If the true urgency of climate change was not clear to Americans before, it should be clear by now. The mind-bending heat, drought, fire and flood sweeping the country are both nightmares and wake-up calls to the reality fossil fuels created. For over 40 years, our most powerful people and institutions collectively ignored climate scientists, and now the deadly consequences have arrived at all our doorsteps. Part of Jaweria Baig wishes they had arrived here sooner. Perhaps her life would be different if they had.
Baig now lives in the southern city of Karachi, but friends and family still live in Hunza. Eventually they’ll face a difficult choice: move south willingly, or let the mountain do it for them. Even if the world meets its most ambitious climate targets, one third of the Himalayan glaciers will melt by the end of the century, a 2019 International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development report found. And even the south won’t provide much respite; the heat and monsoon rains there are some of the most punishing in the world. The average daily temperature in Karachi this past week was 104 degrees*. Stepping outside “feels like you’re going to die.”
“I should be in university,” she said. But her life’s work is activism. “I have no choice,” she said, her voice breaking on the phone. Each day, Baig said, she’s fighting to secure the world’s future. And she wants to know, in this critical moment: are you doing anything to help secure hers?
In more than a dozen interviews over the last two weeks, activists from across the climate movement have issued a common call to arms: If you have ever thought of becoming more involved in the fight for climate justice, it’s time to stop thinking, and start doing.
“This is pretty much the biggest moment in climate politics in over a dozen years,” said Jamal Raad, the executive director of Evergreen Action, a progressive climate group focused on federal legislation. “If anyone was considering climate activism at any level, from contacting their member of Congress to volunteering with an organization to attending a protest, now’s the time.”
The scientific case for urgency has never been clearer. Last month, a draft of the latest U.N. IPCC report—the gold standard summation of modern climate science—was leaked to Agence France-Presse in hopes it might serve as a wake-up call before the next round of international climate talks in November. The report warned that the dire impacts of global heating were materializing faster than most scientists expected. Several “tipping points”—major, rapid changes in climate conditions that once reached are near-impossible to reverse—are now likely to come sooner rather than later, and many impacts are already locked in. Significant and rapid decarbonization can still prevent further pain and suffering, but the longer we wait, the worse things will become. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it warned. “Humans cannot.”
Fortunately, scientists are also more confident than ever about how to improve the situation. In May, the influential and notoriously conservative International Energy Administration released a “bombshell” report outlining how the world could still achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of preventing a 1.5°C rise in global average temperatures. “As the major source of global emissions, the energy sector holds the key to responding to the world’s climate challenge,” the report read. That sector must fully decarbonize by 2050, which requires not just a massive acceleration to renewables, electric vehicles, and energy efficient building retrofits, but “a huge decline in the use of fossil fuels,” it said. “There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway.”
The dire need to significantly decrease fossil fuel use, however, has still not sunk into the minds of the world’s biggest polluters. Take the United States. The Biden administration has taken some meaningful steps toward reducing carbon pollution, including suspending oil and gas leasing on federal land, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, and reinstating several EPA climate regulations. But his Justice Department is also currently defending at least three massive new fossil fuel projects: the Willow drilling project in Alaska, the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota, and millions of acres of oil and gas leasing in Wyoming.
The draft IPCC report places the blame for such inaction directly on the fossil fuel industry. Specifically, “think tanks, foundations, trade associations and other third-party groups that represent fossil fuel companies for promoting ‘contrarian’ science that misleads the public and disrupts efforts to implement climate policies needed to address the rising threats,” Politico reported last week. “Rhetoric on climate change and the undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, unduly discounted risk and urgency, dissent, and, most importantly, polarized public support delaying mitigation and adaptation action, particularly in the U.S.”
In other words, there’s a lot to do—and the IEA, which wrote the blueprint for effective action, says the key is people power. “A transition of the scale and speed described by the net zero pathway cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens,” the blueprint said. That means more than just saying you’re for a healthy planet. It means taking a stand against the reason it’s sick.
The ability to participate in activism is a privilege. Many simply do not have the time, money, or emotional bandwidth to take on a global cause. Climate activism also has an unfortunate history of regressive finger-wagging, blaming relatively powerless individuals for not making “better” environmental choices.
The climate activism that is needed today is not that type of activism—especially since, according to the IEA, individual “behavior” changes will only account for around 4 percent of cumulative emissions reductions in the path to net zero. What’s needed today is sustained outrage at the powerful, by those with the time and resources to express it.
For 18-year-old Jaweria Baig in Pakistan, this means pushing for big changes at powerful corporations. Her latest campaign, launched with youth activists from climate vulnerable counties across the world, targets Microsoft. She’s asking the tech giant to significantly decrease its emissions from corporate flights, and use its own video conference platform “Teams” instead, as it did during pandemic-induced lockdown. Microsoft is currently “one of the world's top buyers” of flights, the Just Use Teams campaign says, its emissions comparable to some small countries.
