Two contradicting words can define my week of research, hopeless and inspiring. Luckily, I’ve concluded my week on the high note of inspiration.

At the beginning of this week, I decided to step back and adjust my approach to this research journey – “The Road Less Traveled”. Instead of focusing on general abstract ideas, industries, or technologies, I’ve decided to focus on big problems, making this journey sustainable. Learning a technical or abstract topic can be fun, but only to a point. Eventually, I run out of steam, wanting to move on to something else, but learning in the context of a problem that matters to me makes my learning process sustainable. So… From now on, I’ll be focusing on big hairy audacious problems, while learning all about the abstract and technical ideas buried within them. The first “big hairy” candidate is Climate Change.

This week is all about understanding the problem of Climate Change and avoiding what we humans do best… Jumping to solutions, without understanding the full context of the problem (this wasn’t easy for me). It’s important to understand the different sides of this problem because it’s massive, containing technical, economic, psychological, and political issues on a global scale. 

Taking our planet’s temperature

Measuring the average temperature of the planet is hard, but we’ve figured out many ways to do it. 

There are a few numbers and timelines you’ll hear people speak about in the Climate community. One number is how cool we need to keep the planet (1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius) and the other is the timeline we have to achieve that (2030 & 2050). 

I’m not going to walk you through all the science, but I’ll touch on what’s relevant for this piece with links throughout if you’re interested in diving deeper. 

The path we’re on right now doesn’t end with a happy ending. We’re creating a natural feedback loop in our atmosphere by pumping endless amounts of Co2 into it… It’s simple… The more Co2 we pump into the atmosphere the warmer our planet becomes causing a long list of cascading effects that will, in turn, warm our planet even faster. We’ve been able to see this warming effect since 1681 and our understanding of its impact has grown since. The earth’s climate naturally warms and cools in massive cycles (100,000s years), but this time it’s different. 

The not-so-natural part of this cycle is that the concentration of Co2 in the atmosphere is higher than it’s ever been (see graph below). This increase is causing the planet to warm faster than it should be in the cycle and that’s no good for us Homo Sapiens. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a massive group of scientists all working together to show governments how serious this Climate thing is. Imagine the IPCC as the all-knowing wizard telling the tribe what they should do to defeat the Climate monster. The IPCC originally told us not to exceed 2 degrees Celsius and now has lowered it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But what does that mean? 

Basically, before the industrial revolution, our planet was a specific average temperature. The IPCC is telling us to not increase this temperature any more than 1.5 degrees Celsius or the world will become unlivable for most of humanity

Below are just a few of the bad things that could happen thanks to that small increase. 

There’s plenty of content out there talking about the negative impacts of exceeding 1.5, 2, 3, 4, and 5 degrees Celsius. They’re all terrifying and well covered, so I won’t rehash them here you can go to take a look for yourself here, here, here, and here. Let’s just agree no matter how much the temperature increases, we lose.

How much time do we have?  

The IPCC has given us a few timelines, with different scenarios. The dates that matter the most are 2030 & 2050. 

  • 2030 – We need to cut all carbon emissions by half in less than 10 years!
  • 2050 – We need to live in a world with zero carbon emissions

These two goals have been set by the IPCC and agreed by most governments around the world. Sadly, if history is any indicator of the future, then the odds are against us. Below is a chart showing all of our previous global climate goals and where we landed based on the Co2 emitted. We’ve missed hard… Every single time. 

Plus, there’s a thing called “committed emissions”, which is our current commitment to emitting future carbon due to existing carbon-emitting infrastructure we have in place or plan on building (e.g. road transport, electricity, industry, etc. – see below). Saul Griffith has a beautifully concise presentation (12 minutes) discussing this and other Climate-related things… I HIGHLY recommend it!  

In a nutshell, the story being told by the IPCC to cut emissions by half before 2030 preventing us from exceeding the 1.5-degree goal isn’t the full story. They’re not considering the fact that the Co2 emissions we’ve already committed take us past this 1.5-degree goal, with a chance of us approaching a 2-degree world… Keep in mind… This is if we’re completely clean starting today… And that’s not happening. 🙁  

If you’re not feeling optimistic about our future, I wouldn’t blame you. That “hopeless” feeling is something I’ve felt consistently throughout most of this week. But don’t worry it gets worse before it gets better. Hang in there! 🙂

Tipping over the edge

There’s a thing in the climate community called “tipping points”. You can think of a tipping point similar to the “domino effect”, where you push one domino and the rest fall down causing a cascade of falling dominos.

Our planet’s ecosystem is tightly interconnected and this means when we impact one sub-system within the wider ecosystem, there’s a chance another sub-system will be impacted. 

One interesting example of a “tipping” point for Climate Change would be the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets… 

  • As we pump more Co2 into the air our planet warms melting these ice sheets faster, which creates more water. Water is dark, so it absorbs more of the sun’s radiation (think white “reflect” and black “absorb”)… Once again warming the planet even more and melting more ice. The kicker here is that there’s this frozen soil beneath the ice sheets called “permafrost” that is holding thousands (if not millions) of years of methane (34x more harmful to climate) and once that’s released this cycle with increase even faster. 

The important point to remember here is that this is just one of many tipping points and if one tip, they might all tip… Similar to that domino effect I mentioned earlier, below is a graph showing the possibilities

But! There’s hope… Tipping points go both ways and they’re not only physical but cultural as well. 

There have been a few studies analyzing how different social tipping points could help us stabilize the earth’s climate and survive the current mess we’re in. Vox has a beautiful summary here, below are a few pieces that stood out to me. 

Let’s get some terminology out of the way… There are three big terms used.

  • Social Tipping Points (STPs) – Overall high-level ecosystem needing a change (e.g. Earth)
  • Social Tipping Elements (STEs) – Sub-systems sitting inside the larger ecosystem when once tipped will cascade into the larger STP
  • Social Tipping Interventions (STIs) – Smaller micro-interventions that can have a cascading impact on STEs, eventually impacting the overall ecosystem (STP)

The study covers different ways STEs (e.g. Elements) have come about throughout history and the STIs that caused them. More importantly, they list out the relevant STEs and STIs for tipping society towards fixing Climate Change (see graph below). 

Two that caught my eye are… 

Financial Systems (STE)

  • The intervention (STI) needed here that’s already underway (but needs a push) would be big financial institutions “divesting” (e.g. removing) their money from carbon-heavy assets and re-investing that money into renewable energy assets. This made me realize that every dollar we spend on funding carbon emissions is another nudge toward tipping us the wrong way. 

Social Norms and Values (STE)

To me, these two interventions will carry the most weight going forward. Without a financial ecosystem funding renewable innovations and a society 1000% focused on our future climate, we’re in for a not-so-happy ending. 

Inspired by hopelessness

This post might seem like a downer, but it’s not… 

I see all of these problems as a MASSIVE opportunity for us (humanity) to pull off yet another amazing feat. 

Our society today is changing for the better and the wind is at our back, with advances in agriculture (e.g. clean meat), transportation (e.g. Tesla), infrastructure (e.g. green concrete), and foundational science pushing us closer to a world where humans thrive. 

It might seem hopeless being time-constrained facing a problem with no single solution, but this is where human ingenuity comes into play. This is our planet and our opportunity to prove that we’re an advanced civilization capable of thriving in any situation. 

To tackle a problem like this we need multiple solutions to fix our culture, economics, infrastructure, technology, and overall collective consciousness as a civilization. These are all areas we’ll wander into together, but until then stay curious my fellow wanderers! 😉