It’s been a summer of records, but not in a good way. July 2023 was the hottest month in human history, and in the first week of August the global average daily sea surface temperature hit 20.96 C breaking the record of 20.95 C from 2016
Talking about climate change is a bit like talking about having cancer. Everyone knows there’s a problem, but nobody wants to talk about it because it’s uncomfortable and it’s also confusing.
Are we doomed? What are governments doing about the problem? What can I do to help? These are probably some questions you have asked yourself over the past couple of months as temperatures have soared and fires and floods have become ubiquitous.
But if there is one thing that you should take away from reading this article, it is this. Climate change is a solvable problem, but we can’t trust governments and corporations to solve it alone. We also need individual and collective action, so what you do (or don’t do) matters.
I spent two and half years writing and researching my book called Solving the Climate Crisis because I wanted to write a book that was hopeful, without being a Pollyanna. So, I grounded it in science and data and wrote about solutions that are being implemented, along with potential problems and pitfalls we are facing as we move away from fossil fuels and try to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Now that I am finished, I do feel more hopeful because of the solutions and changes occurring that I learned about while writing the book. But I am also filled with a sense of fear because things aren’t happening as quickly as they need to.
You should also understand that there is a difference between being hopeful and being optimistic. Someone who is optimistic sees the glass as half-full, someone who is hopeful asks how they can fill the glass. By writing Solving the Climate Crisis, my goal was to figure out how we can all help fill the glass and build a better future.
We Need a Multi-Faceted Approach
One of the most important things I’ve learned while writing this book is that there is no “One Solution” to solving climate change. Instead, it will be a combination of renewable energy, new technology, changing our diets, carbon taxes, and sin taxes, changing corporate behavior, changing consumer behavior, new laws, degrowth, changing how the wealthy behave, restoring biodiversity, and reevaluating our relationship with nature that will create a sustainable society.
It’s hard to talk about being hopeful about climate change when it seems like the world is on fire, but that’s why we need to focus on solutions more than ever, so the first thing I will talk about is adaptation. If fires, floods, and heat waves are going to be our new normal, then we need to adapt to it. The question is how?
According to the United Nations Development Program, local governments handle over 70% of climate change reduction measures and up to 90% of climate change adaptation measures.
But according to research from Portland State University, voter turnout in local elections for 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was less than 15%. In Las Vegas, Ft. Worth, and Dallas, turnout was in the single digits.
If we are going to mitigate and adapt to climate change, then we need more voter participation in elections for the local government. So, voting for candidates that care about sustainability and taking part in local government are two of the most important things you can do.
The Economics of Climate Adaptation
One myth that climate denialists like to perpetuate is that adapting to climate change will be bad for the economy. But according to a report from the Global Commission on Adaptation and the World Resources Institute, adapting to climate change is not only the smart thing to do, but it is also the most economically sensible thing to do. The 2019 report says that if the world invested $1.8 trillion from 2020 to 2030 into 5 adaptation measures which include, investing in early warning systems for natural disasters, protecting mangroves, building climate resilient infrastructure, making crops more drought resistant, and making water resources more resilient, it could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. That’s a cost-benefit ratio of almost 1 to 4.
Here are some ways the report says we can adapt to climate change:
44% of natural disasters are flood-related, so protecting and rewilding mangrove forests is of utmost importance. According to a study from the World Resource Institute, they prevent $80 billion per year in flood damage and protect 18 million people. In Florida, they have been damaged by hurricanes, and in areas in Southeast Asia, over 40% have been cut down for agriculture and shrimp farms. Repairing them can save us from future flooding.
Mangrove forests can also sequester four to five times more CO₂ per hectare than a tropical forest, so they are one of the low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change.
These are urban areas designed to manage rainwater in a more sustainable and efficient manner by absorbing, storing, and reusing it instead of letting it run off into the drainage system, which can lead to flooding and loss of water resources. They achieve this through various techniques such as rooftop gardens, rain gardens (which are areas with deep-rooted native plants), permeable pavements, and retention ponds, which help to slow down and filter the water as it flows through the urban landscape.
