By: Sarah Pomerenke,Environmental Educator, LIU Post
Journal Entry: 30 October 2040.
Yesterday, when we were all having dinner, Tim asked me: “Mom, I just learned in my earth science class that at the beginning of this century there was a major problem with climate change. Why don’t we have this problem anymore today?”
I started to tell him that when I was his age, in about 2012…2013…back when I went to college for my undergraduate degree in international relations…a big debate went on about whether or not global climate change was in fact real.
Some argued that large amounts of carbon dioxide were being added to the atmosphere and in turn this created an artificial greenhouse-effect. Therefore, average temperatures on Earth began to rise. They also believed that if humanity did not act rapidly in addressing climate change, then the changing atmosphere would disrupt all life on earth.
Sea levels would rise, floods and droughts would become more frequent, and devastating storms would become more powerful. All of these were issues that the majority of scientists at the time said would be a consequence of growing climate change. Many climate activists even argued that global warming was the biggest threat humans had ever faced in their relative short time on Earth.
However, there were also many opponents to this idea. They believed that rising temperatures were simply a normal phenomenon in the Earth’s natural cycle. These people advocated that climate change was the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on humans and that it was only meant to scare people. Therefore, they believed that humans did not need to take action in order to address it. Furthermore, climate change opponents believed that there was no reason for taking drastic actions to address climate change since it would only devastate the economy and put us at risk to endure yet another recession.
I recall very fondly saying to Tim, “You see, Tim, this was a very critical point in our history. At this time in my life, the United States in addition to the rest of the world endured a very deep recession and the U.S. population struggled for many years as the economy recovered.”
I also told him that many people were simply overwhelmed by the immense size of the problem itself that the fear of not being able to address it was enough to paralyze them.
I continued on with my story by telling Tim about the years of 2014 and 2015 when I did my masters in Geology. During this time, the debate about climate change shifted from a debate to whether or not it was real to a debate about what to do in order to address it. This shift was mainly caused by a series of devastating storms as well as the trend of the “Precautionary Principle.”
In 2011, the first storm hit. Hurricane Irene, which did so much damage to infrastructure, particularly infrastructure located right next to the water, was the first sign I remember that storms were getting more powerful and damaging our region. However, people were not too concerned about it. The next year though, in 2012, that would change.
Hurricane Sandy was the first truly devastating hurricane I can remember doing major damage to communities and infrastructure. While some people just lost power for a few days, many others lost their cars, their homes, and many of their other belongings. Some people lost everything. I remember it literally ook months to bring certain communities back to “normal”…whatever that was…
“This wasn’t the end though…” I told Tim.
Hurricane Sandy had only been the first hurricane in a series of hurricanes, each one stronger than the last.
Two more devastating hurricanes barreled into Long Island over the course of the next two years following Sandy.
They were Hurricanes Marie and Kim…Kim by far being the most devastating. I remember thinking during the aftermath, “When will we learn?”
After Kim though, major changes had happened to the communities adjacent to the water. Most people were convinced that drastic steps had to be taken in order to stop climate change. The destruction of these storms led to this trend called the “Precautionary Principle” – a principle that basically states it is “better to be safe than sorry!”
In other words, the principle describes that even if we are not 100% certain of the effects that climate change will have on humanity it is still better to do something about it rather than nothing.
At the time, this approach made sense to most people because after all it is human nature to try and prevent something regardless of whether or not it may or may threaten our lives or the lives of our children. Therefore, most people started to believe that it would be more costly to do nothing than to try and prevent more harm. After all, waiting to bear the consequences of nature fighting back was proving to be very costly.
After I graduated with my Master’s degree, the United Nations offered me a job. I became a member of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. At this point in my life, Americans as well as the rest of the world expected the worst and therefore were more than ready to combat climate change. It was almost as if countries were looking for a strong hand to guide them and tell them how to counter climate change. This kind of attitude made it very easy for me and all other members to establish a whole range of international treaties that completely changed the lifestyle we had grown accustomed to at that time.
