Never before in human history have we collectively faced as much adversity as we do now with the imminent threat of climate change. It seems that despite the peaks we’ve reached with our riches and technological advancements, we feel suddenly overwhelmed in the face of a rapidly changing climate. This issue seems quite straightforward: Radiation from the sun is absorbed by greenhouse gases, and the energy is then transferred to our atmosphere, contributing to a positive feedback loop that leads to warmer winters and harsher summers. Countless ecosystems will perish while the rising oceans engulf coasts and swallow the cities we build on them.
So the question begs to be asked, how can we prevent this from happening? It’s no surprise that the answer is much more complicated than the question, and that we cannot simply halt carbon emissions. But more importantly, some of the solutions are simply infeasible given the world dynamic that exists today. The relationship between poverty and emissions, the process by which food gets put on the table and the expenses that come with proposed solutions are all major contributors that exacerbate the conditions of our biosphere.
There is an inherent positive correlation between the wealth of a nation and its carbon emissions. Intuitively, we can come to the conclusion that richer people tend to emit more carbon, so the solution must be for the wealthy to dial back on their extravagant lifestyles. This idea, however, is superficial because more than 60% of global emissions come from low to middle-income countries, where most people are attempting to escape poverty at the bare minimum, and perhaps even achieve a comfortable lifestyle. This reality of escaping poverty and becoming middle class creates unavoidable emissions, and asking developing countries to cut back on pollution is as hypocritical as it is unrealistic. It’s very hard to argue that a region should protect their primeval forests and subsidize the solar panel industry instead of burning wood when it can’t meet basic needs for significant portions of its population.
By the end of the 21st century, we’ll likely need to feed over 10 billion people, and we are unable to do this without emitting greenhouse gases. The nature of modern food production requires the use of manure or fertilizer, making zero-emissions food effectively impossible. Rice alone emits so much methane and CO2 each year that it practically matches the emissions of global aviation, 1.3% vs. 1.9% of GHG emissions, respectively. The rise of factory farming and industrial-style meat production has made meat a regular indulgence in developed countries and a symbol of status and wealth in developing countries.
Today, about 40% of the world’s habitable land is used for meat production of some kind. This is the land on which we could otherwise allow native ecosystems to regrow, like forests in the Amazon, for them to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Instead, most of it is used to feed animals. Eating less meat won’t alone stop climate change, but we also can’t stop climate change without eating less meat. So, what does this mean for our livelihoods? Can’t some technology save us so we can continue to build our roads, drive our cars and eat meat every day?
This technology already exists in principle: Direct air capture of CO2 draws carbon dioxide from the air so that it can be stored underground in geological formations. So why aren’t we implementing this in every industry, everywhere? Because, with the current technology at our disposal, this could cost trillions of dollars per year, which constitutes a significant portion of the United States GDP. Unfortunately, this money cannot come out of thin air. Simply dumping these costs on massive polluters like coal power stations and steel mills would double the cost of their products, and so these industries that operate on very tight profit margins would go bankrupt. Getting the government to pay for it seems logical, but a lot of state resources are already tied up doing the opposite, like subsidizing oil and gas. This seems counterintuitive, but follows very clear incentives. By artificially keeping fuel prices low, shipping and everyday goods are kept artificially cheap too, which has a massive social impact on billions of people around the world. Some argue that a move away from capitalism is the only solution to this crisis, while others insist that markets should be even freer, without any interventions like subsidies.
One thing is unequivocally clear. It’s not just about fixing the tendencies of modern industrial society, but achieving a worldwide consensus that unites every human being against the threat of climate change. It is our biological imperative to unify under this common goal, and it starts with the small ways we can change our own daily habits. From the food we eat, the lights we leave on, the way we get around and the political figures that we elect, it’s time we brought forth a social revolution united under these changes. These attempts, though seemingly futile, will hopefully inspire solidarity from one generation to the next, so that we may tackle this issue head on before it’s too late.