The brilliant scientists who created nuclear weapons were appalled by what they had made possible. Nuclear war. During the Cold War, they saw humanity inching steadily toward self-annihilation. They started a movement among themselves to lobby for nuclear sanity. They used the image of a clock showing minutes to midnight to make plain the imminence of existential risk. It was on the cover of every issue of their monthly magazine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The minute hand moved back a bit when disarmament negotiations showed progress. It moved forward when tensions rose, or nuclear sabers rattled. We called it the Doomsday Clock. Clearly, humanity was in uncharted territory, master of its own fate and hostage to its worst instincts.
That territory now looks relatively well charted in comparison to the uncharted territory of an obviously changing global climate. We knew how to think about war. Just not nuclear war. We do not yet know how to think about the climate emergency. Maybe a new Doomsday Clock would help.
If minutes were years, it would show the time to doom as ten to twenty minutes before midnight. Once again, we are in uncharted territory. Twenty is the number of years to release another 800 or so million tons of CO2 into earth’s atmosphere and reach the gateway to territory beyond a 2-degree C average global temperature increase above pre-industrial stable levels. That’s if we don’t step hard on the brakes. Annual temperature swings are increasing, suggesting the possibility of out of control increases if we push much further into uncharted territory.
Is there a way to change course and avert the dire future we already see manifesting where climate impacts are triggering wars and mass migrations? Assuming our usual and usually distracted way, there is little hope. Our institutions, global, national and local, are gridlocked, corrupted, and cannot seem to change their ways. They respond with goals that they lack accountability and resources to achieve. Such goals are soft lies. They imply that if renewable energy sources expand and GHG emissions are somehow curbed over a period of decades, all will be well. The industries that stand to “win” in these scenarios talk up the goals and rule changes the goals can be used to justify. Meanwhile, business as usual is their once and future strategy. All is not well, and it won’t be.
Is humanity doomed? Yes, most of it, assuming we continue to out-source the problem to governments and industries that can already barely cope with what is always coming at them. They change slowly. Money is their primary metric. They try to be successful according to finance measures. They don’t seem to know they need new tools and options. Or that they are available. What they already have works well enough for them.
On the other hand, we are not doomed if we take up and use the new tools and options modern technology is making available to each of us. Game-changing new products are being mass produced by new industries after decades of incremental progress. There were no technological breakthroughs. But there are new and now fully mature industries able to deliver clean energy at previously unimagined prices.
The largest and most politically and commercially powerful potential customers will be the slowest to adopt them. The governments having the greatest power will be the slowest to use it to open the playing field to new players. Slow in the best cases. Much too slow in most cases.
So, is there hope or not? There is if you know where to look.
Good things, new technologies at affordable prices no one predicted are experiencing explosive growth. They can be deployed quickly with great effect. They are transformative. They make measurable differences in local greenhouse emissions. More important, they empower fundamental, relatively convenient change that is much faster than we are used to. One person and local business at a time. At least for now. They comprise an integrative suite of solutions that are mutually enabling. In the energy sector, they include rooftop solar, electric vehicle batteries and fuel cells, and information systems that enable automated decision-making for cost and climate saving energy use and transportation efficiency.
We need, therefore, a shift in consciousness. In the US, we have a comfortable dependency on systems so large and complex that they cannot change at all, let alone fast enough. Our amazing and expertly managed energy grids, for example. They are our bridge to a climate-stabilized future. But they are only a bridge. They are not the future we should be helping to create.
Each of us. Now. And with our communities engaged with us and supporting us as soon as possible. Our local governments represent us in dealing with states and utilities. They cannot remain on the sidelines much longer.
We live among shining examples of how urgently needed change can occur at a pace that fits the situation. We can’t help but see them, on roofs and on the road, but we may not “see” beyond the visual image. Thirty to forty percent of homes in my city now have solar electricity arrays on them. Most of this change happened in less than five years. It has unexpectedly reduced our city’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than ten percent. It has also raised awareness of actionable opportunities to reduce building energy use. Energy user decisions have lowered our greenhouse emissions a comparable amount.* Electric vehicles and charging stations are also starting to produce comparable local greenhouse emissions reductions.
These simple new substitutions for local greenhouse emissions sources are delivering other “invisible” benefits. They create jobs. Good, stable, well paying jobs. Plus, when disaster strikes and the stream of essential things we import from outside the community is disrupted, we will have local systems that are still working for us to even though the flow of imported fuels and electricity may be disrupted. Economic, health and safety disruptions will be less consequential than they would have been. We will be more resilient.
Things we do to help ourselves and our own community can catalyze larger solutions. Coordination and regulation of larger solutions will still be required. It will be feasible within the capacity of governments and the businesses that currently serve us. They don’t necessarily need to change in disruptive ways, but they must adapt as necessary.
Let us re-examine our assumptions about leadership. Governments and large corporations obviously invest heavily in shaping our wants and preferences. This is mostly marketing, not leadership.
What we need is change we all can contribute while holding our communities accountable to work alongside us. Doing nothing and waiting for governments and incumbent industries to change would be choosing doom over hope. The choices families and independent business owners make are sources of real leadership. If we make the right ones, our “leaders” will follow. It’s as simple as that. And it works.
* Warmer winters during the drought contributed significantly, too, but the effect may be temporary.