Cities that have already adopted some of these design principles include Singapore, Auckland, Tokyo, Portland, Melbourne, New York, Mumbai, London, Cardiff, Rotterdam, and Shanghai, among others.
The urban island heat effect is when cities become hotter than the surrounding countryside because of asphalt and concrete buildings that can absorb solar radiation, and from buildings and cars that generate heat. Most times, cities are between 1-7F (.5-4C) warmer than the outlying areas.
There are a lot of things cities are already doing to beat the heat. For example, Singapore is adding green roofs and vertical gardens to the exteriors of its buildings and adding plants to the interior. Cities in Vietnam and India use passive cooling systems which are structures made from terracotta clay pots or bamboo with water flowing through them. These use evaporation to cool the ambient temperature by between 5-10 C (9-18 F) and they place them in public areas. Barcelona combines the use of awnings, fountains, green walls, and gardens to create climate shelters around the city.
New York City has a program called NYC CoolRoofs that paints rooftops white. This has a compounding effect and can reduce the internal temperature of a building by up to 30% and reduces radiating heat, lessening the urban heat island effect, and the need for air-conditioning, while also extending the life of the roof.
In 2021, Phoenix, Arizona took part in a trial program, painting their roads with a gray reflective paint called Cool Seal, which can lower air temperatures by over 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 C). According to an MIT study, if we used Cool Seal in cities across the U.S. we could reduce the frequency of heat waves by 41%.
Cooler roads also lower the surrounding temperatures by as much as 5 F (2 C) which reduces the need for air conditioning. A pilot program started in Los Angeles in 2021, which tested out 60 miles of pavement, and Australia has already applied Cool Seal to roughly 2 million square feet of its roads.
Trees are an obvious and simple solution to extreme heat and can reduce the ambient summer temperatures by 2-9°F (1-5°C). They offer shade and can cool surfaces by between 20-45°F (11-25°C). They also improve air quality and offer health benefits.
A study from the University of Florida estimated that the trees in the city of Tampa saved the city $35 million a year in reduced costs for public health, stormwater management, energy savings, prevention of soil erosion, and other services. Likewise, New York City estimated the value of the services its trees provided to be worth $122 million per year.
It will not be a matter of doing one thing to keep our cities cool, but using a combination of technology, nature, and better building designs to keep us cool.
The Silicon Valley of Water Technology
Half of the world’s population could live in areas facing water scarcity by as early as 2025. By 2040, roughly 1 in 4 children worldwide will live in areas of extreme water stress. However, Israel, a country of 10 million people, 60% of which is desert, has become the leading innovator in water management and is nicknamed the Silicon Valley of water technology. They have become so adept at managing water scarcity that they are now assisting California, India, Egypt, Jordan, and several Sub-Saharan African countries in managing their own crises.
Israel started by creating a technology called drip irrigation, which applies a measured amount of water directly to the roots of crops, early in the morning or evening, eliminating evaporation and reducing water usage by 40-70%. Since agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater, this is where we could reduce water usage the most, but only 10% of farmers use drip irrigation in the United States.
They removed water subsidies so that each household pays the full price, forcing consumers to use it sparingly. The government educated their citizens from a young age about the importance and scarcity of water. They installed innovative water meters and leak detection systems to prevent unnecessary water loss. Finally, Israel has the most efficient desalinization plants in the world, which provide 80% of their drinking water.
These are all fixes that we can replicate in water-stressed countries throughout the world, but we need to get to the root of the problem, which is the inefficient use of water, which varies wildly depending on what country you are in. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American uses 156 gallons/day (590 liters), while the average person in France uses 77 gallons/day (291 liters) and the average Israeli, just 36 gallons/day (137 liters).
