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WE’VE GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN OUR HANDS
If you like to worry about things—and most people do—you are living at a great time. Climate change is coming, and it is coming right at you. Regardless of where you are on Earth, you will live to see your life or the lives of your kids and their friends change due to the overall warming of the planet. Whether or not those changes are manageable is up to us. It is up to anyone who is able to think about what kind of future we want. It is up to you and me.
I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “Earth is our home.” You may even use the expression yourself. But here is another thought, equally undeniable and even more important: Earth is not just our home, it is also our house. It’s our residence, and we are the owners. We are not renters passing through. We are not tenants who can complain to the landlord and eventually move on to live somewhere else. We live here—on this 7,900-mile-wide (13,000-km) ball of rock, water, and air—and we are responsible for its upkeep. Right now, we are doing a pretty bad job as caretakers. We don’t seem to be paying anywhere near enough attention to the deteriorating conditions of our home.
Now that you’re worrying even a little more than a moment ago, I hope, I’m going to ask you to stop, or at least to move past it. Worry is not going to save us. Neither, by the way, is shooting the messenger (someone like me). I’m asking you to get informed and help fight change with change: change in the way we produce, move, store, and use energy. We can become a great generation that leaves our world—our home—in better shape than it is now while raising the quality of life for people everywhere. This will not be easy. We’ve already loaded the atmosphere with enough heat-trapping gases of various kinds to cause our planet to keep warming for many, many years to come. But the situation is far from hopeless. Read on, and I will show you why we need to act immediately, what we need to do, and how we can get it done.
There was a moment, a few years ago, when I was really struck by both the true nature of climate change and by the strategy needed to deal with it. I was in Beijing for a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, a group of rocket people. I observed firsthand a huge environmental upheaval, one of the biggest in this planet’s history. Although I was looking right at it, I might have looked right past it, without even recognizing what was happening.
Haosheng Cui, who was a young physics student and a member of The Planetary Society, played tour guide and showed me around Beijing. We had lunch at the famous Qianmen Quanjude Peking Duck restaurant, where an electronic sign announces that they’ve prepared almost 1¼ billion servings of Peking Duck (they still call it Peking Duck in Beijing). We rode bicycles for the 13-kilometer (8-mile) trip from the conference hotel downtown to the restaurant. Bicycles are still a common way to travel in China, but they are becoming ever less so. Haosheng had an extra bicycle available. It belonged to his father, and his father hardly ever rode it anymore. Their family has become successful enough to own a car.
I couldn’t stop thinking about his father’s decision to abandon his bike. In a small way, it encapsulated a huge aspect of human nature. We are always looking for ways to do more without having to work so hard. Why bike when you can drive? Why weave by hand, when a machine can do it? Why fight heavy weather and sail with the wind, when an engine can propel your ship? Why ride horses, when a coal- or oil-burning locomotive can take you over a mile a minute? Why travel by train, for that matter, when you can fly in a jet?
That desire—to get more done with less effort—multiplied by billions of people who burn fossil fuels to satisfy that desire, is the root cause of climate change. There are an ever-increasing number of humans on Earth, and every single one of us wants to live a developed-world lifestyle. We want cars instead of bikes. We want electricity that is available any time, day or night. And in the developed world, we’re always wanting more: more electronics, more convenience, more luxury. It’s an evolutionary impulse to want comfort, to secure as many resources as you can for yourself and your relatives. But the impulse is currently getting us into serious trouble.
Although it all starts with the familiar flames of oil, coal, and natural gas, the details of global warming are complex. I’d say it’s like rocket science, but the details of climate change are actually a great deal more complicated than rocket science, by quite a margin. After all, much of our own planet is still a mystery. More than five hundred people have flown in space and twelve people have walked on the moon, but only three humans in history have been to the bottom of the ocean. An orbit in space is clean and predictable, whereas key environmental processes, like the Gulf Stream’s interaction with Greenland’s ice sheets, are wildly complex. With that said, climate change and rocket science have major things in common: The basics are straightforward, and they’re both science. If you have a rocket, you know what to do: Light one end, and point the other end where you want it to go. (Come to think of it—it might be better to point that front end first, and then light the engine on the other end.) In climate science, we can see that we’ve already lit one end, and we know only too well where it’s pointed.
