The four horsemen of the climate apocalypse — and how to fight them

Ash and debris along OR22 from property destroyed by the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires. Oregon DOT

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Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which comes out every five to seven years or so, basically confirmed what the global organization been warning us about for the past 20. The results are what one would expect of a report on an existential threat. Things are really bad, lots of people are going to die, we need to pull the alarm (again? louder? with a bigger alarm?) and even if we do, things are going to get a lot worse before they get a little better.

Instead of a full-on freak out into despair, let's break it down: What does it mean? What does it look like? What can we do?

What does this mean?
Unless you live in a disaster area, short-term it means you will be uncomfortable, as things change fairly aggressively for others. Hotter weather, occasional power outages, biannual water restrictions, heatwaves. Around the world, it means millions displaced, uprooted, stranded or dead. Changing climate destabilizes economic and environmental infrastructure, breaking supply chains and ecosystems.

What does that look like?
The First of the Four Horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse:

Fires. The US has come to expect severe wildfires, as are many of the countries that have summer fire seasons. Climate change is making hotter, dryer conditions that allow fires to spread easier, and rage with higher intensity. From California to Russia's Siberian Yakutia region, more than 5 million hectares have burned so far this year. Not only do these risk people's homes and resources, but scientists worry they cause a downward spiral. Fires release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the problems caused by fossil fuels, further driving up temperatures and causing even more fires.

Storms. The global scientific community is still consistently learning more about storms, but it's almost universally accepted that as global temperatures increase, so will extreme precipitation. In places like the Atlantic, the evidence doesn't point to a consistently higher number of storms, but storms that do form appear to be getting stronger with Category 4 and 5 events being more prevalent. Even presuming that storms don't get more frequent, the effect they'll have on land that's dryer in the summer, and a society whose resources are spread thin from other natural disasters, can and probably will be disastrous.

Floods. A growing number of communities are finding themselves underwater. This year alone, massive floods have displaced over a million people in Germany, China and Myanmar. Floods are multi-factored, the net-result of increased urbanization over natural drainage systems and under-maintained waterway infrastructure. There's a reason why large, flat cities with limited-to-no zoning regulations like Houston are so susceptible to floods: building concrete on green space without assertive forethought limits drainage capacity. A rapidly changing climate directly exacerbates the water-related variables that contribute to floods. Heavier precipitation, stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels. Pair these with dryer lands and decreased vegetation, the likeliness of floods increases exponentially.

Drought. As wetter climates get wetter, dryer climates get dryer. These droughts can cause a positive feedback loop, persisting as warmer temperatures enhance evaporation. Hotter weather leads to diminished plant cover (from water deficiency and aforementioned fires) in very dry soil, further suppressing rainfall. Droughts affect agriculture through livestock and crops, transportation through water levels being too low and buckling roadways, exacerbate wildfires by providing more dry fuel, and can stress energy infrastructure.

What can we do?
The idea that we shouldn't worry about individual actions for climate change because we have to focus on the bigger companies is nonsense. Pressure on larger companies comes from individual actions/trends being recognized and affecting the large scale. Changing micro to macro changes their profit motives. Policy changes get voted on when people change lifestyles to fix problems. It's the everyday worry people bring to the government, the representative issue. This has always been true. It's how pressure turns into action.

So, step one, be informed. Policy around your local and state government is vital. The most important thing you can do is become an advocate who can help educate your community about the direction society needs to go. Explaining the "why" is just as important as the "how" when we are pushing towards the level of action needed. So if you have the space and income, here's a not-so-small guideline:

  1. Electrify. Your home, transportation, choice of transport. If you have to buy a new car, make it at minimum a hybrid.
  2. Try to live closer to work.
  3. Try to decrease meat as a percentage of your diet.

Luckily, the vast majority of society accepts that there's a problem. The staunch conservatives who would complain about the planet not heating up every winter (sigh) are largely quiet during historic wildfires, droughts and storms, deciding culture wars are better fought on grounds that aren't killing millions a year, at least, until covid came along, but one existential crisis at a time. It helps that investment in renewables is skyrocketing, CO2 emissions are consistently falling and economic development has been decoupled from oil production. All roadblocks that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.

What to keep an eye out for on the national/global scale?
Locally, you've probably already heard of some plans mayors and governors have.Policies that give fossil fuels a timeline, like no new gas cars by 2030. Improvement in base-level industry standards like: a) all-electric heating in new construction; b) all new buildings requiring renewable generation; c) plans to electrify and increase the availability of public transit; d) trains and trains and trains (be on the lookout for huge wastes of money by tech "geniuses" who are don't do trains: i.e., The Hyperloop or The Hyperport); e) subsidized job training or retraining people in fossil fuel-dependent industries to have skillsets that we need to expand green infrastructure. These programs will be city- and statewide, and often the incentives behind them are federally supported. They just need the public to cheerlead for them.

Here are some large-scale ideas that have been in circulation around the world for a while to reduce other types of pollution, and have had multiple levels of success depending on their application. You will see these integrated in the conversation on an international level:

Carbon pricing. Releasing carbon has a real-world cost that the world is paying for in the future in all of the aforementioned disasters, but those costs aren't included in the "for sale" price in the market. Carbon pricing would include those costs, disincentivizing the production while also raising money for current and future disasters. There are two main ways to implement it: carbon taxes and cap and trade.

Carbon taxes. Anything and everything that burns and that would produce carbon would have a tax added. Those taxes could be given either to governments to invest or citizens directly as payment.

Cap and trade.The name references the functions of the idea. Cap: governments set a total amount of emissions allowed and sell permits for that allowable pollution. Trade: there's a marketplace that allows companies to trade those permits. As the cap gets lower over time, the permits are more scarce and more expensive. The general incentive to decarbonize, electrify and diversify then becomes more attractive.

'Throw it all at the wall'
The question is, which should we do? The answer is all of them. All of them and more. As many as possible — and do them where they are the most effective. At this current pace, we are 20-30 years behind and we are hoping for significant technological advances, international deployment and society-level pressure to attempt to curb the coming damage. In the coming decade, we need to throw it all at the wall.

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