The biggest misunderstanding about climate change

There are people out there who don’t really pay a lot of attention to climate change. They realize it’s a problem, but they’re generally pretty sure it will be fixed somehow. That’s most people. Then there is a group of people, who insist that climate change is not a real problem, at least not in the sense that their own political representatives should do something about it.

Those people will end up in the dustbin of history, an embarassment you try to skip over. Just as you’ve never heard of Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, the pro-slavery answer to Uncle Tom’s cabin, most people a hundred years from now will have no real clue what sort of nonsense the people who sought to deny climate change came up with. Greta Thunberg will end up in the history books, the “German answer to Greta Thunberg”, is an embarassment everyone will have forgotten about.

I want to focus here instead on the third category, the people who realize climate change is a big problem and who want their governments to do something about it. It’s this third category that’s relevant to discuss here. We hear a lot of cries from these people, arguing that unless something is done soon, the world will end. Ocasio Cortez is a good example of this. There isn’t any reputable climatologist predicting anything like the imminent collapse of civilization due to climate change however.

Most of these people have one thing in common, in that they’re women in their late twenties or early thirties who don’t want to have children. People don’t like it when you say that, but I notice it a lot. Young men care depressingly little about climate change. When young women claim to care about climate change, it tends to diverge into a rant about having children. There’s a simple reason for that. A hundred percent of your ancestors reproduced. Your psychology and body are “designed” in a manner that enables you to reproduce.

When circumstances in your life prevent you from reproducing, your mind will clamp onto anything it can, to cope with that. Thus we observe the phenomenon of the twenty-something year old college educated woman with a dead-end job, a dead-end relationship with a boyfriend she met online whom she looks down upon and a tiny apartment in a big city that eats up half her monthly salary, who finds herself in a position where she can’t imagine raising children and thus seeks rationalizations to cope with that. This is the average kind of person I encounter among climate activists.

So, what sort of rationalization is very effective when you find yourself in a position where you can’t envision raising children? Well, the world is about to end! If the world is about to end, then you can put your worries about any sort of long-term commitments in your life out of your head. You don’t have enough money for retirement? Doesn’t matter. You hate your job? It’ll end soon. Children? Well you’re lucky if you haven’t died of hunger within the next few years, don’t even think about bringing another mouth to feed into the world.

Please note, I’m not suggesting here that abstaining from having children is by itself a bad thing. I have no desire to make that decision for individuals. If your mental or physical health make it irresponsible to bring a child into the world, or you live in some overpopulated hellhole, obviously it’s fine to abstain from it. However, you have to be prepared for the simple fact that your instincts are probably going to get angry and attempt to subvert your decision. Women in particular face this problem once they enter their late twenties. Again, it’s fine to go against those instincts. If you wander through a busy street and smell fast food being prepared, your instincts probably tell you to walk in and buy fries.

However, the problem with the whole mental model of these people, I hate to break it to you, is that the world is not about to end. That sucks, I know. As a teenager, I hoped every day for the end of the world. I would be one of the few survivors in an abandoned wasteland, living as a nomad and seeking out food and shelter amid the abandoned ruins. I became really convinced everything would collapse around 2008, when I noticed the surge in food prices. Of course the world just continued and I was still forced to make long term plans for my life.

How can you be so sure the world won’t end? Isn’t it obvious that we’re going to blast past two degree Celsius? Doesn’t that trigger unprecedented forest fires, unprecedented droughts and various other disasters? The answer to all of those questions is yes. The problem is that the consequences you expect just don’t follow from that.

Let me give you a few doomsday predictions that are perfectly correct: The Great Barrier reef is going to die. The Amazon rainforest will turn into savannah. Methane will be released from the Siberian permafrost. Enormous droughts will strike India and Africa. All of those things are correct. The problem is, you can live through them.

Let me explain to you what I mean. Israel is a country that should be hell on Earth. It has 10 million people, living in the middle of a desert. Just 20% of the land in Israel is arable. And yet, this nation manages to feed itself. How is that possible? They use desalination plants to water their crops. In other words, technology fills the gap to feed people.

“Alright, that’s nice, but desalination has enormous ecological consequences and uses a lot of energy.” Yes I know, but the conclusion to draw from that is not “it doesn’t work and everyone will die”. The correct conclusion is “That means people will simply isolate themselves further from nature”.

That’s the big problem everyone is missing in my experience, when it comes to discussions about climate change. People in first world nations don’t have to fear empty shelves in the supermarket or lethal disasters due to climate change. The biggest climate change disasters in Western nations kill fewer people than an average flu season.

Instead, the only thing you genuinely have to fear on a personal basis in the coming years is finding yourself further isolated from nature. What’s happening is best described as a transition from a world where nature survives on its own, to a world where humans have to start managing nature.

