In the polar regions, climate change is disrupting the delicate ecosystems faster than anywhere else on earth. Sebastian Copeland has led numerous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic to document these disruptions. His photographs show a beautiful and fascinating world that is disappearing. In this essay, he shares with us how climate change is affecting every aspect of our societies and what roles public opinion and technology can play in battling it.
All photos by Sebastian Copeland.
To measure the true impact of climate change, I think it is important to contextualize it against the backdrop of our rapidly changing world. It is easy to tune out incremental changes and kick them down the road. And while the big picture may well involve a long-term existential look at humanity, a less distant but just as nefarious feedback stems from how climate change destabilizes societies. Exponentially mounting costs, relocation, conflicts over land and resources are some of those feedbacks, which result in the weakening of our collective freedoms. They present a real threat to democracies. In short, climate change is the single greatest disruptor civilization has ever known.
In short, climate change is the single greatest disruptor civilization has ever known.
With the desertification of vast swaths of land and coastline erosion from rising seas, life—whether human or otherwise— is becoming unsustainable in many regions of the world. Through the course of this century, hundreds of millions of climate migrants will be exercising their claim to life, and looking to settle in more clement and economically prosperous regions. But in many of these parts, the growing challenge of job obsolescence from technology and the socioeconomic consequences of pyramid-shaped economic models will have profound implications on governance. A basic universal income is virtually unavoidable for the future, and how to balance federal budgets with less taxable income from labor will be one of the many issues testing our current political model.
Climate change is weakening our democracies
And when we add increasing waves of climate migrants to this toxic mix, it is easy to see how fear becomes the fertile ground over which xenophobia and populism grow. We can build as many walls as we can dream of, but history teaches us that, aside from their steep sociopolitical price, they always dramatically fall. It’s just a matter of time. That is particularly true when people on the other side are fighting for their lives. The growing repression of migrants that we have witnessed globally is a harbinger of a worsening humanitarian crisis. Besides, ballooning climate impacts will soon force governments to make decisions that will challenge legislative representation.
The weakening of our democracies is paving the way for what I have coined as an oncoming ecological dictatorship: when votes cannot get the job done in time to avert existential environmental threats, states —or worse, foreign entities—will take matters in their own hands, circumventing the invariably drawn-out and partisan voting process, or the sovereignty of nations. Recent international tensions over the Amazonian fires would intimate as much. If we come to that, all bets are off for individual freedoms: repression will increase, and conflicts grow. Ultimately, climate change is threatening to dehumanize us and challenge one of the cornerstones of humanity: our empathy. If the mark of an advanced society has been to secure life as a basic human right, we are quickly and alarmingly devolving it into a privilege.
The greatest challenge is with human attitudes
The factors that are affecting climate change are well documented: we pour so much carbon dioxide into our atmosphere that we not only raise global temperatures but fundamentally change the chemistry of our oceans, choking their ability to make life. Coral reefs are dying around the world, and these are home to one quarter of all marine life. The changing pH is also killing plankton life at the base of the food chain. By 2050, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish. And ice at both poles is melting seven times faster than it did in 1979, disrupting air and ocean current while redrawing the maps of our world.
Adding to this is human encroachment. In the short time that we have been in existence—anatomically modern humans are barely 175,000 years old—we have stripped the Earth of more than half of its trees (trees date back 350 million years). Oceans and trees are the planet’s biggest carbon sinks. The third, soil, is losing by as much as half its ability to absorb CO2 due to extreme weather events. Nature is vanishing before our eyes. We’ve learned that one in 8.7 million species are at risk of extinction within decades; and that 75% of the world’s lands and 66% of its marine environments have been significantly altered by humans. By 2050, only 10% of the planet will remain untouched.
In modern times, this has fostered a delusion that we can bend physics to our needs, and engineer our way out of universal rules.
Meanwhile urban living areas have doubled since 1992 and will double again by 2050. With that comes increasing stress on resources to sustain the projected 6.5 billion of us who will live in cities by 2050. The need for electrification, transportation, food production and distribution—these will all increase exponentially in the coming decades. And if the Earth loses 10% of its hydrology and 7% of its global calories with each degree of rise, our planet is already 0.8°C degree warmer than it was in 1880. The transformations have already been far-reaching and exponential. So we are on a collision course with the math because conservative estimates place at 3°C degrees the rise in temperatures by 2100.
Bits & Pretzels
At this year's Bits & Pretzels founders conference in Munich, Sebastian Copeland gave the opening keynote on the Impact Stage curated by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The overall topic of this year's conference, which took place from Sept 29 to Oct 1, 2019 was "Impact," and the opening speech was presented by President Barack Obama.
In short, the optimization of carbon energy may well have led to the most significant spur of growth and prosperity in our history, but it has also created what could potentially be unsolvable challenges. To think that we will be on this planet forever is a stretch of reason. But to speed up the process as we have is simply suicidal. Ultimately, the greatest challenge is not with the environment: it is human attitudes. Borne out of the Age of Enlightenment, we cultivate the naive ideology that we are the Earth’s ruling class. In modern times, this has fostered a delusion that we can bend physics to our needs, and engineer our way out of universal rules. However clever we are, on this planet at least, you can challenge gravity all you want, but it remains that if you drop a brick on your foot, you will get injured.