Microsoft—which markets itself as a leader in the fight for climate justice—has so far declined to respond to Baig’s campaign. A spokesperson for the tech giant sent HEATED only a link to its corporate sustainability and aviation plans in response to the group’s complaints. So in the meantime, Baig is asking for people power. She wants Microsoft staff to leave anonymous Glassdoor reviews telling their bosses to use Teams instead of airplanes, and wants Microsoft customers to tweet their support.
If Microsoft’s flights don’t inspire you, though, there are plenty other campaigns in need of voices, resources, signatures, or bodies. Is the bipartisan infrastructure deal your thing? Perhaps you’d like No Climate No Deal, a campaign launched by Evergreen Action and the youth-led Sunrise Movement last month. The campaign is pressuring Democratic members of Congress to reject any infrastructure legislation lacking “transformational investments in climate and environmental justice solutions.” They’ve already secured pledges from 14 Democratic Senators. They’re seeking support in the form of a petition, calls to Senators, and tweets.
Or maybe you’re really pissed at advertising agencies, marketing firms, and social media giants for helping promote fossil fuel company propaganda. If that’s the case, you might like Clean Creatives. Despite only launching less than a year ago, it has gotten 92 advertising agencies to sign a pledge against working with fossil fuel companies. It’s now spreading a petition to get social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to ban fossil fuel ads. (Duncan Meisel, one of the group’s co-founders, said in an interview that this newsletter was part of the inspiration for forming the group. So maybe you could also start a newsletter, if that’s your thing.)
If straight-up activism isn’t your thing, maybe you’d like to support climate science education or communications projects like Climate Central or the Alliance for Climate Education. If you believe in the power of journalism, maybe you want to support accountability projects like Floodlight and Drilled News, or regional publications like Southerly Mag. Maybe you’re into culture and want to donate to a place like the Climate Museum. Maybe there’s a state climate policy you want to get involved with; or a local office you want to run for; or an opportunity to make a difference at the company you already work at. Maybe you just want to troll fossil fuel companies all day.
The opportunities to get involved in the climate fight are endless, and that can be overwhelming. But the beauty of people power is that you don’t have to do everything. “You don’t need to quit your job and become a climate activist,” said Genevieve Gunther, founder of the media-focused group End Climate Silence. “With enough people, one little thing every week, even a tweet, can make a huge difference.”
Some people may read this and believe it is pointless. That we are too late. That none of it matters. The fossil fuel industry knows this is not true. Their fear of a determined, pissed off public is why they promoted campaigns of climate denial and “individual responsibility” in the first place. They knew if people were unsure about the problem, they’d waste time fighting about it instead of mobilizing to fix it. They knew if people were confused about the solution, they’d waste time trying to change themselves and each other instead of the system.
However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.
*A previous version of this story mistakenly said the average daily temperature in Karachi was 104 degrees F. That was the average temperature last week, not in general. HEATED regrets the error; thank you to reader Charlie for pointing it out.
How are you contributing to the climate fight? How can people help?
HEATED’s comments are usually limited to paid subscribers. Today, we’re opening them up to the public, in the hopes of helping interested readers find an activism route that feels right for them.
If you’re an organizer, feel free to comment with information about the campaign you’re working on, and how people can help. Or if you’ve found a creative/unexpected way to contribute, please share that with the class as well.
No picture of Fish today; the e-mail length limit won’t allow it. He’ll be back in your inboxes next issue.
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A remarkable new study by a director at one of the largest accounting firms in the world has found that a famous, decades-old warning from MIT about the risk of industrial civilization collapsing appears to be accurate based on new empirical data.
As the world looks forward to a rebound in economic growth following the devastation wrought by the pandemic, the research raises urgent questions about the risks of attempting to simply return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal.’
In 1972, a team of MIT scientists got together to study the risks of civilizational collapse. Their system dynamics model published by the Club of Rome identified impending ‘limits to growth’ (LtG) that meant industrial civilization was on track to collapse sometime within the 21st century, due to overexploitation of planetary resources.
The controversial MIT analysis generated heated debate, and was widely derided at the time by pundits who misrepresented its findings and methods. But the analysis has now received stunning vindication from a study written by a senior director at professional services giant KPMG, one of the 'Big Four' accounting firms as measured by global revenue.
Limits to growth
The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is available on the KPMG website. It concludes that the current business-as-usual trajectory of global civilization is heading toward the terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade—and at worst, could trigger societal collapse by around 2040.