That’s another taboo, the inconvenient fact that humans are quite capable of managing nature. In particular, we’re quite capable of reflecting sunlight. With one kilogram of well-placed sulfur in the atmosphere, you can cancel out the warming from hundreds of thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide.

“But that has all sorts of unintended side-effects!” You declare. That’s true, but all of those are likely to be minor and manageable compared to the effects of a severe heatwave that is prevented. There are harmful and unintended side-effects to injecting insulin too, but humans do it on a regular basis when the alternative is death. The consequences this has of course is that eventually there’s no place left that remains truly “wild” nature. It’s perfectly possible that a fleet of aircraft ends up keeping the Amazon alive.

In short, the suggestion I’m offering here is that climate change is a real problem, but it’s not going to be the end of the world, even though we will fail to solve the problem in the years ahead. Rather, it becomes a problem we will have to learn to live with. This isn’t a suggestion I’m pulling out of thin air. If you pay attention, you’ll find that IPCC documents and big NGO’s are becoming increasingly willing to discuss “geoengineering”.

It’s a mistake to assume that everything is going to fall apart due to climate change in the coming decades. Rather, societies will simply buy themselves time by engineering the climate for themselves, before they have to genuinely start sucking large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

People don’t want to hear this. There’s a perfectly black-or-white all encompassing global struggle they see themselves participating in, where either every government now shuts down its fossil infrastructure overnight (which is obviously never going to happen), or the whole world falls apart. The reason this narrative exists is because it fulfills a human psychological need, which is to feel part of a group of people, engaged in a meaningful struggle.

My suggestion however is to understand when it comes to subjects like climate change, that you’re an individual.  Individuals don’t have the power to influence the temperature of planet Earth, unless they are billionaires perhaps. People don’t tell you this, they tell you that you can change the world for an obvious reason. Obviously we would all benefit if a billion people went on a climate strike tomorrow, but you and me have negligible influence on whether that will happen.

What you as an individual have influence on, more than anything else, is the outcome of your own life. You’re very lucky indeed, if you manage to have any significant influence at all, on the lives of the people you personally know. Once we leave that personal sphere, your individual influence rapidly diminishes and once it reaches grand societal problems like overpopulation, presidential elections and global warming, your influence becomes impossible to measure.

“But Greta Thunberg was a nobody who had an impact!” Yes and sometimes a lottery ticket wins you the lottery, but that doesn’t make playing the lottery a rational action. Besides the inconvenient fact that unlike you and me, Greta found herself in the right place in the right time, the question you need to be asking yourself how you can effectively spend the few years you spend on this giant rock.

Climate activism can get you a few things. It can help you meet bourgeois college students who think it’s normal to mention your pronouns when introducing yourself. It’s probably a useful stepping stone if you want to enter politics or join an NGO one day. It helps you build a credible case to young people one day when you’re old that you “tried everything you could”. What it won’t do however, is reduce global temperatures.

My suggestion is that it’s generally better for your wellbeing and counter-intuitively for society as well, if you spend your time engaged in actions that you as an individual have genuine measurable influence over. What measurable influence do you and me have on whether Sanders will become president? It’s negligible. What measurable influence do you have on global temperatures? Again, negligible.

That’s not what you’re eager to hear, it goes against human psychology, but it’s the reality we face. Your brain evolved in a context where almost any peace of information it encountered was useful. Today, living in a technologically advanced society means continually being confronted with grand overarching problems and situations from around the world that you have no meaningful influence on, from the soccer match on TV, to the genocide in Xinjiang, to slavery in central Africa, to the temperatures in Siberia. This is a recipe for mental illness.

Again, this is somewhat counter-intuitive, but you’re generally better off asking yourself what you could be doing with your scarce time and energy that would make you genuinely happy, instead of seeking out some abstract higher cause. Happiness after all, exists for a reason. It’s meant as a byproduct we experience when we pursue actions conducive to our overall wellbeing. What all cults fundamentally have in common is that they urge you to sacrifice your own happiness for their greater cause. This is a psychological trick, the appeal to sacrifice gives power to cult leaders, but it comes at the cost of the followers.

When you reach such a state of genuine happiness, individual accomplishment becomes possible, which is ultimately your best chance to have any sort of actual measurable impact on the world. Consider this: It doesn’t matter if you fought in Iraq, if you didn’t go someone else could have easily gone instead. What changes the world? This is almost always down to individual human beings, who did something fundamentally different from everyone else. Instead of participating in mass movements, my suggestion is to find out where your own talents lie and to develop those in a way that enables you to make practical use of them.

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