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How you can curb climate change

2019-09-16

We broke the climate. That is our climate crisis. You break it, you own it, of course. So can we now be responsible proprietors of a world in which our own presence is the most powerful force on the planet?

Here is the good news. We broke it, we can fix it. How do I know? Because I’ve done it. I stopped global warming. I made the choices that kept temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius from now to 2100. If I can do it you can, too.

I had help. John Sterman, professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has built with colleagues a computer model to simulate the interactions of three of the most complex systems we know: the global climate, the global economy and the choices of people — 7.5 billion of them and growing.

This is more than any person can possibly hold in their head, and so we end up filling the knowledge voids in counterproductive and dangerous ways. Climate change denial is the most obvious. But apocalyptic warnings of what could happen, while often “true,” may produce despair more than determination because they gloss over the very point that we can fix it.

Simply teaching facts about climate change has little impact on motivating action — any more than teaching scientific findings about vaccines or seatbelts increases acceptance.

That’s where Sterman comes in. Think of his model as a flight simulator for learning to pilot the planet into the future. Try your favorite solutions and see. Seal up those leaky windows and put solar panels on your roof and watch what happens to global carbon in the air and the temperature and sea levels. (Spoiler: energy efficiency helps, a lot, but it is nowhere near enough by itself to avert dangerous warming.)

So far, 60,000 people have participated in some version of their climate simulation — playing the roles of UN negotiators or even oil industry advocates.

Sterman put me at the controls of his latest version, which will be publicly released as soon as independent scientists have reviewed it. A few points become quickly clear.

To hold temperature increases below 2 degrees centigrade (3.7 degrees F), we must cap carbon emissions and start reducing them immediately. Human activity is putting about twice as much carbon into the air as the natural cycles of the oceans and forests are taking out. So total carbon is growing rapidly.

I opted against counting on technological breakthroughs, like nuclear fusion or inexpensive carbon capture. Instead I took these measures:

My actions held average global temperature increases to 1.9 degrees centigrade. That’s good. Although it may not be good enough, many scientists say, to be sure we avoid catastrophes like collapsing ice shelves.

The lesson is there are solutions. Not magical ones, but choices available now, as individuals and governments.

Under my scenario, most energy comes from sustainable sources by 2100. I could have gotten to the same place by underwriting nuclear power to replace carbon.

“There is no silver bullet,” Sterman says, “but there is silver buckshot.” A mix of solutions that will hold temperature to “safe” levels.

Oreskes, a veteran journalist, works with Global GoalsCast, a podcast about climate action and other efforts to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.