Theo van de Kletersteeg

During her impassioned speech at the United Nations on September 23, Greta Thunberg made it very clear who she thinks is responsible for the world’s climate change woes: the world’s political “leaders” who, for the past thirty years, have known about the coming impacts of increasing levels of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) in the earth’s atmosphere, but have chosen to do nothing about it.

It is certainly true that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have steadily increased over the decades, indeed, over the centuries. And, despite all the soothing words about “green” developments, and promises of emissions reductions decades into the future, no actual progress has been made in reducing GHG emissions.

Greta’s observations of reality are spot on: the situation is getting worse, not better. Moreover, theoretical scientific predictions of the past appear to manifest themselves with greater vengeance in our daily lives: we are experiencing more and more intensive climate change events such as wildfires, heat waves, local droughts, severe weather, etc. With the U.S. IEA (previous article) predicting that global energy consumption will increase by 50 per cent during the next three decades, can we afford to continue our present “laissez faire, laissez passer” attitudes? What options do we have?

In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Robert Malthus argued that the ability of the earth to provide sustenance was limited and that, therefore, disease, famine and other catastrophes would impose limits on population growth. Given the circumstances of his time, Malthus posited that the world could probably not sustain a population greater than one billion. Having surpassed seven billion, we have far exceeded Malthus’ wildest dreams. But, was he wrong? No, not really, because more than the numbers, it is the principle that is relevant. Industrialization and technology have created the know-how to increase agricultural production, and the wealth to support vastly increased life expectancy, notably through gradual, but successful efforts to eradicate poverty and through vastly improved medical care. What Malthus did not know during his time was that humans and every activity they engage in produces carbon emissions, which are released into the atmosphere, and remain there (unless absorbed by increased vegetation or the oceans). Climate change is a consequence of the cumulative GHG emissions into the earth’s atmosphere that create an additional “blanket” around the earth, resulting in higher global temperatures. Scientists have predicted that increasing concentrations of GHGs will increase global temperatures, which will cause icecaps to melt and inundate low-lying coastal areas, will cause more severe weather, more drought events, all of which will conspire to cause life on earth to become less sustainable. In other words, Malthus was right: the earth cannot sustain unbridled growth – there ARE limits.

Atmospheric GHG buildups are caused by a global population that has exceeded the ability of the earth to sustain. Although humans themselves and the necessary activities to sustain them (production and transportation of food, shelter and clothing) cause considerable amounts of GHGs, the real culprit is the right we in the “developed” world feel we have to consume ever-growing volumes of manufactured products. Think about it: everything we consume requires the expenditure of energy, and the production and consumption of energy typically means the production and release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide. When you use your car, you not only burn gasoline or diesel fuel, you also “amortizing” the copious amounts of energy that are contained in the vehicle you are driving, in the engine block, the transmission, the plastics used in the interior of the cabin, etc, not to mention the infrastructure (roads, bridges) that needed to be created to enable automobile travel. It all started with vast mining operations to dig up the iron ore and metallurgical coal to make the steel, the installations to transform raw steel into useable products, etc. Or think of petrochemicals which today are used in virtually everything that is not food. Much of our clothing is now made of petrochemicals! Our houses and most furnishings and appliances in them contain a lot of steel, copper and petrochemicals, all of which were mined, processed, and transported in energy-intensive operations.

Our prosperity is dependent on keeping consumption going because without it, the economy will contract, workers will lose their jobs, consumers will default on car loans and mortgage payments, etc. Moreover, a declining economy will make greater demands on governments, at a time when they themselves face declining tax revenues, and are least able to help. Government deficits will rise and, frankly, one never knows where it could all end – recessions have the potential to end in depressions.

So, governments would rather maintain the status quo, and encourage people to keep on consuming. The balancing act that governments play is to encourage consumption sufficiently (but not too much) to enable slow, but “sustainable” economic growth, but not too little, which could cause consumer demand to fall and cause the economy to fall into recession.

But, what about ordinary people? Regrettably, few people know more about climate change than the buzzwords. And, encouraged by the promises of their political leaders, they feel that the problems, if any, are being tackled by people who have been elected to deal with society’s problems. Moreover, the vast majority of people do not like change, particularly if the change is likely to make life less comfortable. How many adults do you know who are eager to give up their creature comforts, such as their annual jet getaway to a sunny Caribbean or Pacific destination?

If governments do not have much of a motivation to tackle climate change, except for tinkering around the edges with actions that do little or nothing to help solve the problem, and if citizens are not prepared to suffer lifestyle changes as a result of meaningful action around climate change, the only outcome can be a continuation of current practices: a lot of rhetoric, but continued buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere.

Is there any hope for Greta Thunberg and other young people like her? Other than a radical change in the political environment, which is difficult to anticipate, our best hope lies in advances in technology. Technology has helped mankind out on numerous other occasions just when we thought we had reached the limits. We know there are companies working on technologies to actually remove carbon from the environment, including companies in Canada. Will they be able to advance the technology, and scale it up to a point where, at some time in the future, and in conjunction with more forceful actions to limit the releases of GHGs, we will be able to achieve net zero releases of GHGs? And if environmental engineering technology can help us deal with climate change, what is the cost of such carbon capture? Will we still need to make substantial lifestyle changes, or merely “adjustments”? It seems to me that the sooner we start to take matters seriously, the less damage we’ll cause, and the “easier” it will be to deal with legacy greenhouse gas problems once we figure out how to deal with such problems.

Until that time becomes more “visible”, we need our youth to put more political pressure on governments and adults to remind them of their duty to leave the earth in a suitable state for the next generations.