The first treaty,which got countries talking about climate change, was the Kyoto Protocol.It had been written more than two decades earlier; however, the U.S. Congress refused to ratify the treaty for many years. Therefore, getting the U.S. to finally sign the Kyoto Protocol was considered a major success at that time. The Kyoto Protocol was eventually signed by every country in the world which essentially meant that every country agreed to reduce its carbon emissions by 15 to 20 percent.
Surprisingly, and quite unexpectedly, it only took a few years for almost every single country to reach this benchmark. Unfortunately though, this one treaty was not enough to stop climate change.
During this time, we also realized that the problem of climate change was much greater than we originally assumed and really the only way to address it was by creating a more sustainable way of life. In order to do this, we had to completely rethink many aspects of how we lived life – the way we consumed, the way we produced waste and the way we lived our lives.
The problem of consumption was our first priority because at the time the United States only made up 5% of the world’s population yet we were using 30% of the world’s resources, hence creating 30% of the world’s waste. It was estimated that if we had continued this way of life, then we would have needed between three to five more planets just to sustain life on Earth. Since we obviously only have one, our first priority was to change peoples’ values. Instead of a consumer culture, we formed a culture that focused on human interactions. In other words, family and friends were prioritized over goods and services. These things were not influenced by policy, but instead by establishing new trends.
The next problem we worked on was the way we produced waste back then. Originally, we had to reduce the amount of waste that we produced as a country. Being that the U.S. created 30% of the world’s waste, this was absolutely imperative. This was extremely important because not only was the waste during this time toxic, but those toxins often times went into the atmosphere and changed our climate. Not to mention, our air, water, and soil were becoming contaminated as a result.
In the end, we developed a system that recycled basically all of our materials – 99% in fact. This feat took many new innovations and thanks to many smart people, we were able to construct things like toners that disappear completely from the paper after a certain amount of time and plastic that was entirely made from biological sources. In other words, we created a system that closed all of the loops. It was literally an endless cycle, something that the great mind, William McDonough had stated was possible in his pioneering books Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle.
Everything we now produce and consume can simply be reused or just go back into the soil with no harm being done to the environment or to human health thanks to these innovations.
The last and final piece to creating a sustainable future was to change the infrastructure that we had all become too familiar with. In order to do so, we had to start from scratch. People supported this idea because most of their homes had already been destroyed at least once by one of the previous storms. At this point in time, it was a very easy sell. They were looking for change. Therefore, during the planning phase of the many projects that I had worked on, old ideas from my college time came in handy.
I used ideas from Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” when others and I created a blue print for this new system. We established living areas in high-elevation zones and recreation areas in low-elevation zones. These recreation areas consisted of beaches and parks that were open for the public to use. The living areas I worked on included many homes and dense populations; however, people were still able to live comfortably. Furthermore, we prohibited private cars and replaced them with an electric train system that enabled every person to reach their destination within a reasonable amount of time. Most towns also were designed to allow people to walk everywhere that they would need to go, typically locating things like shops, grocery stores, restaurants, and entertainment within 1 mile of each household.
Lastly, we worked on building a cleaner energy system, which ended up consisting of mostly solar energy, wind energy and other energy sources utilizing the sun and the sea. We also put a policy in place that prohibited any object that produced carbon dioxide from functioning. Only when it was absolutely necessary could a person apply for a special permit to use that CO2-emitting device.
Tim stopped me at this point in the story, “Didn’t people do it anyway though? I’ve learned in some of my history classes that many American businesses polluted anyway despite not having a permit.”
I continued on by explaining that people who were caught adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without a permit, were actually charged with an environmental felony which held up to ten years in prison.
“That is how the infrastructure that you know today came about Tim,”I said.
“Quite frankly, you are lucky to live at this point in time where society is much happier because we learned to place value on things like human interactions rather than valuing only consumption.”
“The people before me created the consumer culture that I grew familiar with in the 20th century. However, I was part of creating a new, much more sustainable society in the 21st century that you are now lucky to live in,” I told Tim.
After I finally finished explaining the story about how the human race had overcome the problem of climate change during the 21st century, all of our dinners were cold and Tim managed to muster just one question:
“Mom, do you think humans could ever overcome the problem we have today regarding the lack of resources?”
*Disclaimer: This is not an actual historical account of climate change. It is written under the pretenses of what the world could look like in the year 2040 from the perspective of the writer.