Decision making: Our human experience and continued existence on Earth

Since this past October, a substantial number of discourses has turned towards an impending apocalypse. This isn’t unusual: at any given point, there are at least a handful of people with the conviction that the end is presently approaching. However, this is one of few incidents where the findings of the United Nations have informed such a sentiment, as many people have taken the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report to indicate an unavoidable climate meltdown.

The content of the report forecasts an average temperature rise of up to two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. For reference, the last ice age shifted approximately four degrees in the other direction. The prospective impact on sea level, biodiversity, disease factors and human displacement with ensuing instability, panic and violence, is severe across the board.

The situation demands carbon reduction, calling for cuts in consumption and emissions before 2030 and a goal of total carbon neutrality for 2050. The tenability of these goals is debatable and things are slated to get much worse unless a more sustainable target is set and pursued.

Contrary to popular belief, though, at no point in the UN report is an apocalypse predicted. The earth will still be here — the question is whether humans will be.

There are various objections to the IPCC report, but currently it stands as an overview of the scientific community’s stance on climate change and is easily the most widely circulated analysis of its kind. Because terror and despair are becoming dominant themes in discourse, such that climate anxiety has become a diagnosable condition, younger people can feel robbed of a future, even here at UBC.

['auto'] Kristine Ho

Fourth-year mathematics and economics student Leena Lababidi is still concerned with the capacity for progress. Having witnessed the damage to weather and air quality caused by the oil industry in her home country of Bahrain, she feels the severity of the forecast in the IPCC report is necessary to produce action, particularly among disinvested major governments.

“Our generation will be the one to suffer the consequences,” Lababidi said. “I think we should just take it more seriously, especially in Canada, where the consequences may not seem as direct.”

Where we’re headed

While development in sustainable fields is still facing an uphill battle against the market, there is a growing body of innovators who take climate issues seriously. Dr. Gary Bull, the head of UBC’s forest resources management department, has worked with both conservationist academics and energy companies in pursuit of sustainable systems. He described the European effort as underway, with cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen setting total carbon neutrality goals for the next few decades.

While Bull is confused by the lack of initiative on this side of the Atlantic, he said he is optimistic for Canadian innovations like Prince Edward Island’s initiative to implement a network of wood chip- and pellet-based heating systems for government buildings.

“From a climate change point of view, it’s an enormous challenge, but prices are coming down,” Bull said. “Economics talks about marginal cost curves — costs going down over time — and right now, solar, wind and biomass are truly competitive with oil.”

['auto'] Kristine Ho

The market’s adaptive sluggishness in this respect, as Bull points out, requires action on both fiscal sides of the equation.

“We’re going to have to see an acceleration of investment in renewable energy and we’re going to have to put a price on carbon,” he said. “You have four provinces in Canada no longer committed to the federal carbon tax. This kind of noise, some of it is legitimate, but most of it is not and it creates — from an investment point of view — a huge inertia.”

This challenge is compounded by the representation of climate change as a divisive concept within the scientific community, although sources like “Consensus on Consensus” published in the journal Environmental Research Letters show that agreement on climate change is at approximately 97 per cent among scientists.

Much of this misdirection can be attributed to the lobbying ventures of several large companies, which the 2017 Carbon Majors Report estimates to be responsible for over 70 per cent of global emissions. Exxon Mobil, among others, acknowledges the existence of climate change originating from human activity to the point of lobbying the government of Texas for a seawall around its Houston refineries, as described by Reuters’ John Benny and Gary McWilliams. Here, an externality has already been revealed as a valid incentive — what remains is to ensure action and accountability.

How to help

Lifestyle change has been the most widely discussed strategy for dealing with climate change; however, the solutions are often presented as all or nothing choices that are at best prohibitively inconvenient or at worst practically unsustainable.

In his study, “The Climate Mitigation Gap,” UBC psychologist Seth Wynes showed a discrepancy in information on these changes. The factor with the highest impact — having one fewer child — was ignored completely, as were other high-impact factors such as buying green energy and a meatless (or at least beef- and dairy-free) diet.

Assistant professor of psychology Dr. Jiaying Zhao characterized these larger decisions as “rare but important.” She said the discussion is particularly marked by the political polarization around these issues, especially diet and family planning. These factors obscure a real and pragmatic concern for the future of our species.

['auto'] Kristine Ho

“People associate this with a moral issue or a religious issue, but this is purely an environmental argument,” Zhao said.

She also described climate anxiety as an understandable but unproductive sentiment. “It’s okay to feel anxious, given the state of the world. We’re justified to feel that way, but we need to do more. We need to have a coping mechanism for this anxiety, and specifically, we need to start to change our own behaviours.”

Geography professor Dr. Simon Donner shared this sentiment and characterized the recent coverage of climate change as the propagation of despair when action is still possible. The time available for adaptation is visible in areas such as Kiribati, where Donner has documented the threat of climate change and where populations are still going on with business as usual.

“There are reasons to be concerned about the future of Kiribati. There are reasons to be concerned about the future of Delta, BC. But that future’s not tomorrow,” he said. Because consequences are stretched out, climate change seems both distant and unstoppable, when in fact there is significant room for adaptation.

“I really do think that it is possible and likely that over the next few decades we are going to transition away from fossil fuels. My concern is that we’re not doing it fast enough to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change,” Donner said.

To effect greater change, Donner stresses the importance of demanding accountability, particularly with regard to politics.

“One person can only do so much. We need collective action. You’re only one vote, but those votes get added up together, and if you get enough of them, you can get the effect you want.”

While the cynical political climate seems to discourage the effort, Donner points out that politicians need to gain practical insight into their constituencies. “I cannot stress this enough, they do not hear from you,” he said.

This is not a call to revamp one’s transportation, alter one’s diet or fire off strongly worded emails on one’s own. Isolation is, in many respects, what has produced this anxiety and misinformation in the first place.

['auto'] Kristine Ho

UBC has several sustainability organizations to provide direction, including the Climate Hub and Common Energy. The Climate Hub aims to instigate institutional changes in climate action, while Common Energy focuses on implementing sustainable practices in student life.

Director of Common Energy Karolina Lagercrantz describes isolation as the core intensifier of climate anxiety, with Common Energy’s operations putting a social goal to sustainability ventures. This revolves around a concept of community, including monthly get-togethers at Seedlings.

“Climate change is as much a social problem as a geographical problem. We need to create a common ground for people to act together in their capacity,” she said.

She also encourages hope.

“We cannot say that hope is lost, and then not act. We need to act, and then hope will come. Fear is such a powerful disabling feeling, and if there’s one thing we need to beat climate change, it’s to not be scared.”