I admit that climate change on a global scale seems hard to believe at first. It’s strange that one species out of the sixteen-million-plus on Earth (and a latecomer in evolutionary terms at that) could alter the climate of a whole planet. But it’s happening, and we’re in the middle of it. We know of only one other species, or group of species, that has the power to change the climate of an entire planet. That would be cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae. They were the first organisms to develop photosynthesis, which filled the atmosphere with oxygen and changed the chemistry of everything you see, eat, and breathe. Today that seems great, but billions of years ago, oxygen outright killed things. It wiped out much of the life that could not tolerate oxygen. So yes, there is precedent; one species can change a world. Now we’re the ones causing the change, a change that could harm and kill a great many of us. So the question is: What are we going to do about it?
This is when I thought about our planet in a new way. Trading in a car for a bicycle: That is the thinking of a renter who has just moved into a new house or apartment. Developing cleaner, more efficient forms of personal and mass transportation: That is thinking like a homeowner. That is how you take care of things to ensure a long and happy future. Haosheng’s dad preferred a car to a bike, especially in bad weather. Why shouldn’t he? I have a car, and I find it very useful; he should have that option, too. But so long as we each focus only on our individual decisions and their short-term consequences, we will act like renters, not owners of this Earth. Dealing with climate change requires a new kind of thinking for all of us.
Countless poems, songs, plays, and movies have been written in which the arc of the story shows how love transforms a house into a home. After a few days of backpacking, you might think of your tent as your home, but you would not generally think of your tent the way you do a bricks-and-mortar or lumber-and-siding house. When it comes to your permanent house, you think constantly about its assets and its liabilities, the better to protect and maintain it. The roof is leaking; you repair it. The hot water is not hot; you call a plumber. Should you repaint the outside? Can you do the job yourself or should you hire someone? Can you afford to replace your old windows with better, double-pane windows? Does your house look good from the street? Is that important? Should you spend money on insulation?—and on and on. Your house is your home; it is almost an extension of you, and its well-being is integral to your well-being.
Earth similarly needs our constant attention. We have an atmosphere, an ocean, jungles, deserts, farmland, and cities. Each of these places needs our watchfulness. We have to be careful about what we dump into the atmosphere, because we all breathe and share the same air. We all rely on the same atmosphere for protection. The argument applies equally to our water and land. Some ecosystems are best left alone, but at this stage most of them need our considered maintenance.
How we treat the planet is up to us. We can grow our crops thoughtlessly, or do it in ways that cause little environmental harm. Can we farm with less energy? Can we farm in ways that even contribute to the well-being of the planet? What about our cities? They are often centers of pollution and waste, but they can be centers of innovation as well. They can be the front line for implementing ways to move energy and people more efficiently, and to live well with a lighter planetary footprint.
For most of us, a house is by far the biggest investment we’ll make in our lives, often bigger in dollar terms than even the cost of raising a child. It’s natural for us to take very good care of our house and treat it as a home. So it should be with our planet. In recent years, you’ve probably heard a great many people speak about addressing climate change with lists of things we shouldn’t be doing—like burning fossil fuels, coal especially. That guidance is useful, but we need to focus more on the things we aggressively should be doing—like developing ways to store renewable energy.
Consider a leaking roof. If you’re a renter, you put a bucket under the dripping water and you notify the landlord. You might complain about the sluggishness of your landlord’s response or the incompetence of the maintenance person, but all in all it’s not entirely your problem. You carry on about your business, treating the leak as just an annoyance. If you own the house, a leak quickly becomes a different matter. Many people start in denial. When the rain stops, the leak stops, so you set aside the problem in your mind. You might say to yourself, “It’s not that bad; I’ll get to it later.” But when it happens again—especially if the water is dripping on your television or computer—the leak suddenly becomes the most important thing in your mind. You rearrange the furniture while you’re on the phone to the roofer. You get it fixed immediately!
Let’s apply that kind of attitude toward climate change. At the moment, a significant number of Earth homeowners are making matters worse, because they’re in denial. There are things that we need to take care of right now, a few things that can wait a little while, but all of it must eventually be addressed. Our home needs a good caretaker. Meanwhile, there are more and more of us living in it.
