Humanity’s Biggest Buzzkill

Climate change is an infinitely complicated topic. Only recently have we seemed to receive some general consensus that climate change does, in fact, exist as a global phenomena. Although to a lesser extent, most also agree that trends point to climate change being influenced by human activity. Receiving these concessions has been quite an accomplishment, but now we face the challenge of determining just how much of a threat climate change presents.  Resolving this argument will make all others pale in comparison. Understandably, the science is immensely complicated, and a multitude of assumptions need to be made. But the real reason anybody debates this topic is because we all fear what the results may bring – a real change to the way we live.

Climate change, loosely defined, is humanity’s biggest buzzkill. Wars, famine, plague – all these events were disasters for humanity, but they didn’t stop the party. The music kept blaring, the disco ball kept turning. Just lay low for a while, wait for the authority figure to leave, and then get back to doing what you were doing. Climate change’s destructive capacity far exceeds these events, and thus its authority needs to be taken much more seriously. Also, we cannot dismiss the power of predictive capacity – knowing that it all might end is quite different than taking an unexpected wallop. Like an asteroid careening towards earth, our governments might be better off sheltering us from the real threat of disaster and save us all the anxiety. However, unlike the asteroid, the ability to shape our futures lies not in individual strength, but on the willingness of all of humanity to work in concert and make real changes.

Now a fair questions might be what kind of “real” changes am I talking about. For this, I can’t even begin to formulate an answer. However, considering worst case scenarios could include the extinction of mankind, our response to this threat should tend to trend conservative. Similar to making a bet with rotten bookie who takes fingers as payment, this is not a gamble we can afford to lose (the idea is referred to as the precautionary principle in more academic, less New Jersey circles). Going back to the hypothetical asteroid, the precautionary principle is not just a “chicken little”, crying about far off, low probabilistic events – but a real framework for logically assessing what lies within action. Even median scenarios by the IPCC, an intergovernmental body that trends conservative, provide the argument that change is needed.

So back to change – what is meant by change? Less income, less consumption, less travel, just less of everything. Our governments and industry are working towards this, but are only making sacrifices below the surface – we are hitting the low hanging fruit – enacting change but within the limitations that no one notices. It is arguable that this change is not fast enough and that we have already found all the easy changes. What will the hard changes be? Well, air travel will certainly be one of them.

By 2050, it’s estimated that air travel will be the largest contributor to global climate change. Because the emissions are deposited higher in the atmosphere, they exacerbate the warming effect over other pollutants, according to a study by the United Nations. We now fly more than we ever have as a society.

For all the ways in which we can cut down our footprint from travel – electric cars, intercity trains, etc – we haven’t had any grand leaps in cutting the emissions from flying. It is shortsighted to think we have any chance of slowing climate change without some significant change or cut to flying. But what will that mean? International business will have to be done in a new way, vacation time will be less exotic, and our exposure to other cultures will surely drop. Sounds somewhat trivial, but with less exposure comes less understanding, as human beings across the world revert to pixels on a tele-conference screen. New efforts will need to be taken to make sure that gains we have made from globalizing are not erased as we move from our jet-set culture.

So can we honestly take a step back and make the changes required by climate change? The spectre of this is best captured by George Monbiot, a British environmentalist;

Abandoning the age of mass aviation would be a hugely disorienting change. It flies in the face of everything we have been encouraged to regard as progress

And I am just talking about airplanes. Progress is just beginning to be redefined.