Don’t hate your parents- climate change and the generation question

This is part one on a series on climate change and different adaptive and regenerative strategies.

Climate change and the many challenges it will bring is a very complex and multifaceted topic. As most people should know by now, it’s caused by an abundance of certain gases in the atmosphere that insulate the planet a tiny bit more. That causes more radiation from the sun to be trapped on the planet. This all leads to a change in weather patterns and general increase in temperatures.

By Robert A. Rohde (Dragons flight at English Wikipedia) [GFDL 1.2 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Especially dramatic are a few really annoying feedback loops such as methane ice and permafrost soils that contain a lot more climate gases. More climate gases make the whole situation worse and at some point there is nothing we can do about it. I hope we are still at a point where we can.

The sad part

The more you learn about climate change the more terrible it gets. Sure, it might not be the literal end of the world, but it will be the end of a lot of humans that currently live here. It will also mean that everything we have built in the last couple of thousand years will need to be retrofitted or abandoned as the patterns of the planet move into a different shape. The sea levels will be higher. Most people on the planet live near the coast, so this will be an issue for almost every country and the majority of large cities. Huge areas will either turn into deserts or be too hot to walk around in. Above a certain temperature and humidity (35°C- wet-bulb temperature) the body is not able to cool itself, even unclothed and next to a fan. This makes outdoor life impossible.

Those changes are already starting. More and more arid landscapes are starting to replace forests. Paving the way for hot deserts. The forest fires in Greece and California are examples of that. Humans are very adaptable. So in all likelihood, we won’t all perish. But a lot of what we can be proud of as a species will be severely tested and our onward march to the future will change direction in some fashion.

The generation question

We are already seeing the beginnings of everything I just outlined. Over 60 years ago, researchers (the famous Keeling curve is from 1960) first started to warn us of likely consequences of burning too much dinosaur remnants (oil, coal etc.).
Because the effects of too many climate gases weren’t yet visible, politicians didn’t really feel like they needed to act. Psychology plays a major role here. We are not good with rare, high-impact events.

In the beginning, even fossil energy companies such as Exxon funded a lot of research into global warming. At some point they realised that it wasn’t likely that there were going to be detrimental regulations. Then they changed their strategy towards discrediting science entirely. And, at least in the USA, that strategy still works with a large proportion of the populace not believing in climate change.

But it is not helping anyone to shake our fists in the air and yell at old people that they didn’t do more. To blame them for not protesting more. My grandparents lived with much less resources than we do now. They (or their parents) experienced some of  the biggest wars the world had ever seen and possibly even the great depression beforehand. They wanted to make sure that their children never had to suffer such deprivation. So they built. When you grow up with parents that went through such hard times, you want to do everything you can to make sure your children have everything. We are now enjoying the fruits of their labour.

Too old?

Our mothers and fathers grew up with parents that went through such hardship. They learned that growth and providing economic security is of utmost importance. People of my generation don’t have parents like my grandparents. We want to make a choice for our own future and that of our children. And it might not be endless growth that we are after, but a planet we can continue to live on.

Many of our decision makers are on average 50 years old (German Bundestag: 49.4y, Australian parliament is similar, only US congress is way older, averaging 62 years in the senate). They might be too old to be able to question the way of their parents.

We are one generation further. Our parents didn’t experience the great wars and the hardships. It is now a challenge for young people like me to go back to them and say: “Thank you for your hard work, but we’d like to live differently.”

The exciting part

There is still something we can do, but the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets and the less likely we are to have an impact. We have emitted a hell of a lot of CO2 in decades of (almost) inaction since the 90s. But we haven’t really touched the biggest gun in the arsenal: the water cycle. Because we don’t really know all the ins and outs and how to manipulate it, scientists feel uneasy recommending any strategies. But if we wait until we know exactly what to do, it will definitely be too late. Because the oceans store and emit CO2 constantly, even if we stop all emissions now, we would still be going above the Paris accord’s target warming of 1.5°C. So it’s too late to rely on reducing CO2 emissions. We need to start cooling, to buy us some time for the transition to a fossil free economy.

Water vapour is responsible for half the greenhouse effect, and CO2 only for one fifth.
The greenhouse effect in a nutshell is radiation out minus radiation in. So to cool the planet, we need to increase the radiation into space. That limits the greenhouse effect despite increasing CO2 emissions.

What to do?

One way forward might be to reduce the amount of heat being absorbed by the land. And that means covering it, not with concrete, but with living soil and breathing forests. Our agricultural land is mostly bare when not in use. In addition, we oxidise all the organic matter away through ploughing. Adopting and mandating agricultural practices like mulching, cover-cropping, perennial agriculture and agroforestry would help.

Hot land surfaces create areas that actually push rain away (high pressure areas). Forests invite the rain in (through condensation crystals and evaporative cooling). We need to fix the soil, plant more forests fast and reduce our hard, heat storing surfaces. Then we can make more rain, cool the planet and live in beautiful abundance. I would like to do that.

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