Wildfires are a difficult problem to solve humans cause because 90% of them. This can come from a smoker carelessly flicking a cigarette out a window, a child playing with fireworks, or an unattended campfire.
However, one proven method of preventing forest fires is allowing Indigenous People to act as stewards of the land. Studies show that their knowledge of using controlled burns that mimic natural fires can both prevent wild fires and restore biodiversity, making the land more resilient to climate change.
AI-Fighting Forest Fires
The World Economic Forum’s Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Platform is working with Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry to develop a tool called WildfireAId, which can prevent wildfires by combining AI with satellite images, weather data, and social media posts, to identify areas that are prone to fires. After a fire has started, the tool can also help to detect it quickly and predict how it will spread.
Wildfire Prepared Homes
Another adaptation strategy is for homeowners to make their houses fire-resistant. This means installing a roof made with non-flammable materials; adding vents covered by a mesh to the attic or crawl spaces to prevent embers from entering; and you need to create a 5-foot perimeter around your house that is non-flammable. Fire scientists developed these criteria which can meaningfully reduce your home’s wildfire risk. Insurance companies are also using them to determine if your house is insurable.
In a story for the Washington Post titled, “Why climate ‘doomers’ are replacing climate deniers” climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said, “It’s fair to say that recently many of us climate scientists have spent more time arguing with the doomers than with the deniers.” Climate doomers are convinced that climate change can’t be stopped, and humanity is doomed.
Although we are on the path to 3 ˚C by 2100, and if we don’t drastically cut our emissions, society could collapse. However, science does not say that we have passed the point of no return and this is inevitable. According to Michael E. Mann, arguably the most prominent climate scientist on the planet, “If the science objectively demonstrated it was too late to limit warming below catastrophic levels, that would be one thing and we scientists would be faithful to that. But science doesn’t say that.”
According to Stanford Engineering Professor and renewable energy expert Mark Z Jacobson, we can completely power the world with green energy. In a Tweet, he responded to doomers by saying “Given that scientists who study 100% renewable energy systems are unanimous that it can be done why do we hear daily on Twitter and everywhere else by those who don’t study such systems that it can’t be done?”
A lot of the common doomer tropes are simply scientific hypotheses that have since been disproven. For example:
There is No Arctic Methane Bomb
Some doomers are under the false belief that there is an Arctic methane bomb ticking and that we only have until about 2030 to solve climate change before it goes off and ends the world. However, this isn’t sound science. The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet and there are pockets of methane hydrate, a GHG that is about 25 times as potent as CO2.
However, it is not true that the Arctic will suddenly melt down, causing a catastrophic release of the gas. Rather it is a more gradual process that will take decades to unfold and according to environmental scientist Ben Abbot from Brigham Young University, if we reduce our emissions, we could avoid about 70-80% of it.
The Planet Won’t Continue to Warm If We Stop Burning
You may have heard that even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, the planet will continue to warm for another 40-50 years. This was a hypothesis that was based on overly simplistic computer models.
Scientists estimate temperatures would peak about 5-10 years after we stopped burning fossil fuels. The authors of the study point out that we wouldn’t cool right away, only that the heating would peak. It is a very important fact that the media hasn’t updated. Although we are still a long way off from ending our relationship with oil, it is at least hopeful news that a stable climate is an achievable goal within a reasonable amount of time once we do.
We Have Enough Rare Earth Minerals
Another common doomer-trope is that we don’t have enough metals and rare earth minerals for the solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and batteries that we will need to transition off fossil fuels. However, an analysis published in 2023 in the Journal Cell refutes this and says that “The geologic reserves of materials are sufficient to meet all projected future demand.”
An analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency says, “The risks associated with climate change dwarf those associated with critical materials supply, and the current discourse on materials scarcity as a showstopper is misleading. However, attention to critical materials is warranted…But these new supply challenges can be resolved.”
