In 2019 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that we have only left until 2030 to really prevent irreversible damage from climate change. We are literally the last generation to do so and we have less than ten years to achieve the biggest transition of all times, since humans have walked on this earth. The urgency of the matter cannot be overstated.
Incremental sustainable practices
Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the Kyoto Summit in 1997, the strategy has been gradual decline of emissions. And yes, since that time we have learned to make “more from less”. The is how capitalism and technology pave the path of progress, as argued by MIT economist Andrew McAfee. We have made progress in dematerialization of products, and digitalized efficiency in energy use and transportation. We have learned how to re-use and upcycle materials. We have learned the importance of ecosystems, such as mangrove wetland forests to protect coastal areas and we have started reforestation in many places.
A carbon hunger world
However, greenhouse gas emissions have not gone down fast enough. And meanwhile, emerging economies, most notably China, have been catching up with the West. The global population is becoming urbanized, with a growing appetite for concrete, steel and a carnivore diet, which are all heavy on greenhouse gas emissions. Also, China as grown to be the manufacturer of the world, which have made Western consumers and industries addicted to all their amazing and cheap products. And I haven’t mentioned travel yet. No wonder the level of greenhouse gas emissions are nowhere were they should be.
The promise of technology yet to come
The strategy behind the gradual decline of emissions, as agreed in Rio and Kyoto, relied heavily on the promise of technology yet to come. As a futurist, I am exited about the profound change that technology can bring. It can radically shift scarcity to abundance. It can act as an enabler of communication, provide access, allow for new behaviors and improvement of health, wellbeing and happiness. But in the case of capturing and storing CO2 emissions, the promise of a technology fix to compensate emissions in order to reach the goal of zero emissions in time has been too good to be true. Scientists now admit and warn that the premise of net zero is deceptively simple.
A glimpse of the climate change future
Meanwhile, we begin to see a glimpse of the climate change future. Bush fires torture the world. From the Arctic to the entire US West coast, to the rain forest in Brazil, to Australia. Astronauts used to enjoy earth watching. In 2020, they felt horror, watching the earth burn. Glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica lose their mass at an accelerated pace and may be gone before the end of the century. My home city and country, The Hague in the Netherlands, might be gone due to massive sea-level rise, if climate change is not mitigated.
Do we feel it?
And yet, we don’t truly seem to feel the urgency. Yes, we love to see the students protesting, but is it enough? We know the facts, but we don’t feel it deep down how climate change will affect us. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer, makes the comparison with an ambulance that has the word ambulance written on it, so you will move your car whether you hear the siren or not. But a boxer doesn’t need to have the word fist written on a fist to know that it can punch him in the face. The emotion and instinct will make him duck and avoid the fist of his opponent. We need to stay engaged in climate mitigation action, even when we don’t feel the emotion. And that doesn’t stop with breakfast.
In these less than ten years that we have left, we need to change fast, implement quickly and adjust to new sustainable practices in ways that will most likely catapult us out of our comfort zone. But hey, despite all the terrible events in the last year and the devastation of COVID-19, many people have experienced that you get used to things such as online meetings instead of travelling.
An image of the future
Fred Polak, one of the founding fathers of modern futures studies was very clear about this. In his words: “as long as societies have an image of the future that is positive and flowering, then the culture is in bloom.” We now need an image of a sustainable future more than ever. We need the imagination to see what this world would look like. This echoes the words of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Engage in the narrative and join the moon shot missions
We need to long for sustainable futures. We need narratives and images. As futurists, it is our duty to stimulate the collective imagination and to facilitate dialogue about the future, in such a way that we all step up to the plate and start doing what we need to do in these precious nine years that we might have left. Urgency is the keyword. And we all need to dream big. Recently, futurists David Houle, Glen Hiemstra and Gerd Leonhard have initiated the Fork in the Road Project, named after Buckminster Fuller, aiming to start a global narrative that brings 4 existential issues (climate change, capitalism, exponential technological change and human enhancement) into a sharper and wider public focus, and ultimately catalyzes real action by leaders around the world. Economist Mariana Mazzucato calls for moonshot missions to address the wicked problems of today, as outlined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Imagination is our tool to feel engaged. We all need to dream big and join this moonshot mission to slow down the climate change.