Humanity is currently destroying the only habitable planet in the known universe, making it unfit for human life and wiping out a vast number of species in the process. Why? This is a highly relevant question, as we are not facing any external threats: The sun is still shining and we are not being attacked by aliens. The challenges we face are completely self-made and avoidable.
A more important question is whether it is still possible to save humanity by stopping the destruction of the Earth? Fortunately, there is still a lot we can do. If you have not given up and if you want your children to live, you should probably read on. Once you understand the nature of the problem, the solution becomes almost obvious.
Why has it turned out to be impossible to find a political solution to climate change? The answer can be found by considering the correlation between the global gross domestic product (GDP) and carbon emissions (CO2) shown in the figure below.
The solid lines represent historic data as provided by the World Bank from the years 1960 to 2015. The say that there is a strong correlation between global GDP (the solid blue line) and global CO2 emissions (solid red line) is somewhat of an understatement: the correlation coefficient turns out to be +0.99, where +1 corresponds to perfect correlation. In other words, economic growth in the past was entirely based on fossil fuel. Burning fossil fuel made us richer, which in turn allowed us to consume even more.
Now consider the future. The leaders of the G20 nations have defined a target of +2.0% annual economic growth, as indicated by the dashed blue line. On the other hand, climate research concludes that in order to limit global warming to below +2.0 °C, we need to reduce global CO2 emissions by at least 5% annually, as illustrated by the dashed red line. This figure poses a very fundamental question:
Is it possible to prevent catastrophic climate change without significantly reducing the size of the global economy?
Most likely, the simple answer is no. What is really disturbing is that we are not even allowed to ask the question. No serious politician – left or right – advocates actively reducing the size of the economy (i.e. negative growth) in order to save the environment. The success of economic policies is still measured in GDP, even though there is little evidence that an increasing GDP automatically leads to an improved quality of life.
The time has come to accept that our politicians and business leaders, like the famous emperor, have no clothes. We cannot grow the economy, consume more, and simultaneously lower our ecological footprint. We all know it, but we dare not admit it in public. It is also perfectly obvious that the most efficient way to lower our impact on the environment would be to drive less, fly less, and eat less meat. A global carbon tax would be an effective and fair way to ensure that those destroying the environment also pay the price for doing so. It would give people all over the world an incentive not only to be innovative but also to use less energy.
Ay, there’s the rub: If we actually manage to lower energy consumption, we will simultaneously lower global GDP. For those of us who work to earn money, this is not a problem. If you live on capital income, however, you have all the reason to be worried. The entire financial sector is based on the idea that if you have money, you are entitled to an investment income. This made sense as long as access to capital was a limiting factor in the economy. Today, however, there is too much money in the world. If the economy were to contract, the risk-free rate of interest would turn negative, meaning that capital would loose its value.
Given the political situation of the world today, is it realistic to hope for a global carbon tax and the corresponding disruption of the financial system? Here is the good news: It turns out that global capitalism has painted itself into a corner through excessive greed and risk taking. The world’s financial system is already essentially bankrupt with a debt level exceeding 200% of global GDP. The only way to keep this debt manageable is through high economic growth, which is largely driven by consumption. If the consumers of the world simply stop shopping, our financial system would crash. A consumer strike, if supported by enough people, would quickly destabilize the financial markets, wipe out the profits of the oil industry, and directly lower CO2 emissions. It would force governments to implement the necessary measures to save humanity.
We can still save our children but we have to start now. Here is what needs to be done:
1. Acceptance: Staring down the abyss
We first need to get a majority of the population to agree that we are already staring down the abyss. Continuing with business as usual will lead to a world approximately 4°C too hot in 2100, i.e., in 83 years. This will turn large parts of the Earth uninhabitable, leading to a mass exodus of people, famine, and wars. Hundreds of millions of people, who are alive today, will die because of global warming and pollution. To avoid disaster, we need to completely transform society within 10 years. It is not about future generations: we are killing our own children!
2. Realism: GDP = Global Destruction of the Planet
Our problems are caused by overconsumption and can only be solved by consuming less. The economic cost of doing so is not a relevant parameter: You do not negotiate the price of water when your house is on fire. Fortunately, there is nothing preventing us from taking action right away.
3. Solution: A Global Carbon Tax
Almost everyone agrees that a simple global carbon tax would be the fairest and most efficient way to stop climate change. The only reason for discussing other solutions is because the introduction of a carbon tax seemed politically impossible. Well, times have changed.
4. Action: Consumer Strike
Yes, we can! The power to change the world is in the hands of the consumers. In a time where the political process has been corrupted by money and workers are being outsourced or replaced by machines, this is almost the only power we have left. Stop shopping! It is legal, it is relaxing, and it saves you money.