Engaging in constructive discussions about climate change calls for optimism and inspiration, and a departure from a rhetoric based on shame and fear. Nevertheless, it is essential to remain grounded in the sobering realities we face. Taking this into account, here are three useful facts to embark on meaningful conversations and concerted actions to address the profound challenge of climate change in a holistic and timely manner
A starting point for a discussion on climate change is the realization that this existential challenge surpasses all other pressing concerns we hold dear, whether it is equity and inclusion, diversity, education, outreach, mental health, women’s rights, human rights or neuroscience research. To quote Christiana Figueres, the former head of the United Nations climate agency: “all other issues we deeply care about will fade into irrelevance if we fail to rise to the existential challenge that climate change presents” (Sept. 2021).
A second point that is imperative to comprehend in the climate arena is the immense scale of action required. Contrary to lingering beliefs, simple acts like correctly disposing of plastic waste, conserving energy, or installing solar panels, though beneficial, are insufficient to avert a climate disaster. Our collective failure to act proactively over the past decades means that far-reaching and immediate efforts are now required. That is, “limiting” our footprint, “reducing” our impact, “decreasing” our reliance on fossil fuels, will no longer suffice. Climate models indicate that to keep global warming under 3 degrees Celsius (i.e., twice the limit set at the COP21), we must now remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere at a magnitude approximately 1,000 times greater than our current efforts. Consequently, the lexicon within climate circles has evolved to embrace terms like “net zero,” “net negative emissions,” “carbon capture,” and “drawdown,” underscoring the grim reality that there are hard limits to what can be achieved with traditional “curbing actions” alone and that they, alone, are no longer sufficient to mitigate worse climate projections. Climate scenarios and pledges from member governments of the IPCC, therefore, actively rely on our hypothetical ability to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere in a not-so-distant future.
There are two main approaches to carbon removal: active air-capture technologies and land-based approaches. At this time (July 2023), the technologies needed to achieve active air capture do not exist – at least not at scale. Land-based carbon removal methods, on the other hand, offer viable solutions that leverage an age-old technology: photosynthesis. Plants fix carbon from the air, transform it into sugars that they use to feed microorganisms in the soil. Their carbon is then used by other microorganisms and plants, feeding the soil cycle. So long as the soil is left undisturbed or managed properly (no tiling, no pesticides, etc.) this carbon is sequestered for hundreds or thousands of years. Hence, practices such as regenerative agriculture, no-till practices, biochar, forestry management, and soil rejuvenation hold immense and readily available potential and illustrate how nature itself is central to combating the climate crisis. In doing so, these methods highlight a critical reality: addressing climate change requires a profound shift in our relationship to nature. We must now recognize that the scale of necessary actions goes beyond focusing solely on carbon emissions, and that relying on technological breakthroughs and clean energy sources won’t be sufficient.
A shift away from human exceptionalism, the belief that people exist independently of the ecosystems they live in, is therefore necessary to adopt lifestyles that do not hinge on the destruction of natural resources.
Replacing all internal combustion engine vehicles with electric ones and transitioning our entire economy to renewable energies will not prevent a climate catastrophe. The destruction of natural habitats, such as rainforests, can be carried out efficiently using electric bulldozers and battery-operated chainsaws – harmful agricultural practices that deplete topsoil can be achieved efficiently with solar-powered facilities and rechargeable machinery.
Finally, it is crucial to recognize that the impact of climate change is not a distant, hypothetical concern. Its effects are already manifesting worldwide, year after year. We are experiencing the hottest year on records. Wildfires are raging on several continents. According to a UN report, the depletion of topsoils, crucial for agriculture, looms within the next few decades, and biodiversity suffered a critical tipping point in 2017, much earlier than anticipated. In California and Florida, major insurers are halting new policies, citing unsustainable business in these regions in view of worsening climate conditions. The sense of urgency cannot be overstated.