In 2021 and 2022, I authored an exhaustive 5 part series on the subject of the climate crisis and the human condition for this publication, Meer. I addressed the challenges of human cognition, collaboration, creativity and the intersection where these three capacities collide with chronology. I also added a piece that laments the current lack of human ingenuity and imagination to address the crisis.
During the summer of 2023, we continue to be witnesses (victims, in far too many cases) to the onslaught of destructive and unimaginable climate emergency realities; scorching temperatures breaking historic records, the realities of heat domes that have become larger, more frequent, and more persistent, torrential rains and attendant flooding, increasing glacial melt, warming sea temperatures, more frequent and violent tornadoes and hurricanes, the measurable deterioration of ecosystems and biodiversity, drought, and the ever more concerning availability of clean drinking water, and water to aerate lands for agricultural food production…to name a few.
Counting casualties, conditions and concerns
Allow me to provide some practical examples from the ongoing summer of 2023 in North America:
In the Phoenix, Arizona area - The 45 beds at the Arizona Burn Center were completely filled (July 24, 2023). Most patients were burned by simply falling to the ground, where asphalt temperatures can be 40-60F degrees hotter than the air temperature. So, if the air temperature outside registers 115 degrees Fahrenheit or 46.1C (as it did during the week of June 20th, 2023) and your trip falls to the ground in a parking lot, the surface temperature is likely between 155 (68.3C) and 175 degrees Fahrenheit (79.4C). Temperatures on some Arizona sidewalks have reached temperatures of around 180 degrees F (82.2C). Contact with these surfaces takes only a few seconds to inflict severe burns. 3rd-degree burns have been suffered by numerous victims that will require months to years of additional surgeries to treat and repair.
In northern Mexico, 2023 has recorded 112 heat-related deaths year-to-date versus 4 for the same period in 2022. In Florida, insurers are fleeing the state while a half dozen insurers have become insolvent due to the massive claims filed by residents due to storm-related damages that have become more frequent, along with the forecasts that even more severe weather is on the way.
In July 2023, there are more than 1,000 wildfires burning in Canada. Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit are now ranked in the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. The smoke from Canadian wildfires has also polluted the skies of New York City in 2023. Air quality alerts have been issued for more than a dozen states from Vermont to Washington state, with some smoke traveling as far south as Alabama. UN Environment Programme (UNEP) experts predict that forest/wildfires may increase by 50 percent by the end of this century…all around the world. According to a NASA climate expert, July 2023 will be the hottest month on Earth in the last 120,000 years.
However, observing and citing instances of the tangible, deleterious effects of climate change characterizes the experience of the vast majority of the world’s population. We have become spectators and voyeurs of the burgeoning threats to the existence of the ultimate survival of our species and this planet. We remain intractably mired amidst the inertia of the status quo and our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels and the industries whose pursuit of near-term profits retard the essential systemic change the Earth requires. This must change.
COP28 – mitigating the threat – the collective illusion
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, recently stated, “The climate time-bomb is ticking. Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast.” We are now preparing for COP28 - the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is slated for November 30 to December 12, 2023, at the Expo City facilities in Dubai, UAE. This will be the 28th time the world has assembled to address this issue since the first meeting in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. Yet, all the evidence unequivocally indicates the crisis is getting demonstrably worse.
Imagine you are preparing for a meeting of your shareholders. You are an executive in a public company who (along with other leaders) is responsible for delivering a comprehensive solution to address the climate crisis, and had been doing so for 27 years. Frankly, you would be fired. Scientists lament: “Most of the world’s governments are aware of the existential threat posed by climate change, but their current ambition to mitigate this threat is not nearly enough.”1
When you search the internet for the term “climate crisis,” you receive 656,000,000 results. When you search the term “rethinking the climate crisis,” you receive 31,300,000 results. In other words, “rethinking” where we are at on this issue garners approximately 4.7% of the overall results. Translation: There are dissenters out there who are being drowned out by the majority of voices currently entrenched in the overall debate and innovations underway to address the matter at hand. McKinsey & Company states: “It’s not enough for leaders to give people permission to dissent; they must demand it of people.”2Well, it’s time to encourage and demand dissent regarding our current approaches to “mitigate this threat.” We must confess the 28 years of our attempts to collectively mitigate climate change have been profoundly unsuccessful. They have not reduced the pace, magnitude and intensity of the nightmare that is upon us. In my view, we need to consider vastly bigger, better and novel ideas that will initiate meaningful, systemic change that will begin to produce the results we desperately require.
Currently, the human approaches to developing solutions to the climate crisis are not holistic – they are addressing certain aspects of causation and/or mitigation. This is fine and productive as long as these approaches are not the sole framework for our efforts. We are currently suffering from what author Todd Rose describes as a collective illusion. Rose refers to collective illusions as “an existential threat.”3 “In the human bias toward conformity, collective illusions trap us into a posture of embracing conformity, regardless of whether or not that belief is grounded in truth.”4
In regard to the climate crisis, our captivity within our collective illusion involves numerous dimensions:
- The crisis is currently being dealt with effectively (primarily by others).
- Pledges and commitments made by various countries at the UN’s annual COP forums will be sufficient to materially alter the current trajectory, frequency, and increasing intensity of the crisis.
- This problem will be solved based on the myriad of efforts currently underway.
