change drives system change and system change allows more individual change,” he said.
Whether it’s eating less meat, driving an electric car or reducing your flights, what you do can influence your friends and neighbours, and the companies you buy from, especially if you talk about it, social scientists say.
Finding ways to take positive action on a seemingly overwhelming problem like climate change is good for your mental health, Behrens said.
“No matter how bad things get and how much despair you have about the future, there is never a point at which it’s not worthwhile making that change within, and to the outside world,” Behrens said.
That could be buying a bike or walking more to cut down on driving, installing extra insulation in your home to cut energy use or slashing consumption of red meat, which produces particularly high emissions.
To produce broader societal change, he recommends talking to others in your social networks about why you’ve made the changes and how they are helping.
If you want to go a step further, he said, consider getting involved in civil action, from protests to court cases.
“As people start to take action, they start to get more hopeful, because they see there are other people around them that care in the same way and are changing in the same way,” he said.
For example, more people turning to plant-based diets has led to an uptick in the green options available, which then attracts even more people – including meat lovers – to try them out, he said.