A thought experiment: If Earth had different characteristics and climate change had occurred at a faster pace, we would have been less equipped to deal with it. Now we are prepared.
Two factors determine the speed of human-caused climate change: the Earth’s characteristics and human activities. I invite you to take a step back and perform a thought experiment.
Let’s consider a human development scenario similar to the one we know today. Imagine a scenario in which the Earth’s characteristics are different and global warming has a different causal speed. Imagine, then, a scenario in which we suffer the consequences of today at a different time — 100, 50 or 10 years earlier, for example.
What conclusions would you draw?
Why do the Earth’s characteristics determine the speed of global warming?
Since the industrial revolution, human activities have been emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.
CO2 is a greenhouse gas; in other words, it prevents part of the Sun’s rays from leaving the Earth, causing its atmosphere to heat up — just like a greenhouse.
Fortunately, nature has a way of balancing the greenhouse effect, and “natural carbon sinks” exist to store some of the excess CO2 emitted by mankind. The size of natural carbon sinks therefore influences the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere correlates with changes in global temperature. So, depending on the size of natural carbon sinks, the speed of global warming varies.
Humanity has inherited a planet with oceans of a certain size and green spaces that have a given capacity to store carbon through photosynthesis. The ocean could have been smaller, or the Earth could have had less green space.
Given constant human activity, it’s therefore partly the result of chance that global warming is proceeding at this rate and that we are now suffering the consequences. Sure, a different world might have caused life to evolve differently and human activity to be more or less constrained, but stay with me here.
Why this time frame might be the right one — a cause for hope?
Simply put, humanity is in a better position to provide an answer today than yesterday.
First and foremost, the idea of international cooperation conceals the idea of peace. It’s important to remember that without peace, nothing is possible.
Peace, on all scales, is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition. Imagine an intense climatic disturbance in the first half of the 20th century, when Europe was experiencing extreme tensions as a result of the two world wars and the Cold War. International cooperation would have been impossible.
Countries could have taken advantage of critical climatic situations to attack or weaken their neighbours. Worries would have led to an every-man-for-himself attitude.
Today, while tragic wars still rage in far too many corners of our planet, a majority peaceful world order reigns.
Take Europe, for example, where a period of peace makes cooperation possible. Europe, through the European Union, is more conducive to mutual aid, the sharing of resources and the establishment of common policies such as the Green Deal. In a peaceful Europe, concerns can be more focused on fighting global warming.
On a global scale, we have institutions that exist to improve solidarity between nations. For example, the financial global summit in 2023 convened to offer financial support to developing countries in their fight against climate change.
In addition, well-known institutions such as the UN have set the Sustainable Development Goals. This year, UN Secretary General António Guterres even launched a plan to accelerate the development of these goals.
“This positive outlook, I hope, could give you energy to act”
Numerous organisations, such as the World Health Organization, ensure cooperation between countries.
The Montreal Protocol of 1987 is proof that international cooperation can literally save the planet. The protocol was an agreement to protect the ozone layer, which is now on track to recover completely within the next 40 years.
Of course, we need to reform institutions and make their modes of governance fairer and more aligned with current global geopolitical realities. I can’t write this paragraph without recalling that many conflicts and tensions are still sadly present, such as the war in Ukraine, China’s pressure on Taiwan, the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and, most recently, the resurgence of Israel-Palestine hostilities.
Economic warfare is also a considerable brake on cooperation. It’s our duty, as humans, to resolve these tensions as quickly as possible, not only for the sake of human lives but also to focus our energies on the same struggle.
The technological revolution
As well as an at least somewhat peaceful world order, we now have another arrow in our quiver — technology.
Renewable energies are growing fast, becoming cheaper as their efficiency improves. Sustainable means of transport, such as electric railways, are being developed. If we have to solve the problem of intensive agriculture, we can feed the world’s population better and better, thanks to climate-resilient modified crops and non-nature-degrading fertilisers.
Means of communication and information have exploded, enabling us to link human beings together. If these means of communication are used wisely, they enable us to obtain information quickly and accurately, with the possibility of forming an opinion by cross-referencing sources.
Technology and digital technology can also help us achieve great things with ‘tech for good’ principles. Of course, when good exists, so does evil. The misuse of our personal data by social media companies and the Black Mirror series show some potential excesses.
The challenge is to regulate technology. Today, the solutions exist, and it’s up to public policy, companies and citizens to take the necessary measures.
Sometimes it can feel like humanity is going backward, or at best staying the same. But just take one look at the Human Development Indices, which have been growing linearly from 1990 to 2019, and maybe you can find a cause for hope.
A reference I really like for bringing a positive perspective is Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, which shows that when polled, people almost always think the world is in a worse state than it is. Perhaps the media has a role to play in that perception (apologies).
Rosling wants to combat the strong instinct of binary thinking with a fact-based approach. He refers to those positive facts for which people systematically give the wrong answers:
- 80% of the world’s one-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease (Global Health Observatory Data Repository: Immunization, 2017).
- 85% of the world’s population has access to electricity (Global Monitoring Framework).
- The number of deaths per year from natural disasters over the last hundred years has decreased by a half (Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)).
- The share of Earth’s land surface protected as national parks and other reserves is growing.
- Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school; on average, women of the same age have spent 9 years in school (Barro and Lee, 2013).
Statistics like these are a helpful reminder that, in many ways, humanity is on the right track.
In short, yes, we’re not doing nearly enough to combat climate change (and many of the world’s problems), but positive progress is often slow and can easily go unnoticed. If there was ever a time for eight billion people to come together and solve the most existential threat to date, that time would be now.
We have the tools at our fingertips; all we need to do is collectively figure out how to use them.
Why did I write this article?
The aim of this article is to offer a positive perspective. I don’t want to say that we have the luxury of fighting climate change today. That would be cynical.
However, we are now ready to tackle climate change with rapid human change if we give ourselves the means to do so.
My approach is simplistic and has its limitations. I don’t pretend to say that it’s the right approach to this thought experiment. However, I do defend the idea that this thought experiment allows us to take a step back and gain another perspective.
Climate change could have evolved at a different speed, preventing us from developing the means to understand it, to fight it and to achieve social progress through it. This positive outlook, I hope, could give you energy to act.