So where do we go from here? How do you and I use this existential dread as a motivating force to imagine a different path? And then how do we build that new path? At three or four stations along the treasure hunt clues are accompanied by sweets and treats.
“Climate change is first and foremost a problem of our relationship with the future,” author and philosopher Alex Steffen told me in the early stages of writing this book. “The way that we think about the future is almost entirely cultural.
If we can’t adapt our cultural perspectives to include the idea that we need to be in a sustainable relationship with long-term systems, none of the other actions we need to take are going to happen.” A recent study mapped out a blueprint for how to enact the kind of change Steffen is talking about. “It’s way more than adding solar or wind,” said Johan Rockström, the study’s lead author. “It’s rapid decarbonization, plus a revolution in food production, plus a sustainability revolution, plus a massive engineering scale-up [for carbon removal].” According to Rockström and his team, to get the math right, we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030, then cut 2030 levels in half by 2040, then cut 2040 levels in half by 2050. Even these heroic efforts will secure only a roughly 50-50 chance at achieving the 1.5-degree limit in temperature rise the world agreed to in Paris. By the time all that is done, my boys will be only a few years older than I am today. Zeke won’t even be able to vote until 2034. By then, if we do nothing, we’ll have lost our only remaining chance at a livable world.
How this will actually play out is, of course, unknowable. But we can make some educated guesses. Meteorologists like me are used to predicting the future in a way most other professionals don’t. We can see the range of possible future weather events and envision what they will be like. To date, we haven’t done a good job imagining how the weather years from now will affect society. But for the first time, the Rockström study provides a simple way to think about it: transformational change, decade by decade, for the next thirty years. Very few people are already living in this future world.
Even fewer understand that our current actions require systemic change. And none of them are as famous, or as influential, as Greta Thunberg. The improbable fact that Greta, a seventeen-year-old Swedish girl, is one of the most powerful people on the planet is further evidence that the old rules no longer apply. Her ability to speak disarming truths about our climate emergency goes far beyond her commitment to a zero-carbon lifestyle. Her power rests in the fact that, when it comes down to it, she knows that these actions are only meaningful if they create radical and systemic change. The fact that her actions are so simple means that everyone can join her. She has shown us a way out of this liminal space.
A recent survey revealed that one in five people in the Western world say they are now flying less because of the movement Greta helped start. In Sweden, there’s even a new word—flygskam, “flight shame”—and the airline industry there, built on the promise of eternal economic growth, is starting to get scared. SAS, the Swedish national airline, has called it the “Greta effect.” Representatives from all twenty-nine companies on Sweden’s benchmark stock index now say that air travel in the country is likely to have peaked, permanently, because people are starting to understand that, in a climate emergency, there is no feasible alternative for jet fuel in the near term.