Not the End of the World

Hannah Ritchie
- Reviewed by
Guy Hanchet
How We Can Be The First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet.

Like many people, I get depressed by the flood of bad news in the popular press about the environment and especially about climate chaos. I feel like we are doomed. And sometimes I get angry at the outrageous decisions made by our political leaders.

I try to combat these emotions by hanging out with people who also care and are willing to act, but sometimes it feels so big that we feel that our puny little personal and local actions are insignificant compared to the magnitude of the problem.

I seek out good news stories and we publish them regularly on the 4RG website. These stories show what’s working, what others are doing, and can provide inspiration that we are not alone. But the actions still seem insignificant in the face of such a huge problem.

That’s why I’m happy that I found a book that helps. It turns the story upside down.

Zoom Out

The doomsday messages that appear in the news are often incorrect, framed in ways to make catchy headlines that are so misleading that they are fundamentally wrong, making scientists look dumb and leading to distrust in the general public. Some of the stories are encouraged by the fossil fuel companies who have changed their message on climate inaction from Denial to Doom and Delay.

The result of the doomsday message is that it contributes to our feeling of hopelessness, leaving us paralysed and unable to act.

Ritchie’s main point is that we can Zoom Out to see a bigger picture in a longer timeframe. Viewing that longer time horizon can show us that things have improved in the past and that we can influence change again in the future. This perspective can lead us to sustained action, not driven by anger and sadness but by hope. It can allow us to ride out the temporary setbacks.

This longer time frame also shows us that even though things are better than they could have been, we have a long way to go. The author quotes Max Roser who puts it this way: “The world is much better; the world is still awful; the world can do much better”.

The United Nations definition of sustainability is: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Ritchie points out that the world has never been sustainable. We have never had an effective balance between the two sides of the definition. For millennia humanity’s footprint has caused extinctions and ecological ruin – it’s not new. Today’s problems loom large because they are recent and because we are paying closer attention.

Climate Change

Photo Credit: Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 4.0

Zooming out is particularly helpful in the case of climate change. In 2007 the IPCC included forecasts of temperature change that reached up to 6 or 7 degrees Celsius by 2100. That pathway (shown on the left as RCP8.5) was often referred to as the “Business As Usual” scenario. In other words it was the likely result if we changed nothing in light of the threat.

Less than ten years later, at COP 21 in 2015 in Paris the world agreed to limit temperature rise to “significantly under 2C and preferably 1.5 C”. This target is shown on the left as RCP2.6). We will probably miss that target, but only ten years earlier it was inconceivable that we would even talk about it.

The point is that humanity’s decision to change has made a difference.

Ritchie presents evidence that per capita emissions have already peaked and she asserts that this indicates that total emissions will peak soon. Of course emissions need to go down to zero before the concentration of CO2 stops rising and temperature stops rising.

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In addition to official policies, her optimism for the future is high because the cost of renewable energy sources has gone down so dramatically. For example, in ten years the cost of solar power has declined by 89%, and wind has gone down by 70%. These two sources now provide the least expensive sources of energy generation over their operating lifetime, and the cost of renewable energy will continue to go down while the cost of the stuff we burn will continue to rise.

Air Pollution

Air pollution kills millions of people every year. This has been the case since humans tamed fire. But Ritchie shows us that it has been drastically reduced in some places. She also points out that we effectively eliminated the sulphur emissions that were causing acid rain. And that we have brought the problem of ozone depletion under control. We have banned the use of leaded gasoline that was poisoning us when the emissions were breathed.

A long term solution to air pollution everywhere is simple: Stop Burning Stuff. This is the same action that is needed to fight climate chaos.

Other Environmental Issues

The book discusses progress in many other environmental domains that overlap with climate change.

For example, the food system is at the heart of the problems of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and over-fishing, as well as climate change. Her recommendations for what we can personally do include eating less red meat, especially beef. It doesn’t need to be zero, just less. The global impact of most people eating a lot less is much bigger than a few people going vegan.

I don’t completely share Ritchie’s optimism on climate action. I don’t think she takes the tipping points that are looming out there in the climate system seriously enough. We don’t know exactly where they are but we know they are out there somewhere. As a result I feel that she pays too little attention to the fact that while we are making some progress it is not fast enough.

In spite of that, the book gives me some comfort in the face of gloom.