By: Nora Germain
It’s probably a natural tendency for human beings to underestimate risk. We like to feel safe and we want to minimize feeling anxious and worried. Therefore, many people try to use emotion and doubt to limit the amount of exposure they believe they have to the climate crisis. We have seen this in Europe, where recent floods killed hundreds of people and the residents there said things like (to paraphrase), “This happens in poor countries. Not here!”
This attitude can be called climate hubris, and it means that people in richer countries generally exercise within their minds a false sense of security and exemption when it comes to climate. They may know that climate change is real, but they believe that modern infrastructure can handle it, or there’s more time to “wait and see,” or insurance will pay for any loss, or it will only affect them once but won’t be deadly, and so on and so forth.
This climate hubris seems to make people less interested in understanding the real crisis we’re in. People want to believe they’re safe, so they go through life with blinders on and generally try to ignore whatever science shows up on their Twitter feed. They’ll say it’s alarmist, or again, only affects poorer countries, or it’s a warning and not a certainty.
If you are one of these people, possibly facing some inner resistance to really knowing what’s going on, I’d like to share some information that I think everyone should know about the climate crisis. This isn’t meant to immobilize or depress anyone. My view is that with enough information and awareness, individuals may have a higher chance of surviving it long term or avoiding financial ruin.
The first thing to understand is that human beings can only survive within a very narrow range of internal body temperatures. If external heat and humidity both reach a certain level, around 95 degrees F with higher humidity, something called “wet bulb” conditions can occur which means it’s too hot and too humid outside of your body for you to cool yourself off by sweating. Even if you’re in the shade with an unlimited water supply, your body will inevitably continue to get hotter and you’ll eventually die if you’re not removed from that environment. If global heating continues, many places within the tropical zones of the world could experience these conditions more regularly. That would be very dangerous for human civilization. For example, how can farmers grow our food if they cannot survive being outdoors?
40% of the global population or about 3 billion people live in these areas, so climate migration is certain to exponentially increase at any time. Even places in Canada have experienced deadly heat, so these migrations whether temporary or permanent will likely not be limited to the tropical zones. Conditions can change incredibly rapidly, as we saw a town in Canada more or less spontaneously combust after it reached 121 degrees F in July.
Let’s talk about time scales. 1990 is just as far from 2020 as 2050 is. When you hear politicians make promises about 2050, it’s important to recognize that it’s not some very far off date. It’s the same as being in 1990 and talking about 2020. When we talk about “this century,” we’re talking about things happening within the lifetime of most young people. This century only has about 79 years left in it. So try to hear these dates and figures as part of your life, or part of your personal experience of time. These dates aren’t hypothetical. They are very real and you will probably live through them.
Now let’s talk about nature. Nature is luckily highly resilient. That’s a good thing and we’ve seen in many places throughout the world that when we do the right things to allow nature to heal and rejuvenate, that miracles can happen relatively quickly. The bad news is that we have an incredibly small “amount” of truly wild, intact nature left. Only 3% of nature is intact on Earth as of 2021. This number shocked me, and it made me realize just how ignorant and content I was to believe that nature was abundant and unending, or strong and big enough to withstand even the worst of our exploitative behaviors. This may not be true.
We have an enormous amount of work to do in rewilding, proforesting, expanding and protecting our lands and oceans. Nature is resilient which works in our favor, but if people believe that nature is infallible or impervious to human activity, that belief can also work against us because people will just hope that it will be fine. It won’t. We are still burning forests and paving new roads, building new houses and expanding our landfills. There is so much that can be done to expand the strength and richness of nature, and we must do it — all of it.
The next thing to understand about climate is that it’s not a cause that anyone volunteers to take part in for fun. To paraphrase a tweet from climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor, people get involved in climate because they want to survive. We are not in the environmentalist phase of humanity anymore. That has passed. We are now in the life support phase, the survival phase. That’s why everyone should care, no matter where they live or what job or dream they have. Our life support systems — the insects, the forests, our clean water, our rich soil which grows our food, our climate itself — are all collapsing. If you want to survive, you’re part of it.
