“The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”
These are the words of U.S. President George H. W. Bush ahead of the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In retrospect, it turns out he was speaking on behalf of the entire Global North. And this remains our position to this very day. The solution to this crisis is not exactly rocket science. What we have to do is to halt the emission of greenhouse gasses, which, in theory, is a pretty easy thing to do—or at least it was, before we let the problem spiral out of control. It is solving the climate crisis while maximizing economic growth that is the hard part. So hard as to be near impossible.
A stable climate and a well-functioning biosphere are basic conditions for life on earth as we know it. That requires an atmosphere that does not contain too many greenhouse gasses. The carbon dioxide safety level for such climate stability is often considered to be around 350 parts per million (ppm)—a level we passed in around 1987. In February 2022, we surpassed 421 ppm. At current emission levels, our remaining carbon budgets for a decent chance of staying below 1.5°C (and minimizing the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control) will be gone before the end of this decade. There are no effective policies in place. And there is no silver bullet or magic technological solution in sight.
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Since the President spoke those words defending how Americans live, our annual global CO2 emissions have gone up by more than 60%, turning what was then a ‘big challenge’ into an existential emergency. We have developed impressive creative accounting, loopholes, outsourcing, and greenwashing PR narratives that make it seem as if real action is being taken when in fact it is not. Continued economic growth, on the other hand, has been hugely successful—at least for a small number of people who boast a carbon footprint the size of entire villages. Nevertheless, economic growth since the 1992 Earth Summit has at least brought us one major advantage—it has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that our ambition was never about saving the climate, it was all about saving our way of life. And it still is.
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Until recently, you could argue that it was possible to save the climate without having to change our behavior. But that is no longer possible. The scientific evidence is crystal clear: our leaders have left it too late for us to avoid major lifestyle and systemic changes. There simply are not enough resources left. If we are to have a chance of minimizing further irreparable damage, we now have to choose: either we safeguard living conditions for all future generations, or we let a few very fortunate people maintain their constant, destructive search to maximize immediate profits. If we choose the first option and decide to go on as a civilization, then we must start to prioritize. In the years, decades, and centuries to come we will no doubt need many transformations that will have to stretch across our whole societies. And since our resources are limited, we must start getting our priorities straight.
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Beyond the very basics, our top priority must be to distribute our remaining carbon budgets in a fair and holistic way across the world, as well as to repay our enormous historical debts. That means those who are most responsible for this crisis must immediately and drastically reduce their emissions. We understand that the world is very complicated and there are countless important variables. That is exactly why we have to start as soon as possible. This will require a whole new way of thinking for our societies, at least in the affluent parts of the world.
People keep asking us climate activists what we should do to save the climate. But maybe the question itself is wrong. Maybe, instead, we should start asking what we should stop doing. Sometimes you hear people say that we already have all the solutions to the climate crisis and all we need to do is to implement them. But this is only true if we consider not doing something to be a valid solution. If we choose to accept that idea, then we will still be able to get out of this mess.
There is, in reality, absolutely no reason to believe that the necessary changes will make us less happy or less satisfied. If we manage to do this right, then our lives will be given more meaning than selfish, shallow over-consumption can ever give us. Instead, we can make time and space for community, solidarity, and love—the true tenets of a good life.
From The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg, to be published on Feb. 14, 2023 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Greta Thunberg.
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