First, let’s be clear about something: the 1951-1980 average global temperature was 14 degrees Celsius. So when we talk about that average climbing by 1.5C, 2C, 3C, or 4 or more degrees C, we are not talking 4 in 100 or 4 in 1000, we’re talking about 4 in 14. 4C added to 14C would be about a 29% increase in the average global temperature. 29% more total heat energy trapped in our thin bubble of atmosphere.
The chances of us avoiding that 4 degrees C warming don’t look good just now. 2018 saw heat-trapping gases hit record levels in the atmosphere. The most recent report from the American Meteorological Society tells us that “[i]n 2018, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—continued their increase. The annual global average carbon dioxide concentration at Earth’s surface was 407.4 ± 0.1 ppm, the highest in the modern instrumental record and in ice core records dating back 800,000 years.” These levels had not been seen the entire time humans have walked the Earth. The report also found that sea levels are at the highest ever recorded. Not surprising then to see that last month, July 2019, was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth (so far).
It’s not as if we we’re doing this in ignorance. The state of the world today is that our default economics are taking for granted that we will not avoid the worst outcomes of warming and its associated horrors. Half of all fossil fuels ever used were burned in just the last 29 years, well within the era of established climate science. The world’s 33 biggest banks have poured almost two trillion dollars into new fossil fuels projects since 2016, the year after the Paris climate accords were signed.
So, let’s be clear about a second thing: the gasses trapping that extra energy are a function of the human economy. So it’s checkmate for the climate, right? Since that economy is enormously complex, isn’t restructuring it difficult to the point of impossible?
No. At the end of the day, the economy is just us – people – the stuff we use, eat, and drink every day, our methods of making those things, and the energy that powers it all. That’s it. There is no engraved requirement for any of that to run on fossil fuels, deforestation, dangerous chemicals, or any other risk causing practices.
And yet, all of us alive today were born into a world where things like fossil fuels and forest clear-cutting were standard practice, our defaults. That world is where we’re comfortable. It is our inherited wisdom, the water we swim in. As a result, we go through our daily lives not only participating in but unwittingly perpetuating this destructive economy. So now, confronted with a climate crisis, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the way out of our inherited economy? Let’s start with basic principles.
Where does an economy begin to take shape? Not surprisingly, it emerges from where we allocate our resources. That’s right, from what we invest in. Since we’re all swimming in the worldview of the legacy economy, we usually think nothing of simply dropping our savings into that vision of how the economy worked. “The financial news channel says I should just buy an S&P 500 index fund? Good, sorted, done. What’s next today?”
And so we behave as if there’s no connection between how we allocate our resources and how the economy works. By default, we behave as if perpetuating the legacy economy won’t lead us straight past a 4 degrees Celsius global average temperature increase. Worse, in owning things like oil, gas, internal combustion engines, and the banks that today fund massive growth in fossil fuels’ development, we send the message that those things must be okay. But they are not okay. They are the source of our destruction.
What can we do about it? Unlikely as it may seem today, we can change it all. We can update our image of what the economy is and how it can work. Surprising as that may sound, the economy can be set up to work indefinitely without us cooking ourselves, destroying our water and our topsoil, and causing the extinction of most other species. We can realize that economy in a straightforward way: by stopping doubling down on our dirty, old technologies, and instead embracing innovation. Technology is evolving faster than our perceptions of the economy, and so we need merely to update our prior assumptions about how things can and should work, and then invest with that new understanding in mind. When you’re considering an investment, look at the company’s sources of revenues. Is it getting paid to fix things, or is it getting paid to destroy us? That’s all you really need to know in terms of achieving sustainability. Obviously, you need to understand the company’s financial fundamentals as well, but that analysis should come second, after you determine how risky the company’s activities are to us all.
Like mathematician Cathy O’Neil said recently, “we’re not just predicting the future, we’re causing the future.” Allocating resources to the legacy economy by default is to march right past 4C; investing in the next economy is the only way we won’t.
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