Climate change needs to be addressed by each of us. Now.

Aug 5, 2019 by

On a sunny summer day that seems to be way too hot for Vienna, in one of the rooms of a stunningly romantic palace formerly deployed by the Habsburg family as a countryside residence, one of the co-authors of the IPCC reports (Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Assessment Reports), Arnulf Grübler, addresses an audience full of young potential changemakers with a simple question: What is a system?

Two expressions resound in Grübler’s speech: interaction of elements and the climate crisis. Isn’t it true that part of the failure to address climate change is due to academic disciplines and sectors that keep working in silos? It is a failure of communication, and a failure to think outside the box. According to Grübler, we need a system with Low Energy Demand (LED), where we reduce the demand for goods and services that are environmentally costly to provide and create. They argue that we need to think about the overall efficiency. However, policy makers need to be aware that the pursuit of efficiency can render social inequality invisible. Meanwhile, there are examples of policies that achieve energy efficiency with social concerns. For instance, the carbon emissions of an old school bus transporting 21 people are less than the carbon emissions of a modern electric car with a single driver. So instead of promoting electric cars, investing in public transport might be a better alternative. While the first approach may exclude the poorer people who can’t afford the new technology, the latter approach can reduce the inequality gap by making fares cheaper and the coverage wider.

If it is feasible to achieve a LED alternative and social equality at the same time, will it be possible to have a win-win solution for the environment and our society? Professor Brian Fath argues that population growth is putting a huge pressure on sustainability, which we don’t necessarily agree with. Blaming population growth is almost synonymous to shifting the burdens to the Global South. While Brian is right about quoting John Stuart Mill who once said that perpetual growth in material well-being is not possible or desirable, we think the point of intervention should be in the Global North where unsustainable individualistic behaviours persist. Indeed, why are we so obsessed with growth and wealth accumulation? Growth is about quantity, but life is about quality. Happiness and development are also about quality. We should all agree by now that GDP is not a good measure of our happiness in life. If we want to make a transformation, we should not start by shifting responsibilities to people in the Global South. We need to change our own mindset first.

Change takes time, and there are always some transition costs, but can humanity really afford to delay change? Professor Kromp-Kolb’s answer is “no”. The main problem is that climate change does not happen linearly. Beyond certain tipping points, the temperature rise can skyrocket in a very short time and trigger a domino effect. For instance, the ice-albedo positive feedback loop in inducing temperature rise is happening at a much faster pace than ever thought before and the Arctic fire this summer certainly does not help. For how long can we keep on using nature’s services without changing our way of living that endangers its whole existence?

We don’t have the time to debate who should do the job of alarming people or who is more responsible for changing their behaviours: individuals or large corporations, Global North or Global South, we should all be involved. As Professor Kromp-Kolb said to us by the end of their lecture: “Every half-degree counts, every month counts, every decision counts.” Understanding the challenges facing us today is not enough, we need to act together at all levels and make a change here and now.

Written by: Beebo Yuqing Wang & Martina Massei

Based on the lectures “System boundaries” by Arnulf Gruebler, “Biophysical limits to growth” by Brian Fath and “Climate Change” by Helga Kromp-Kolb held during AEMS 2019.