There are many ways to deny the facts of climate change. There’s outright denial of the science, but there’s also something more insidious: acknowledging the problem while denying the consequences.
Like all the rich people who insist on flying around the globe as if nothing were the matter, for example. Or the fact that in every sector of society, to limit global warming to 1.5C will require “rapid and far-reaching” measures that are “unprecedented in terms of scale”, according to the IPCC.
It’s easier to talk down the disruptive implications and carry on with our day-to-day lives by pretending that, well, this crisis is just too hard to fix. We’re doomed. Someone else should take responsibility, or act first, and of course, so many other issues are important too.
After five years reporting on climate change, what I’ve found is that, in fact, there are ways in which each and every one of us can make a difference. There’s a new story in the making, one in which the consequences of our actions do add up – and every contribution is meaningful. Denial and despair are not the only possible responses to the climate crisis.
For my new book, How Are We Going To Explain This?, I’ve identified 12 specific misunderstandings that pervade discussions on climate change – and how to answer them.
The climate is always changing, so the current warming is no big deal
It’s true that the climate is always changing, but that’s no reason to trivialise the current changes. It’s like setting your car on fire and then saying the engine temperature has changed before.
Over the past 12,000 years, the climate has been relatively stable, warm and wet. We’re now leaving that stable climate niche and risking a hothouse Earth. That’s dangerous, because the heat we’re now charging towards is at a level we’ve never experienced before.
Never before has the climate changed as quickly and radically, and now there are 7.8 billion people living on the earth. All those people will be burdened with higher temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather.
We don’t know if it’s our greenhouse gases causing global warming
On the basis of countless observations, climate scientists have established this with great certainty: human emissions of greenhouse gases are the dominant cause of current global warming. That’s because greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide retain warmth in the atmosphere.
Measurements show that the average temperatures at night are rising faster than daytime temperatures. That’s indicative of the greenhouse effect: the blanket of gases around the Earth prevents heat from escaping into space. So at night things cool down less than they did before we began to emit greenhouse gases on a massive scale.
Other explanations for the current warming climate have been refuted. For instance, it cannot be caused by extra solar radiation. Although there is certainly some minimal variation in the quantity of solar radiation reaching the Earth, that variation is far too small to cause the current climate change. Moreover, that variation works in both directions, while the Earth becomes warmer year after year.
Only the increase in greenhouse gases can explain all the changes we’re now experiencing.
The consequences of climate change are positive. Plants love CO2 and there will be new arable regions around the North Pole
The second sentence is right. The first sentence isn’t.
Plants and trees do need CO2 to grow, and melting ice, for instance in Greenland, may free up land for new activities – from extraction of raw materials to agriculture. But such relatively small, and often dubious, benefits don’t cancel out the gigantic drawbacks of global warming.
Many negative consequences of global warming are already manifesting themselves: from the growth of hypoxic zones at sea and increased damage from storms to the increase in potentially deadly heatwaves in summer.
Even the food supply is under serious threat from global warming. Cities with millions of inhabitants lie in the danger zone due to rising sea levels, and low-lying islands will disappear. In the coming decades, millions of people will be displaced by the consequences of global warming.
If the Earth continues to heat up, the vast majority of humankind is worse off, and the risks of extreme climate change are uncomfortably big.
It doesn’t matter what a relatively small country does. There’s no point unless China and India do something
Imagine the atmosphere as a bathtub. All over the Earth, there are taps on, big and small, filling the bath. How do we ensure it doesn’t overflow? By turning off all the taps.
It doesn’t matter how much a specific country contributes in emissions: every tonne of CO2 not emitted is a step in the right direction. And in order to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, in the 30 years all the taps need turning off.
Of course, it’s very important that the big emitters turn off their taps faster. And it’s a huge setback that in the first aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, many countries including China turned to fossil-fuelled industry and infrastructure projects like coal plants to kickstart their economies. But never forget that China is also a world leader in renewables. Of all investments in sustainable energy from 2010 onwards, a good 31% came from China. The US stalled at 14% of the total, while all the European countries together came to no more than 28%.
India, which still relies heavily on coal, also wants to become a leader in the revolution of solar and wind energy. In 2018, solar panels supplied more than half the new electricity-production capacity in the country.
Leaders such as Germany, China and India see strategic advantages in a completely sustainable energy supply. On the other hand, the countries that are currently reluctant to open their wallets will be dependent on technology developed elsewhere for their future energy supply. Those who hesitate now will miss out on the jobs and prosperity that come with a green economy.
We’re lost: politicians who don’t want to do anything about climate change are winning
That’s how it seems sometimes, but appearances can be deceptive. Both within and outside politics, the group of people who are working to keep the world inhabitable is many times larger than the group completely ignoring the problem or unwilling to act on it.
In June 2019, a survey carried out among 30,000 people in 28 countries showed that a majority of 80 to 90% believe that the climate is changing and humanity is responsible, or partly responsible. About seven in 10 people believe that “climate change is a major threat to their country”. Over 90% of Europeans polled in April 2019 think climate change is a serious problem; almost eight in 10 think it’s a very serious problem.