The study represents the first time a top analyst working within a mainstream global corporate entity has taken the ‘limits to growth’ model seriously. Its author, Gaya Herrington, is Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis Lead at KPMG in the United States. However, she decided to undertake the research as a personal project to understand how well the MIT model stood the test of time.
The study itself is not affiliated or conducted on behalf of KPMG, and does not necessarily reflect the views of KPMG. Herrington performed the research as an extension of her Masters thesis at Harvard University in her capacity as an advisor to the Club of Rome. However, she is quoted explaining her project on the KPMG website as follows:
“Given the unappealing prospect of collapse, I was curious to see which scenarios were aligning most closely with empirical data today. After all, the book that featured this world model was a bestseller in the 70s, and by now we’d have several decades of empirical data which would make a comparison meaningful. But to my surprise I could not find recent attempts for this. So I decided to do it myself.”
Titled ‘Update to limits to growth: Comparing theWorld3 model with empirical data’, the study attempts to assess how MIT’s ‘World3’ model stacks up against new empirical data. Previous studies that attempted to do this found that the model’s worst-case scenarios accurately reflected real-world developments. However, the last study of this nature was completed in 2014.
The risk of collapse
Herrington’s new analysis examines data across 10 key variables, namely population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint. She found that the latest data most closely aligns with two particular scenarios, ‘BAU2’ (business-as-usual) and ‘CT’ (comprehensive technology).
“BAU2 and CT scenarios show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study concludes. “Both scenarios thus indicate that continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible. Even when paired with unprecedented technological development and adoption, business as usual as modelled by LtG would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.”
Study author Gaya Herrington told Motherboard that in the MIT World3 models, collapse “does not mean that humanity will cease to exist,” but rather that “economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living… In terms of timing, the BAU2 scenario shows a steep decline to set in around 2040.”
The ‘Business-as-Usual’ scenario (Source: Herrington, 2021)
The end of growth?
In the comprehensive technology (CT) scenario, economic decline still sets in around this date with a range of possible negative consequences, but this does not lead to societal collapse.
The ‘Comprehensive Technology’ scenario (Source: Herrington, 2021)
Unfortunately, the scenario which was the least closest fit to the latest empirical data happens to be the most optimistic pathway known as ‘SW’ (stabilized world), in which civilization follows a sustainable path and experiences the smallest declines in economic growth—based on a combination of technological innovation and widespread investment in public health and education.
The ‘Stabilized World’ Scenario (Source: Herrington, 2021)
Although both the business-as-usual and comprehensive technology scenarios point to the coming end of economic growth in around 10 years, only the BAU2 scenario “shows a clear collapse pattern, whereas CT suggests the possibility of future declines being relatively soft landings, at least for humanity in general.”
Both scenarios currently “seem to align quite closely not just with observed data,” Herrington concludes in her study, indicating that the future is open.
A window of opportunity
While focusing on the pursuit of continued economic growth for its own sake will be futile, the study finds that technological progress and increased investments in public services could not just avoid the risk of collapse, but lead to a new stable and prosperous civilization operating safely within planetary boundaries. But we really have only the next decade to change course.
“At this point therefore, the data most aligns with the CT and BAU2 scenarios which indicate a slowdown and eventual halt in growth within the next decade or so, but World3 leaves open whether the subsequent decline will constitute a collapse,” the study concludes. Although the ‘stabilized world’ scenario “tracks least closely, a deliberate trajectory change brought about by society turning toward another goal than growth is still possible. The LtG work implies that this window of opportunity is closing fast.”
In a presentation at the World Economic Forum in 2020 delivered in her capacity as a KPMG director, Herrington argued for ‘agrowth’—an agnostic approach to growth which focuses on other economic goals and priorities.
“Changing our societal priorities hardly needs to be a capitulation to grim necessity,” she said. “Human activity can be regenerative and our productive capacities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable.”
She noted how the rapid development and deployment of vaccines at unprecedented rates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that we are capable of responding rapidly and constructively to global challenges if we choose to act. We need exactly such a determined approach to the environmental crisis.
“The necessary changes will not be easy and pose transition challenges but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” said Herrington.
The best available data suggests that what we decide over the next 10 years will determine the long-term fate of human civilization. Although the odds are on a knife-edge, Herrington pointed to a “rapid rise” in environmental, social and good governance priorities as a basis for optimism, signalling the change in thinking taking place in both governments and businesses. She told me that perhaps the most important implication of her research is that it’s not too late to create a truly sustainable civilization that works for all.
Recently, I shared my list of foundational practices—the basic things everyone should do to live better. Of course, my choices are personal. Your list might differ a little from mine.
Most people, however, tended to agree with my choices. Foundational practices should be obvious. If they weren’t, there would be some controversy over how useful they are.