The final thing to remember is that no singular solution will solve this huge mess we’re in. Do we want individual action or government action? Yes. That means both. Do we want technology solutions or nature-based solutions? Again, yes. We need all of it because we cannot plant ice.
We need to learn that some of these systems are too complex and advanced for human beings to hack, control or replace with an algorithm. We cannot regrow forest that is as sophisticated as the Amazon in its millions of years of evolution. We cannot engineer ice caps. We cannot restart the ocean’s circulation currents if they stop. Perhaps someday we will be able to, but I wouldn’t count on that. There is a lot that we can do, though. We can vote, we can pick up trash, we can decarbonize our economies, and we can change our consumer habits and our values. We can take less from the planet by reducing pollution and overfishing and so forth. We can use legislation to protect wildlife. These are all important things and they do make a difference. To solve climate we cannot just rely on a miracle. We need to rely on science, we need to place a deeper sense of cosmic value on our natural places, and we need to plan for a tumultuous century ahead.
Finally I’d like to address a few myths or assumptions that many people have when they think about the future and climate. These might help you in the years to come. The first is that insurance can always save you from climate change. This is incorrect. Many homes in California and elsewhere cannot easily be insured for fires because the risk is too high. This is also true for areas where flooding is very common. Flood insurance is becoming extremely expensive because the insurance companies know there will likely be a loss. You may not be able to find or afford the right kind of insurance for your assets. Do not depend on it by itself.
The next assumption is that the first world, the developed world or the “rich nations” will not experience climate catastrophe. This is false. It is probably a matter of time before climate chaos takes a toll on your personal life, your inner circle or your family. Do not ignore warnings from scientists or officials in your area. You should follow the leading climate scientists and engineers in your area on social media so you know what’s going on in your neighborhood.
Our planet has become unpredictable and you need to be prepared, possibly with a first aid kit, extra water, a backup generator or other supplies. If you live near fires you might consider professionally sealing your house, buying a purifier or high quality face masks. Maybe make plans with friends or family in other places in case of an emergency so you know where to go, how to get there and how you’ll pay for it.
The last myth is that climate won’t have any real impact on financial markets, and that climate investments are simply too expensive. This is probably the most misguided view of them all. Climate and related movements have already impacted the financial markets when it comes to oil prices, the real estate markets, local government spending, and beyond. Be careful where and how you invest your money. Climate can be extremely disruptive and it will likely create more disruptions in the future, especially in coastal real estate, insurance, utility companies and other areas.
Spending money to solve the climate crisis is never a waste because there is almost no limit to the scope of destruction that climate chaos can cause. Furthermore, solving climate change will create long term social stability, political stability, millions of jobs, and secure important resources for generations to come. It’s much more expensive not to act.
Infrastructure, green energy, upgrading the grid, expanding public transit, weatherizing public systems, reforesting, paying people to clean up trash, and securing internet infrastructure long term are important investments that we should be expanding all over the world. The consequences of putting these projects off are cataclysmic, as we saw in China when several people drowned inside a subway during a flood. It’s now becoming routine for entire towns to disappear from one fire. This is only 2021. What do you think 2031 or 2041 will be like?
In conclusion, our naturally occurring but vulnerable life support systems cannot be valued with a dollar amount. They are simply too rare. The value of breathable, clean air alone is impossible to calculate. You can only find it on Earth, and therefore these resources demand investment and protection. There is no vaccine for climate change. The only way out is through, and the UN estimates that every dollar spent on solving climate change yields four back. Any smart investor would jump at that chance.
There is a lot more to discuss about climate which I’ll cover in future blogs, but I believe that if every human being knew just this much information, the planet would be in a much better place. There is still so much worth fighting for, and so much worth saving. Our planet is singularly special and it is all that we have. We are all crew together on this mission, so find a role and make it your own!