How to cope with the climate apocalypse

Many people in rich countries tend to structure their lives as if on a spreadsheet. They plan their careers at 17 and their pensions at 25. A couple having a baby is projecting its genes 90 years ahead.

Our generation of westerners, raised in the most peaceful era in history, has come to imagine our personal futures as foreseeable. But the climate crisis upends all predictability. Climate change equals human change, and it requires reimagining our lives. So, how should we all live with the growing risk of disaster?

That’s the question posed by the “Deep Adaptation” movement. Its guru, the British academic Jem Bendell, gets criticised for overstating the risk of “near-term societal collapse”. But the truth is most of us probably underestimate it.

Bendell’s premise is that talk of climate action by governments, corporations and individuals is just talk. Leaders cheerily pledge to hit zero-carbon by 2050, when they will be dead. In truth, though, everybody’s incentive is to keep the party going by emitting more carbon dioxide.

Each unit pumped into the atmosphere is an infinitesimal contribution to someone else’s problem at some unknown future time. This will be true even for our children living with climate disaster.

Inevitably, then, carbon emissions kept rising until the pandemic. During the unprecedented economic shutdown, they dropped about 6.4 per cent — but that’s still short of the 7.6 per cent fall required every year through 2030 to keep us on track for limiting the rise in temperatures to 1.5C.

Meanwhile, climate change is advancing faster than the cautious predictions of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A draft of the IPCC’s next report, just leaked to Agence France-Presse, is the panel’s scariest document yet, with increased predictions of droughts, floods and heatwaves by 2050.

It also warns about the “tipping points” that could accelerate this future, such as the drying out of the Amazon rainforest or the collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. Greenland’s sheet is melting seven times faster than in the 1990s. Today’s climate disasters — such as the record-breaking heatwave in the western US — are portents of worse.

Anyone predicting apocalypse faces two standard objections. The first is that the prediction demotivates people from taking action. That might be true, but then people aren’t taking significant action anyway and the objection doesn’t invalidate the prediction.

The second objection is that all past predictions of global apocalypse were wrong. However, past apocalypticism was a lower-probability bet because we only acquired the capacity to annihilate ourselves once atomic bombs arrived in the 1940s. Progress has doubled our average lifespans and simultaneously enabled us to end the global story.

Most of us cope with this not by denying it but by not thinking about it. People in the burgeoning “sustainability” industry prefer to hype small fixes (this new plane will consume 10 per cent less fuel!) than contemplate the chances of everything going pop.

So how to live? The younger you are, the more urgent the question. On the most basic level, if you’re buying a house, you’re typically making a 50-year bet: the period of the average mortgage, plus the mortgage of the person who will buy it from you. I wouldn’t buy in Miami today.

The rule of thumb is that the safest regions in the future will be the ones that currently have relatively mild or cold climates. Perversely, this means that the best places to escape climate disaster are precisely those that emitted most carbon in the past: northern Europe and the northern US.

More existentially, adopt the outlook that almost all humans had until about the 1950s: don’t make any presumptions about your future. Don’t structure your life around distant pay-offs. Which entity will be able to pay your pension in 2050?

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Then there’s the moral question: do you want to be part of a climate-destroying system? It’s tempting to shove all the blame on the fossil-fuels industry, but almost everyone with a job in a developed country is complicit — shop assistants, hotel staff and journalists whose newspapers are funded by readers from carbon-intensive industries.

Anyone with gas heating, a car and the occasional plane ticket lives off climate destruction. Almost everything we call “progress” or “growth” makes things worse. Our children probably won’t admire our careers.

The stereotype of the apocalyptic survivalist is the lunatic in a tinfoil hat with an AK-47 on a mountaintop. (The upscale version is a mansion in New Zealand.) But there are more social ways of opting out. I witnessed one when I moved into the crumbling Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood in East Berlin in 1990, just after the fall of communism.

Many of my new neighbours were young East Germans who had rejected what they considered the evil communist system. They had no official employment, or worked in low-status jobs as librarians or nurses or, like the young Angela Merkel, in non-communist professions such as physics. Some lived off grid, without telephones, perhaps with stolen electricity. Their little community was riddled with informers, yet people helped each other, expecting nothing of the future. Oddly, they may have been our future.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]

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