So humans must do what we do best — be as selfish as you can.
Let’s get one thing straight: the Earth is not dying — we are dying. Earth has survived catastrophes much more extreme than a little bit of heat. According to online news website Live Science, the Earth has withstood getting smashed by an object a little over half its own size, followed by an extreme ice age, mass extinctions and even a nuclear fission event.
The increased warming the Earth is experiencing now is nothing new; the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that our planet has survived through extended periods of temperatures that soared thousands of degrees higher than the current average global temperature.
During each of the Earth’s hottest periods, humans did not exist. But now, if we surpass an increase of 1.5 C of warming globally, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that we are on our way to extinction.
“It really is sort of a great danger for human civilization because we’ve evolved in a relatively stable climate,” researcher Kirsten Zickfeld said to me over the phone. Zickfeld is a professor at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University and one of the lead authors of the “Global Warming of 1.5 C” report, published by the IPCC last year.
The report emphasized the importance of reducing our carbon emissions by almost half within 12 years, with a goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Though 1.5 C of overall warming isn’t ideal, the report says that is far better than an increase of 2 C or more, which would be catastrophic. If the recommended 1.5 C increase is surpassed, the report predicts increased levels of both droughts and floods, water scarcity, global sea levels rising, high risks of food shortages and increased heat-related morbidity and mortality.
But Zickfeld isn’t worried about the Earth, or life itself. “The Earth will survive us . . . There will always be some regions where species can survive and species can adapt, and maybe new species will emerge,” she says.
So all this time, all the well-meaning activists and campaigns that championed the “Save the Earth” slogan might have been better off taking on the ultimately more accurate tagline of “Save Ourselves.”
Saving ourselves is, after all, what we do best. Putting ourselves first was why we ignored climate change originally. As Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University climate change communication program, said to The Verge: people often aren’t concerned about climate change because they “perceive climate change as a distant problem” that won’t affect them personally.
It’s important to note that selfishness, like everything else, does not go untouched by privilege. The IPCC reported that coastal regions and low-income areas have already felt some of the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and changes in crop production, but those in power who can ignore its effects are still making decisions that put the environment last. As the equity section of the IPCC report says, those who are worst impacted by the effects are usually least responsible for the problem.
So scientists tried to find workarounds for this phenomenon of self-interest, publishing a 2016 study in the Nature Climate Change scientific journal on how to motivate people to care about climate change. They discovered that almost anyone can be motivated to care through the presentation of “co-benefits,” or things that people already care about that go hand-in-hand with tackling climate change, such as creating new jobs in technology sectors.
But even that, clearly, was too little and too late. Decades of putting ourselves first have backfired; the self-serving behaviour that the IPCC condemns — a reliance on carbon energy, wasteful food consumption and production, prioritization of economic policies instead of environmental ones — may be the causes of our demise. The most selfish thing we can do now might be our last and most desperate act yet: protecting the environment so we can save our own lives.
Somewhere, Mother Earth is looking down on us, and she is laughing.
If a tree falls in a forest but there are no humans left on Earth to hear it, does it make a sound?