Biodiversity Loss is Just as Important as Climate Change
Biodiversity is the range of animals, plants, insects, and microorganisms that exist in an ecosystem. Biodiversity loss is as important as climate change, but it doesn’t receive nearly as much attention. Healthy ecosystems that provide us with clean air, food, water, trees, plants, and natural resources, and help prevent the spread of disease rely on biodiversity to survive. If we are successful at solving climate change but don’t solve biodiversity loss, the result will still be catastrophic.
The major drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat loss, the spraying of pesticides, and pollution. They also contribute to climate change, so solving these issues means we can address both problems.
The Wealthy Are Most Responsible for Climate Change
Most people think that the biggest problem with climate change is population growth, but it’s not. A study from 2023 says that if current trends hold and governments across the world invest in education, social services, and improved equality we could hit a peak of 8.5 billion as early as 2040 and then fall by about a third to about 6 billion in 2100.
The biggest problem is the consumption habits of the wealthy. While it is probably no surprise that the wealthy emit more CO2, it is the egregiousness of the gap between the emissions of the rich and poor that is surprising. A study of 20 famous billionaires revealed that their average footprint came in at a whopping 8,190 tons per year, mostly because of their helicopters, yachts and private planes. Compare that to the average American who emits 14.4 tons and the average world citizen who emits 4.2 tons. This means the average footprint of one of these 20 billionaires was 1,950 times higher than an average world citizen.
But you don’t have to be a billionaire to have high emissions. A 2020 study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said that just 10% of the world’s population emits close to half of the world’s greenhouse gases and emits 60 times as much carbon as the world’s poorest 10%. The top 1% account (those earning more than $172,000 per year) for 15% of emissions, more than twice the bottom 50%. That means that the top 70 million people emit more than the bottom 3.5 billion. The study concludes that if we are to stave off climate change, the top 1% needs to cut their emissions by 97%.
A 2021 report on carbon emissions and wealth inequality from Oxfam came to two conclusions. The first is that in order to prevent climate change from worsening, governments need to tax or ban high-carbon lifestyles that include SUVs, mega yachts, private jets, and space tourism. The second is that we need a wealth tax.
Subsidies are A Big Part of the Problem
In 2022, world governments pumped a record $1 trillion of subsidies into fossil fuel subsidies according to the International Energy Agency. This is more than double what they were in 2021 despite commitments from governments to curb our fossil fuel use. A study published by Nature estimates that this alone would reduce global CO2 emissions by 0.5 to 2.2 gigatons (Gt) per year by 2030.
But it’s not just fossil fuel subsidies, almost all subsidies are bad. For example, 90% of the $540 billion in annual subsidies given to farmers are harmful and damage people’s health, fuel the climate crisis, destroy nature, and drive inequality by excluding small farmers. Recipients of the subsidies spend this money on pesticides, fertilizers, and fossil fuels, all of which create enormous amounts of pollution. Most subsidies finance things like sugar, wheat, corn, and potatoes that create monocultures and go into junk food.
Fishing subsidies keep the price of seafood artificially low and keep us harvesting the oceans far past the point of profitability or sustainability. Water subsidies keep the price of water artificially low, allowing farmers and consumers to be unnecessarily wasteful.
$1.8 trillion dollars goes into subsidies that harm the environment, so our governments are destroying the planet with our tax dollars. If we are going to solve climate change, then we must eliminate harmful subsidies and redirect them toward renewable energy and regenerative farming practices that protect the environment.
One solution would be to take a fraction of these subsidies and reallocate them toward climate change adaptation.
I said earlier that we need multi-faceted solutions to solve climate change, but what are these solutions?
Transition to 100% Renewable Energy
In his 2023 Book No Miracle Needed, Stanford Engineering Professor, Mark Jacobson puts together a comprehensive plan based on real-world data that shows how the world can transition off fossil fuels using existing technology in the form of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro-electric, and battery storage.
