The phrase that headlines this column was how UN Secretary General António Guterres defined the dilemma facing humanity in the current situation, during the Petersberg Climate Dialog.
Guterres is not exaggerating, and to understand this, one only has to look around. Heat waves are multiplying in frequency and intensity: in just a few years, we have gone from news of heat waves being greeted with sarcastic comments such as “yes, it’s called summer”, to them being given names, like hurricanes, with equally destructive effects. And these heat waves are the product of the agreements we signed to try to maintain the global temperature below 1.5ºC… we are now on course to at least double that.
Heat waves are not only a risk for the poor and the vulnerable, they also generate forest fires, which make things worse by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While some people think that a heat wave can be avoided by turning on the air conditioning, the reality is that in northern Spain, for example, or in the United Kingdom, currently suffering record high temperatures, only 5% of homes are equipped with air conditioning, because they simply have never needed it.
In India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the problem isn’t just that people are too poor to buy air conditioning units, in many areas they don’t even have mains electricity. At some point in the not too distant future, we will be made all-too aware of the calamity facing us when some heat wave results in thousands of deaths in some particularly vulnerable place.
To quote Guterres again, half of humanity lives in areas at risk of flooding, extreme drought, extreme weather events or forest fires. Yet we continue to feed our addiction to fossil fuels, which is what has created the mess we’re in. The scientific community agrees: the climate emergency exists, it is taking place much faster than expected, and it is exclusively due to human action derived from the constant burning of fossil fuels, not to any kind of geological drift or sun spots.
Guterres, who recently appeared on the cover of Time on the shores of Tuvalu, impeccably dressed in a suit but with the water above his knees, could not be more right. The only way out of the vicious circle we are in is through collective action, possibly by giving far more powers to supranational organizations such as the one he presides over. Managing the planet with 195 nations each claiming to defend its own interests is like trying to herd cats: each country justifies its actions, whether continuing to build coal-fired power plants, extracting more oil, or reclassifying gas or nuclear energy as sustainable sources.
The reality is that we’ve been lying to ourselves for more than a generation. If nations refuse to make commitments for the common good of the planet, as individuals we’re even worse, and oppose anything that might diminish what we perceive as “quality of life”, refusing to look beyond today at the apocalypse we’re collectively creating.
Even as forest fires rage around the world, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes we’re still lying to ourselves: no matter how many arsonists there are, which there are, and no matter how much we clear the forests of undergrowth, which is not a bad idea, the real reason huge areas of the planet will soon be uninhabitable is because we drive cars, consume non-renewable energy, and refuse to abandon our unsustainable lifestyle.
We are paying for it with death, destruction, desolation and homelessness. If we continue in the same old way, without making any drastic or radical changes to our way of life, we will be heading for collective suicide, and not, as we used to say only a few years ago, “for our grandchildren or great-grandchildren”, but for ourselves, in the course of our remaining lifetime. Disasters of such frequency and intensity as we have never known before.
Either we take drastic and collective action as soon as possible, with truly drastic commitments that many are unwilling to make, or we commit collective suicide. Those are the options.
This article is also published on the author's blog. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.