Graeme Maxton

Climate Change Economist and Author

We’re fooling ourselves spectacularly

The virus as a doorway

Covid-19 is only the most recent example of a new and worrying trend. It is one of a growing number of “zoonotic” diseases that have passed from other species to humans. Others include HIV, SARS, MERS, Zika, and Ebola.

The reason these diseases are more common is simple: too many people are invading the territory of other species. Without change, the number of these diseases will rise, as will their economic and social impact. Put simply, unless humans respect nature more, they face a series of healthcare crises, some of which will be even more serious than now.

This is all because the human population has grown too large. With the push for more economic output requiring ever-more energy, land and raw materials, as well as rising levels of urbanization, our impact has simply become too great.

The rising population has had many other side-effects of course, and the most serious is climate change.

It is easy to get confused about climate change. The headlines have become as numbing as the endless inter-governmental conferences. The problem is said to be urgent even though the most serious consequences are decades away. There is a great deal of misinformation out there too, with some sowing seeds of doubt about the science, or even denying there is a problem.

The truth, unfortunately, is that we are fooling ourselves spectacularly. The problem is very serious, and very urgent, and nothing societies are doing is having any useful effect. All those investments in wind-farms, solar energy, electric cars, and recycling have achieved almost nothing, and the pace of global warming has continued to accelerate. The surface of the planet is today hotter than at any time in the last 3 million years.

There’s about a decade

Without change, we will hit a catastrophic tipping-point in about a decade. Then the polar ice will melt even faster, reducing the planet’s ability to reflect heat, accelerating the warming. The permafrost in Siberia and northern Canada will also melt more quickly, and many of the world’s forests will die. Both will release even more global-warming gases.

By 2050 the average temperature will be the highest in 10 million years. By 2100, the planet will be as hot as it was 45 million years ago.

The full effects of this will take centuries to play out. But parts of the planet will be uninhabitable by 2050, including much of North Africa, the Mediterranean, India, Australia and the southern United States. (You should think carefully before buying property in these places.) More than 500 cities will also have to be depopulated because of rising sea levels. And all this will happen even if all of the conditions of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord are met. What has been agreed by governments so far will not avoid this catastrophe, nor delay it one second.

The only way to avoid this chain-reaction is for societies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 7% a year. By 2030, emissions must be at least 60% lower than today. By 2040 they must be zero – not “net-zero”. Trying to offset emissions in some way, such as planting trees, which take decades to grow, is not enough.

Societies also have to change the way they grow food, and stop all deforestation. And they will need to run thousands of carbon capture and storage plants at full-blast for more than a century, if they are to bring the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere back to safer levels.

Even then, even having done all this, humanity’s chance of avoiding the worst will be little better than 50:50.

Only radical change will do

A chance for change

Achieving this sort of transformation, requires a radical change in how we think about progress. Societies have to dismantle the current economic system, regardless of the short term cost, with almost everyone changing the way they live, whether they want to or not. The most polluting businesses – fossil fuel firms and cement companies – have to be shuttered as fast as possible. Flights and vehicle use have to be hugely restricted.

Until recently, a change on this scale this was thought impossible because the economic disruption would be too great. But the Coronavirus has shown that it is actually possible to cut emissions, downsize the aviation industry, reduce vehicle use, and support people during a crisis.

The virus has given societies a chance to introduce the radical transformation that is needed.

Instead of supporting oil firms, airlines, and car manufacturers, governments should close them. Instead of boosting output, societies should downsize and shift to a new economic system, which coexists with nature. Instead of expecting everyone to be financially independent, governments should pay a basic income to all and retrain people to work in new business sectors: materials recovery, emissions capture, repairing, sharing, and recycling. To pay for the transition, governments should print money, just as they did after the 2008 financial crisis. While there is a risk of a debt crisis, this is much easier to handle than runaway climate change.

Covid-19 gives humanity a unique opportunity to work together and create a more sustainable future for everyone. We should grasp the chance before it is too late.

To learn how to do this read or listen to “A chicken can’t lay a duck egg: How Covid-19 can solve the climate crisis.” The German edition is called “F*ck the System”. The book is also available in Czech and Slovak.

Change is still possible, just