According to Jacobson, we could replace 80% to 85% of fossil fuels by 2030 and 100% by 2050. He says that we also already have 95% of what we need to get there and the remaining 5% will come from hydrogen fuel cells that can power airplanes and long-distance cargo ships.
His plan would also create 28 million new jobs, save 5.3 million lives from air pollution, lower health care costs, lower inflation, and save the world $6,000 per person per year while using less than 1% of the extracted material that fossil fuels do. All this can be ours for the princely sum of $62 trillion spent over the next three decades, or about $2.21 trillion per year. However, the plan could pay for itself within six years from the savings in healthcare and electricity costs alone.
Repair Our Natural Carbon Sinks
All our fixes can’t be technological. A lot of it will require repairing the damage we’ve done to nature and preventing future damage. A 2019 study estimated that by restoring natural terrestrial carbon sinks, which include mangroves, peat bogs, forests, and the soil, we could sequester and store 11–15 billion tons of CO2 per year. This means that our natural carbon sinks could sequester about 30% of the CO2 we emit every year.
However, all solutions aren’t land-based, our oceans are also a major carbon sink, and absorb about 22% of the planet’s CO2 emissions in marine plants and animals. Whales are some of the largest marine mammals and can store an immense amount of carbon in their bodies, while also fertilizing the oceans with their fecal matter. This leads to the growth of phytoplankton, which by one estimate can absorb 10 to 20 billion tons of CO2 per year.
This means that we could remove a substantial part of our CO2 with no new technology, no fancy equipment, and no excessive costs. We just need to stop cutting down our forests, damaging the soil, killing whales, and polluting our oceans and start repairing these natural carbon sinks.
Tax Extreme Wealth
We just learned that the wealthy are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change. So, it makes sense that they should pay a larger share to fix it. One way to pay for Jacobson’s plan is to tax the wealthy. An analysis by Oxfam called Taxing Extreme Wealth shows that a wealth tax of 2% annually for those who have over $5 million, 3% for those who have more than $50 million and 5% for billionaires would yield $2.52 trillion a year. That would be enough to pay for all of Jacobson’s plan to completely transition the world from fossil fuels to renewable energy and leave $300 billion to fix our natural carbon sinks.
How Society Changes
If we want to change the world, then we have to ask how the world changes. A common argument against changing individual behaviors is that it won’t really make a difference because climate change is a systemic problem, and making individual changes won’t have big enough of an impact.
However, that is the wrong way to look at the problem, because systems consist of individuals, which, when combined, create a collective. Studies show that our individual actions affect the behaviors of others by creating a ripple effect across a social network. We call this emotional or social contagion. James Fowler, an associate professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Political Science, and Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard School of Public Health coined the term and detail the results of their research in their 2011 book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.
Christakis and Fowler looked at several attributes and behaviors including obesity, smoking, alcohol and drug use, happiness, depression, loneliness, voting choices, and political beliefs, and found that these are all influenced by social contagion and spread similar to the way a virus might.
According to them, we influence each other by up to three degrees. This means if you eat less meat, or buy solar panels, then your friends (one degree) are more likely to as well. But also your friend’s friend (two degrees), and even your friend’s friend’s friend (three degrees). So, changing your own behavior can reverberate through your social network, causing other people to change their behaviors as well.
The 25% Rule
This can make a bigger impact than you imagine because according to social scientist Damon Centola, it takes just 25% of a population for a social movement to reach a tipping point to establish a new norm. He points to recent legal and societal shifts in workplace sexual harassment, gay marriage, gun laws, racism, and gender equality as evidence that social norms change. For centuries economists thought that for substantial changes to occur in society it required a majority of 51% change in a population’s behavior. This shows that a committed minority can change society.
It is important to remember that change doesn’t happen linearly. It is slow at first and then it explodes as people at the center of social networks join in. Although we are facing enormous challenges, I believe we are on the cusp of profound societal change and we just need to keep pushing forward to make it over the tipping point.