In 2017, more than 80% of respondents representative of the entire world population said that they considered it “important to create a world fully powered by renewable energy”. Solar energy was their top choice.
Major changes always invoke uncertainty, and fear, and the tendency for people to dig their heels in. But such reactions don’t in any way detract from the benefits of the course already begun towards a liveable climate, clean air and healthy nature.
Spending money on climate policy is a waste: what if global warming turns out not to be such a problem after all?
The better question is: what if it turns out worse than expected? There’s no back-up planet.
But imagine that global warming does turn out not to be such a problem (very improbable) and that we adapt very well to the consequences (unpredictable).
There’s still the mass extinction of animal species that has been set in motion by our activities, with enormous risks for the functioning of ecosystems on which human communities are dependent for their food and drinking water. Then there’s the plastic and the dead zones in the oceans. There are hundreds of reasons for rapidly moving towards sustainability.
And what’s the worst that can happen? At worst, we will achieve a sustainable way of living, on the only planet we have, slightly earlier than was strictly necessary. In the end, that’s in everyone’s interest.
Climate policy is unaffordable. There are already people who can’t pay their energy bills
The second sentence is true; the first is not.
The costs of sustainable technologies are constantly falling, and the technology is progressing in leaps and bounds. It’s therefore ever cheaper to tackle emissions. The net impact of climate policy is primarily very positive: new jobs, new economic activities, increased prosperity. This is especially true after coronavirus: it is now possible to “simultaneously spur economic growth, create millions of jobs and put emissions into structural decline”, according to the IEA.
If we don’t invest in prevention now, later on we’ll be forced to spend much larger sums on measures to adapt to the consequences of global warming. Floods are expensive. Droughts are expensive. Climate damage is already costing the world economy tens of billions a year, and the bill will only go up as emissions rise. One analysis after another shows that tackling climate change is much cheaper than letting it happen.
In the end, the choice as to whose shoulders bear the heaviest burden is a political one. In many countries, sustainable energy is subsidised via a surcharge on energy bills, which hits poor households relatively hard. Anyone who is against that can vote for a party that intends to spread the burden more fairly.
What climate activists want is too radical and therefore unrealistic
People who worry about the climate, and who take to the streets to protest, generally demand nothing more than the action prescribed by climate science to prevent further climate disruption.
All the experts agree that we have the technological means to switch quickly. The only thing that’s radical or unrealistic is to continue pretending that climate change does not exist.
We’ll never achieve sustainability because the world economy just keeps on growing at the cost of the Earth and big companies only ever choose profit
Economic growth has so far come at an enormous ecological cost. But that needn’t remain the case.
Sectors such as education can already grow just fine without being an additional burden to the environment. Once we’ve made other sectors of the economy sustainable, growth in itself will no longer be a cause for concern.
Lots of companies are already upscaling their climate ambitions and see growth opportunities in a green economy. In every sector, plans are afoot, and those left behind are feeling the pressure. Not enough is happening yet, but a green course is now visible and attractive.
A complete change overnight is impossible, but gradual change over a period of 30 years? That’s not only very possible; it’s also happened plenty of times before.
My contribution is a drop in the ocean
Every contribution is worthwhile because the consequences of all our actions are cumulative. People constantly inspire one another: we follow each other’s example, we influence each other. All over the world, people have heard the call to action. The forerunners worldwide are working together on a sustainable society. If you decide to join in, you join this powerful movement.
People who act sustainably are hypocritical: they’re still polluting the environment
Anyone who makes the occasional sustainable choice is familiar with this type of criticism: "You’re a vegetarian, but you still wear leather shoes." Critics clearly have a problem with other people not being perfect. But is that a personal failing? Is perfection the goal?
In today’s society, it’s more or less impossible to live an ecologically "pure" life. But that doesn’t make it right to attack the people who take steps in the right direction. Those trying to make their actions more sustainable are doing it not to feel superior, but to accelerate the transition to a different system. The goal is collective change – and that has to start somewhere. In fact, it’s already begun. Those who join in strengthen the current.
There are too few of us to make a difference
There are more than enough of us because it only takes a small group to influence the course of a whole society. That’s been shown plenty of times, for instance in the abolition of slavery and the introduction of voting rights for women.
Anyone working to make this change is part of a cross-border movement to keep the Earth habitable. The benefits are clear, and the urgency cannot be overstated.
Beyond the news reports about melting ice caps, species extinction and denial, a worldwide movement is growing and showing: we are the ones who write the story of our future on earth.
You don’t have to feel part of the story-writing collective to be a part of it. As the South African poet Antjie Krog put it, "One cannot choose not to have an umbilical cord."
You can choose to take part in your own way.
You can read more about our future on a hot Earth in my book How Are We Going To Explain This?, available now from Profile Books (UK) and from Scribner (US) in November.
Translated from the Dutch by Laura Vroomen and Anna Asbury.