- Governments shall implement the essential forms of collaboration, capital and innovation that will provide the effective, holistic solution mankind requires.
- Incremental sacrifices and ongoing innovation will allow humanity to make a smooth and timely transition to a world without destructive dependence on fossil fuels.
- Neo-liberal capitalism and the economies established thereon are not an impediment to progress and will be champions of the essential solutions.
- The devastation narratives and attendant videos we have heard and seen about unabated climate change in mainstream media captivate people like a new movie or TV series. It is more entertainment than the essential, legitimate inspiration for immediate, comprehensive, imaginative action.
- We currently suffer from an imagination challenge – precluding us from considering vastly different approaches to resolving the crisis.
According to Rose, collective illusions are increasing in frequency, magnitude, intensity and the pace at which they are infectious in human society. It’s time for a change. We need to introduce the fact that the possible is essential. Immediately!
Oftentimes, words serve to change the tenor of our thinking, our dialog, and our behavior. Sometimes they change the way we perceive the world, self, and others. The best ones change our behavior for the better. We overlook the fact that humans create language – and that the process of creating language is ongoing. It’s our privilege and responsibility.
The nature of the predominant climate crisis mitigation efforts must be supplanted with the reality that the possible is essential. Now! It is possential (my term).
We simply must break out of the collective illusion as identified above. We require vastly more robust ideas, dialog, and initiatives that involve the whole of the Earth's scope. In his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, philanthropist, entrepreneur, investor, and thinker Bill Gates writes:
We have every reason to believe that at some point the impact will be catastrophic. We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have done anything similar.” 5
I agree. Where are the ideas and collaborative efforts to accomplish this gigantic task at a pace that will render the effective results we desire before we are faced with reliance upon mitigation and simply surviving the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis? EuroNews states: “As the current energy and climate crisis bites, it’s apparent that drastic measures are needed to be taken to protect future generations and the planet.”6
Yet, the possible is essential. It is possential. We require inspired imaginations to provoke dialog, direction, collaboration and innovation on a scale and pace we are heretofore unfamiliar with. Author Michael Lewis succinctly characterizes (in another context) the essence of our current conundrum writing:
We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imagination.7
On July 24th, 2023, the 20-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg was charged with the crime of “disobedience to law and order” for failing to follow the orders of law enforcement during an environmental protest.
Thunberg has called the climate crisis “the climate delusion”: ‘We’ve been greenwashed out of our senses. It’s time to stand our ground.”8Thunberg routinely uses the term “climate emergency” to characterize the current state of the ongoing unfolding of the catastrophe. She is correct.
The Guardian has written: “Governments may say they’re doing all they can to halt the climate crisis. Don’t fall for it. Maybe it is the name that is the problem. Climate change. It doesn’t sound that bad. The word “change” resonates quite pleasantly in our restless world. No matter how fortunate we are, there is always room for the appealing possibility of improvement.”9
I am not suggesting that the ongoing efforts in the sustainability, mitigation and green movements are not essential and helpful. Of course, they are. However, I am suggesting that a vastly more bold, collaborative, comprehensive, whole-of the Earth, and imaginative approach must be initiated now. Urgency must be prioritized rather than muted. Delusion, illusion, and passive narratives have had their day. We must discard the illusions that have mired us in the capacity of spectators and voyeurs. We must now characterize the climate emergency as just that. Thunberg adds: “Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour. We are still telling you to panic and to act as if you loved your children above all else.”10
The climate emergency must be recast as just that. It is an emergency the likes of which mankind has never experienced. Counting casualties, conditions and concerns must be continued, yet, they cannot remain the unequivocal dominant element of the narrative. The emergency is not off in the future somewhere. It is here and now. We must confess that we have become pacifist captives to the allure of the mitigation, green and sustainable narratives. Again, they are essential and fundamentally important. We need dissent. Loud, active, coordinated, new and strategically novel forms of protest to garner the attention and action the world so desperately requires.
I will close with a quote from climate hazard scientist Chris Funk:
We are messing heavily with the life support system of our planet, the only planet we know of that supports life. There is no planet B.”11
We need a new plan B for Planet A. It’s time to imagine – and act upon - the possential…Now.
1 Williamson, K., Satre-Meloy, A., Velasco, K., & Green, K., 2018. Climate Change Needs Behavior Change: Making the Case For Behavioral Solutions to Reduce Global Warming. Arlington, VA: Rare.
2 Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall, McKinsey & Company 2023.
3 Rose, Todd Collective Illusions – Conformity, Complicity and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions, Hachette Books, New York, NY Copyright 2022 by Todd Rose, p. xxiii.
4 Ibid., p. xx.
5 Gates, Bill How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, pp.33 & 69.
6 Solution to the climate crisis? Earth takes a step closer to sustainable space-based solar power, Ramage, Jack - June 2022.
7 Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project – A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, 2017 by Michael Lewis, W.W. Norton & Company New York, NY p. 194-195.
8 Greta Thunberg on the climate delusion.
9 Greta Thunberg on the climate delusion.
10 Gold, Hadas Greta Thunberg: Nothing has been done’ to tackle the climate crisis, CNN Business Jan. 2020.
11 Funk, Chris, Drought, Flood, Fire - How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes Cambridge University Press, Copyright 2021 by Chris Funk, p.301.