The accelerating increase in the number of humans breathing and burning fuel here on Earth is a huge factor in climate change. When I was eight years old, my family visited New York City to see the 1964 World’s Fair. It was a fantastic place. There were dioramas depicting a future that featured cars with rounded aerodynamic shapes quietly slipping through the air on five-level curving superhighways, and forests being felled by clean-running, laser-beaming bulldozers cutting rights-of-way for new highways. There was the enormous stainless steel globe, which still stands in Flushing Meadows near LaGuardia Airport. But looking back, the one exhibit that really got to me was the Population Clock. It was a tote board display that showed the world’s human population, and I remember being amazed by how quickly it was growing. A steady drumbeat of advancing numbers indicated how many of us there were; a graph predicted how many of us there would be in coming decades.
I was there with my dad, the same man who felt it was perfectly normal to pull the family car over and creep slowly along the side of the road so he could take pictures (on film, with a macro lens fitted on his Pentax camera) of the car’s odometer as it rolled over from 99,999 miles to 100,000 miles. He took a half-dozen shots as the mechanism gently and inexorably nudged the new number and clicked it into place. You can see why a guy like that and his son (shown on the cover of this book) were fascinated by the population-clock tote board. It had the same kind of unstoppable quality.
That day at the World’s Fair we were both disappointed when we realized that we’d just missed a monumental flip of the numbers. We arrived too late—by only a few hours—to see the world’s population of humans officially rising from 2,999,999,999 to three billion people. Furthermore, I remember signage that described the impending steepening of the global population’s growth curve. It gave me pause. It still does. Just since the 1964 World’s Fair, the world’s population has substantially more than doubled—30 percent more than doubled. We have added another 4 billion to the total, and then some.
Think about the size of the environment we 7.3 billion people share. One of the most recognizable images from the space age is Earth as seen from afar, a blue marble suspended in icy blackness. If you are near a computer or tablet or smartphone (and who isn’t these days?), pull up an image of our planet from outer space. Look for the atmosphere, and you’ll notice you can’t see it, not really. It’s as though Earth doesn’t even have a layer of gas surrounding it. Relatively speaking, the atmosphere is about as thick as a layer of varnish on a standard classroom globe.
I like to put it this way: If we had some sort of extraordinary ladder-car that allowed us to drive straight up at highway speed, we’d be in outer space in less than an hour. We’d be above the breathable part of the atmosphere in just five minutes! The blackness of outer space is barely a hundred kilometers, or 62 miles, from here, where you and I live. That’s it. Earth’s atmosphere is very, very thin. And there are 7.3 billion people living in it, breathing it, depending on it, and dumping waste into it.
With every bicycle commuter switching to a car (and with every other energy-consuming “improvement” in our standard of living) we are doing more living, and using more electricity from fossil fuel–powered power plants, and dumping more exhaust gases into the sky. And with every increase in the population there are even more of us doing these things. Population increase is not going to stop anytime soon, and the desire for a better lifestyle is probably not going away, ever. That’s why there is climate change. That’s why we are facing daunting new patterns of drought, flooding, heat waves, and rising sea levels.
Too often I hear people in the throes of giving up. Climate change is such a big problem, they sigh, that there’s nothing we can do to offset it, so we should just let it happen. Let the planet change and we’ll figure out how to deal with the consequences. That is the attitude of someone who regards Earth as a rental house, not a permanent home. The problem is, there is no next place to go when the lease is up.
My travels to places like China, India, and Iowa get me fired up about fighting that kind of resignation. Climate change started with the rise of modern industry. We see its imprint in almost every manufactured product. With each retired bicycle, with each new huge house built on a deliberately isolated cul-de-sac, with each oversized air conditioner, and with each jet plane ride for business or pleasure, we see choices that lead to inefficiency. Fighting climate change can happen in the same way, by making different choices, by making everything we do—big and small—cleaner and smarter and more efficient. It’s a daunting challenge, but an exciting one. We, as a global generation, can tackle it.
Our planet may seem huge, but ours is a small world, really, especially when you look at it power plant by power plant, or even bicycle by bicycle. Earth is small, a cozy little home, and its future is in our hands.
Copyright © 2015 by William S. Nye