Changes in Public Behavior
Although it’s hard to see it there are a lot of changes happening in public behavior. For example, a 2023 Pew Survey says that nearly 70% of Americans support the country transitioning off fossil fuels and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. A 2019 Pew Survey said that a median of about 70% sees climate change as a major threat. These changes in attitudes are also leading to changes in behaviors.
Eating Less Meat
A 2021 survey shows that over 47% of Americans see themselves as flexitarians who are trying to eat a more plant-based diet and it’s even higher (54%) in those aged 18–39. The same thing is happening in Europe where almost one-third no longer consider themselves to be full-time meat-eaters and it’s projected that 25% of the UK population will be vegan or vegetarian by 2025.
In 2012, Unity College in Maine became the first university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. By 2015, fossil fuel divestment became the fastest-growing divestment movement in history and by October 2021, 1,485 institutions totaling $39.2 trillion in assets committed to or had already divested from the fossil fuel industry.
Changes in Laws
Some solutions will also come in changing laws. For example, in 2022 the U.S. passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated $369 billion in tax credits toward cutting emissions, which alone could get the country to a 40% reduction by 2030.
According to a study published in Science in 2023, The IRA has already increased the average rate of emissions cuts in the United States to 4% up from 2% before the bill was passed. The bad news is that in order to meet our goal of cutting emissions by half by 2030, emissions need to decrease by 6% per year. Which is why individual and collective action is so important. It could mean the difference between meeting our targets or not.
In December 2022, the world came together to approve the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which protects a third of the planet’s wilderness by 2030. In 2023 200 countries passed the High Seas Treaty that puts 30% of the oceans into protected areas by 2030.
Changes that We Need
So, governments are taking some proactive steps toward fighting climate change and biodiversity loss, but more needs to happen.
The first thing is to make sure that once we implement these treaties, we need to ensure there are enough resources so we can enforce them. The next is implementing a carbon tax known as a fee and dividend, which would tax carbon emissions, and redistribute the money to low-income households so that the tax doesn’t burden them. As I mentioned above, we need to end harmful subsidies and reallocate that money towards protecting and repairing the environment. We need a wealth tax to pay for the transition to renewable energy and a luxury tax on high-carbon emitting toys like yachts, SUVs, and private jets to reduce the carbon footprint of the wealthy. Finally, we need a sin tax on meat and dairy. This would help reduce pressure on the land, restore biodiversity, reduce pollution, and allow us to return some forests to their pristine state.
What You Can Do About It
So, the question is how do you push for these changes if you don’t have political clout or deep pockets? The most obvious way is to start with your own carbon footprint: so drive and fly less, install a heat pump, eat less meat and dairy, and do these with an existing group of friends or work colleagues to make a bigger impact.
Another way is to vote, especially at the local level. Since less than 15% of voters take part in local elections, your vote will have a bigger impact.
Giving to the right charities is also important. But with over 400 climate-related charities in the U.S. alone, how do you know which are the right ones to give to? GivingGreen.Earth uses effective altruism, which fuses charitable giving with social science, physical evidence, and econometrics to answer the question of where donating a dollar does the most good. The conclusion that Giving Green came to was that giving to organizations that affect climate policy is about 10 to 20 times more effective than giving to organizations that are removing CO2 from the atmosphere once emitted. Their website has a list of the top five charities to give to, along with donation information.
A study by the Founders Pledge found that one charity listed, the Clean Air Task Force, could eliminate approximately 1 ton of CO2 for between 12 cents and $1. By comparison, most organizations can’t avert a metric ton for less than $2.
Two other charities you should give to are the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which lobbies for a fee and dividend carbon tax, and the Pachamama Alliance, which protects indigenous rights, which can protect and restore biodiversity.
Turning our individual actions into collective action, and then amplifying our impact by donating to the right charities could make enough of a difference to decrease our emissions from 4% per year to 6%, which would keep us on target to halve our emissions by 2030, and increase or likelihood of staying below 1.5˚C of warming.