The consensus of climate science has given us about a decade to turn things around. That’s not a literal deadline or doomsday prophecy; this isn’t Y2K or an exact-date apocalypse, but a political and scientific statement. It means that we have roughly a decade (at current projections) to make some hard and necessary changes to avert a fundamentally altered world that will grow increasingly uninhabitable.
This isn’t an end-of-the-world fait accompli, but a plea to make the decade ahead one of concerted and collaborative change. It’s a paean to sanity and sustainability alike, to the bold idea that we still have the capacity and (for the moment) time to act. After this there will still be chances to engage, but mainly to react. This is a summoning of what we can do with a window of time and the impetus of responsibility.
Rather than viewing the next decade as a technical challenge about changing fuel sources, leaders, or both, I am taking it more as a personal challenge—to stay positive, productive, awake, and engaged. It’s been too easy to lapse into the complacency of deferred impacts and immediate distractions, immersing oneself in the ironic escapism of mundane life. The facets of the climate crises are as broad as our very way of life and as specific as how we eat, move, communicate, and power our lives. It’s about much more than just carbon levels: it’s about consumption, waste, health, and energy; it’s about economics, politics, conflict, education; it’s about imaginations, relationships, stories, and values; it’s about hope, despair, today, and tomorrow. It’s about incubating the sustainable, scalable solutions already at hand.
This necessitates a chronicle of actions and ideas, an accounting of where one stands, a reminder that all is not lost even as everything changes. The past few decades have “baked in” certain realities: the dough has been prepped and the temperature is steadily rising. Maybe we can slow that rising a bit, enough to influence the flavor of the final product when the timer sounds—or if we’re truly fortunate, to keep the temperature low enough that the loaf never fully cooks. Bad metaphors aside, at this point it may be that many of the accumulating environmental changes at hand are already woven into the fabric of the future, either way. The world ahead may scarcely resemble the one we have known, in which many have flourished. The strategy now is to mitigate the accrued effects and somehow adapt in net positive ways.
To have any chance of doing so, it is important at the outset to reflect and take account. We have done a lot of damage to the world around us, to other species, to one another—yet somehow through it all, our numbers have grown and, for many, the forces of modernization are evident nearly everywhere. Indeed, we’ve flourished materially to such an extent that we are close to using it all up, before time-tested systems of replenishment can kick in as designed. We’ve gotten ahead of the curve, but not in a good way; the outer bands of ecosystem resilience turn out to be the limits of our own existence as well.
We can only continue flourishing if those systems are robust and flourishing too—and if we expand the concept to include not only material abundance in the present but the capacity of the future to find the same. This is a fundament of sustainability, meeting today’s demands without tying tomorrow’s hands. There’s no quick-fix technological intervention for doing this; we need to change both the software and hardware of our lives and societies, and not merely seek greener versions of unsustainable structures.
So we have just a few years to level off and significantly reduce (and soon, to completely eliminate) our collective carbon emissions. To even conceive of today as the apex of our carbon footprint, many things will need to happen simultaneously in every sphere of our lives. Much of this often seems outside of our individual control—and maybe the responsibility shouldn’t really fall there anyway, since other actors contribute off-the-scale to the problem. Still, while much of this may appear beyond our control at this point when we consider the systemic implications, all of it relies on either our acceptance or complicity. Rather than seeing this as a form of cooptation, we can instead use it to reclaim power at every level.
Making this more complex is the bare fact that the “we” of climate change impacts and responsibilities isn’t a unitary variable. In other words, humankind doesn’t act as a monolithic force, but rather exists within a wildly unequal system both within and among nations. The benefits of the carbon bubble skew toward certain demographics and geographical regions, whereas the burdens fall on others who are conveniently kept relegated, with the effects largely obscured from view of the privileged classes. These issues of justice must be addressed for any meaningful change to occur, and as it turns out are deeply linked to the underlying drivers of the problem. Climate change and social change are fully intertwined.
After the next decade, it appears that our remaining glimmer of “control” may be extinguished. Perhaps it already has in some ways, yet the choice of how to proceed—what to continue doing and what to cease in our own behaviors and communities—is still with us. Outside our window of time and beyond certain tipping points, runaway effects could occur at a scale beyond even a semblance of our initiative.
Some of this is evident already: rising waters, melting ice, weather extremes, floods and fires, uprooting of people en masse, extinction of species, exacerbations of conflict. The ensuing decade will tell the story of whether we have taken these dire warning signs to heart and course-corrected on our own terms—or whether we ignored it and stepped on the gas in a haze of denial, desperation, and despair.
I believe we will somehow rise to the moment. Myriad people, everywhere, already are engaged in pumping the brakes, raising their voices, leveraging their bodies, assembling the evidence, gathering kindred spirits, enacting policies, educating and storytelling, remediating and restoring, innovating and inspiring, and much more. We need to do more of all of this; I need to do more. Let’s remember where we stand, and someday where we stood, to build one block upon the next in the effort to stem the rising tide. Let’s strive to add our voice, stake a claim, act out loud, and find others. Ideas like this can cultivate personal actions, collective advocacy and activism, living laboratories. Our lives and efforts can serve as a tangible time capsule that is opened every day by good people who are living justly in a greener world.
The next decade will bring profound change, one way or another. Our commitment can make it positive.
NOTE: Initial version was written in late 2019 as climate warnings were mounting, right before the pandemic took hold; updated in a few places, but not much or enough has changed at this point.