It’s way too soon to say the pandemic is over, but as we approach the end of the year it’s a good time to think about what’s next. And we all know that while the pandemic has knocked the air out of pretty much all other priorities, the big impending catastrophe hasn’t gone away! I have just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry of the Future. I strongly recommend it. Robinson is primarily a science fiction writer, but this is more of a future scenario strongly based on current climate science.
The book opens in 2025 in India. There is a catastrophic heat wave in which the daytime temperature is at least 38 degrees and 65 per cent humidity. People are dying in their thousands. Boiled, poached or roasted, some 20 million die. This figure is just an estimate because there are no supports possible for the suffering and dying. India is of course very traumatised and there are harsh words spoken about the first worlds’ carbon footprint being responsible for third world disasters. Of course, the whole world is shocked by this event, but as with so many climate events, return to normal happens very swiftly thereafter.
A few years later there is an event that becomes known as Crash Day. Some sixty passenger jets are downed by drone attacks. Thousands of passengers from all over the world die. Several terrorist groups claim responsibility for the attacks, but in the end no clear responsibility is attributed. Again, the world is very shocked, but very quickly gets over the event and continues to fly just as before. Then just a few months later the Crash Day is repeated. And then the message is very clear – do not fly. All types of travellers, businesspeople, tourists etc all stop flying. It has become too dangerous. Airlines fail and airline and airport infrastructure become redundant. There are intermittent, smaller attacks subsequently, sufficient to maintain the pressure.
After this most countries recognize the need to reduce their carbon footprint. Of course, it’s not a straightforward process. The polluting industries keep polluting and use their financial muscle to slow and frustrate transition to sustainable futures. Dark forces are deployed on all sides. Captains of polluting industries become susceptible to sudden and usually fatal accidents. But similarly thought leaders in sustainability are also threatened. But gradually the world changes. And here the book presents a highly realistic picture of how the monetary system is linked to carbon footprint and how central, wholesale and retail banks are brought into the act to change business and individual behaviour. In the end governments have to at least fund the massive infrastructure investment, but it’s the financial world that will reengineer the monetary value of sustainability.
Over the past year we have observed the syndrome whereby we don’t change our behaviour until existential threats are literally unavoidable. The scenes from the Pacific Islands, California, Australia and other parts of the world have been extraordinary. People have lost their livelihoods and their lives. And while we are all hugely sympathetic, it doesn’t really affect us, so we carry on as usual. Of course, the pandemic taught us (well with notable exceptions) that we had to change our behaviour. But now we are seeing the route to the exit, we can all anticipate the rush to return to normal. Everyone is desperate to travel, to see their families, to do business, to go on holiday etc. Similarly, everyone misses their social life in all its forms. But we must ask, should we simply return to what was normal in 2019? Or do we have a one time opportunity to leverage not just the accidental reduction in emissions but to learn from the experience of disaster that literally stopped us in our tracks.
Let’s not forget, climate change will be several orders of magnitude greater impact than the Covid19 pandemic. But the reason we haven’t responded to the climate change threat is because it’s only impacting on a relatively small minority of the global population. But now we have all have the common experience of 2020 and perhaps will be more inclined to be less selfish?
In 2020 we have also observed that governments have been subservient to other disciplines – medical, scientific and public health. And while we all have opinions on the experts, in the main we can’t help but be impressed with their sangfroid in the face of disaster. And that has been a good thing because governments are generally very slow to respond and deal with change. Whereas experts are on their own territory and have at least some of the answers. So, in context with climate change, we shouldn’t expect governments to make the running. They quite simply don’t have the expertise, even to ask for the help they clearly need.
In Robinson’s future scenario he focuses on making change socially, commercial and financially attractive on many levels. And I suggest that to capture the prevailing mood and transfer this smoothly to addressing the climate crisis, we need to do the same. And we need to give “everyone” a mechanism that they can a) see how they are helping and b) how they can benefit.
I suggest we need a mechanism (an app would be good) that allows everyone, individuals, businesses, schools, clubs, governments etc to measure their own carbon footprint. The amount of CO2 they are producing on a daily, weekly monthly and yearly basis. It needs to be reasonably accurate; not like the apps you can currently download that are just puerile. We need to bring AI to bear on this problem. The app needs to integrate businesses, government departments and individuals so the performance of my electricity supplier is reflected in my own personal footprint. And we all need to be able to use the app on a daily basis to record and monitor how we are doing.
The app should also allow us to plan, to understand the carbon load of decisions such as holidays, air travel, purchases of appliances etc. And all around the world we have millions of enthusiastic young people who, until this year were taking Fridays off school to protest about climate inaction. So, here’s an opportunity for these young people to become involved. To be able to engage with their parents, friends, schools etc to understand the science better and to become genuinely part of the worldwide effort.
Governments of course have a major role to play, particularly in creating incentives. Many governments have established grant systems to fund sustainable infrastructure including EVs, chargers, solar panels, heating and insulation systems etc. But governments can go much further, by creating climate transformation plans that guide individuals on decisions that will help them to progressively reduce their carbon load, and to reward individuals for achievements in tax breaks etc. And of course, the app will provide empirical evidence of the individual’s performance.
My scheme outlined here is crucially a bottom up scheme. I would recommend the app is “open sourced” by non-profit enterprises, funded by governments all around the world. We really don’t want to reward yet another technology giant enterprise with this task. Rather this is an opportunity for individual and collaborative creativity, and to encourage tens of thousands of individuals to get involved in this virtual enterprise and show governments what they need to do make progress.
Let me know if you would like to collaborate on specifying this app.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson review – how to solve the climate crisis.