We do not have the luxury of time
We will not mitigate the worst impact of climate change without re-shaping our attitudes. Every credible study points to the need to expedite a draw down of our reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewable solutions. But without presenting economically viable alternatives that do not significantly affect our quality of life, there will be little market traction. And for this, we need officials to invest political capital—not an easy task electorally. Ultimately, there are three agents to systemic and lasting change: the public and private sectors, and public opinion. The conundrum is that each can only move as fast as the slowest one. So change at that scale is not fast. But the single most effective way to institute change is education. Technology is well on the way to offer a path to sustainability. And there is little doubt that we will get there.
If science fails to teach us that we must live in harmony with Nature, then it has taught us nothing.
Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time. Decentralized electrification from renewables and smart grid distribution; the circular and shared economy; e-transportation and smart cities transportation; and the scaling of carbon capture and sequestration technologies: in a vacuum, this four-point plan along with education is enough to categorically solve the emissions crisis within one generation. But do we have the appetite for it today? The fate of the human race could well hinge on that question. If science fails to teach us that we must live in harmony with Nature, then it has taught us nothing.
The illusion that there is a legitimate debate on climate change
The challenge in the current discussion is not a lack of scientific evidence—there is more than enough of that. It is the dichotomous relationship between science and opinion makers. Climate science is disciplined and methodical but relies on modeling, which by definition is conclusive only to the highest probability. Opinions, on the other hand, are generally impassioned and absolute in conviction, but mostly arbitrary and opportunistic in motivation. It’s a bad marriage. Influencing public opinion ultimately relies on the bigger soapbox. Increasingly, Nature speaks the loudest; and perhaps sadly for some, it does not negotiate. While this may be incontrovertible, it should not surprise that people have proportionately stronger opinions when their interests are at stake. And more than anyone, special interests have a lot at stake. So, again, it is important to contextualize the discussion.
Just as a court of law may examine the circumstances that have led to a crisis, so, too, should we consider who stands to benefit from staying the course; and what role they play in sowing the doubts that have fuel the systematic repudiation of science. Of the 120 million companies existing in the world today, only one hundred contribute to 71% of global emissions. Just five of those have collectively spent one billion dollars in counter information messaging since 2016 to discredit the findings of the Paris agreement and promote the illusion that there is a legitimate debate on climate change.
In their defense, fossil interests are fighting an existential war of attrition of their own to defend their fundamental purpose as defined by geo-economics for more than a century. And that conditioning dies hard. The fossil fuel industry in particular has benefitted from government subsidies for a long time on the premise that it takes enormous resources to bring a well to production, with many expensive dead-ends along the way. Because we are a carbon economy, it has been incumbent upon governments to ensure steady supplies of energy and prop up those interests, at times mobilizing enormous geopolitical investments to secure them. But that narrative is increasingly being challenged by renewable alternatives.
Of the 120 million companies existing in the world today, only one hundred contribute to 71% of global emissions.
The fossil industry persists in promoting the alleged premise that our energy needs cannot be sustained from renewables alone. But most markers suggest that renewables could supply at least 80% of global energy needs. Besides, isn’t necessity the mother of invention? The tide is slowly turning, furthering a landscape of partisanship and division. Remarkably, this has come to be a partisan issue but it was not always the case. Among those who stand to benefit from drilling policies are lawmakers themselves; those who have maintained denial positions have come to increasingly rely on funding from energy lobbies, while the story they have peddled to their constituents has now taken a life of its own, generating a vicious feedback loop.
There is little indication that this conflict will be settled with rational arguments anytime time soon. It is generational, and the old guard has not shown an appetite to mobilize unlike their younger counterpart. Unfortunately time is not on our side.
Roadmaps for the future
The paradigm of industrial development has pitted profits versus planet; its compounded cost is only just becoming clearer. We have been mostly reacting to environmental challenges, but crisis management is not a strategy. We need to implement a plan for risk mitigation that spans the many layers of our changing world.
The coming fourth industrial revolution is a boom of opportunity whose hallmark must be a market transformation towards a sustainable economy.
The U.S. Democrats have recently proposed a so-called Green New Deal resolution which is little more than a long-needed de-segmentation of ecology and economy, while accepting that current global problems cannot be solved by the systems that created them in the first place. That is, of course, if indeed welfare for all is what we are after. The coming fourth industrial revolution is a boom of opportunity whose hallmark must be a market transformation towards a sustainable economy. It is the most logical evolution for mankind if we stand to be united in the face of mounting socioeconomic, environmental, and technological challenges.
The Green New Deal efforts may be ahead of their time in the United States, but they are in no way groundbreaking: other First World countries have adopted many of its tenets as a roadmap for the future. Scandinavian countries come to mind, notably Norway, whose Sovereign Wealth Fund is the largest in the world and who recently announced its divestment from profitable carbon interests.
In addition, it is not insignificant that the Business Roundtable, an association whose members comprise the CEOs of America’s largest companies—not exactly a socialist cabal—has recently reworded its mission statement to declare that profits are no longer the primary fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and that other considerations such as worker welfare, CSR, R&D, and charitable causes also play a critical role in a corporation’s governance. Some conservative pundits have been quick to denounce cultural efforts to reflect those changing attitudes by raising the specter of communism. But they would do well to take stock of the growing global interest to examine and re-define who we are as a people.
If science and technology are the next wave of innovation, the third ingredient must be empathy, lest we allow algorithms and AI to eclipse our relevance in the long run. Nothing in Darwinism theoretically suggests that humanity is the final stage of evolution.