Yet there was one practice that a lot of people admitted to not doing often. People exercised, read, tracked their spending and fenced in their vices… but when it came to this practice the most common response was, “Yeah, I really should start doing that.”
The Missing Practice
This practice was having regular conversations with people smarter than you. Or, if not smarter in all ways, then a bit ahead of you in at least one dimension of life you care about.
Perhaps this omission simply reflects my audience. I attract introverted self-improvement junkies who have no trouble reading ten books a month, but find it hard to strike up a conversation with someone new.
Despite the difficulty, the value of this practice can’t be overstated. I can see at least a few major benefits of making this a part of your routine:
1. Books are general, conversations specific.
One person told me she reads a lot of books which fulfills a lot of the same benefits as talking to others. I agree that books can help greatly, but there are important places where these two practices don’t overlap.
The first is that books tend to offer general advice, but what you need is often highly specific. You don’t just need advice on “success” but exactly who to reach out to in your company to move your career forward. Books offer an atlas, but what you need is often a tour guide.
2. A lot of important knowledge cannot be written down.
What you learn from talking to others is deeper than what you could read from a transcript of the conversation. We know that human beings are uniquely social learners. And we often learn successful practices even when nobody understands how they work.
In one experiment, for instance, researchers had participants design a simple machine. Learning from the trial-and-error designs of others, they quickly made progress. Yet when asked for the theory of why their design worked, most were flat-out wrong. When you interact with people directly (or via Zoom) you not only get methods and theories, but you subtly absorb attitudes, practices and beliefs that impact your results.
3. Access matters (even if it can be overrated).
It’s a cliche to say “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Obviously, for many professions, this is simply untrue. I’d rather have the surgeon who knows medicine, not just the guy who met a ton of people at his fraternity.
But there is truth in the idea. Opportunities are realized through other people. Even if you knew everything there was to know, you’d still benefit from talking to people since those connections would form the conduits for new possibilities.
An Introvert’s Guide to Having More (and Better) Conversations
For some people this advice is not only obvious, it’s unnecessary. If you’re more extroverted, you probably already talk to lots of people and have many friends who excel in various dimensions.
However, given the number of responses I got from readers, this is clearly a weakness for many. Thus, I think it makes sense to look at what concrete strategies you ought to use to make it easier (especially if meeting people sounds daunting).
Side note: As I write this article, the grips of the pandemic have made meeting people harder for everyone, so it’s not just introverts who are struggling!
Thus, to ensure success with the practice of having one conversation per week with somebody smart, there are a few different tactics to make it work:
1. Schedule calls with people you already know.
The easiest win is simply to be better about following up with people you’ve already met.
I have a friend who is remarkably good at this. He’s not the most extroverted person, nor is he the type that is always making himself the center of attention. However, he does one thing better than almost anyone else I know—he follows up.
That is, when he does meet someone, he gets their contact information and shoots them a friendly email or text a week or so later. If they hit it off, he makes an effort to have a call or coffee.
In the long run, even if he meets the same number of new people, he ends up having far more conversations. He doesn’t need to be pushy—if he messages and doesn’t get a reply, or the person doesn’t seem interested to meet up, he drops it. But the fact is, most people are passive, so even if they would be interested in conversing, they’ll rarely initiate.
2. Ask for introductions.
The next easiest step is to ask to be introduced to people. This is particularly helpful if you’ve already identified someone you’d like to learn from. So if you’re trying to learn more about business, asking if your friends know any entrepreneurs is a good step.
When Vat and I did our no-English language experiment in China, we made heavy use of this. Starting from a few local tutors, we were able to build a network of friends relatively quickly (despite only speaking broken Mandarin) because we asked for introductions. Most people were happy to help and this strategy worked far better than trying to strike up conversations with random people on the street.
3. Reach out to like-minded people.
A final suggestion is that if you want to talk to someone, simply send them an email. It’s amazing to me how often this works. Many of my closest friendships started out this way.
In this way, having a public blog, Medium account or Twitter profile with small amount of content expressing your thoughts and ideas is helpful. This blog has helped me immensely with meeting people simply because if I want to get to know someone, they can quickly check me out and see what I think about things.
However, I also know many people with no public works who have made great use of this strategy, so don’t let being unknown stop you from reaching out.
The Real Reason People Don’t Do This
I started this article by noting that this practice, more than exercise, reading or sleep, tended to be neglected. This is strange because it’s also one of the easier practices. Exercising every weekday requires several hours. Having a conversation each week, including the time to reach out, requires less than an hour.
The obvious reason people don’t do this is that they fear rejection. What if I email someone and they don’t reply? What if I don’t know who to contact?
The easiest way to warm-up, then, is to pick people where you won’t get rejected. People you already know, or ask for introductions directly so you’re not cold-emailing people.
But the real practice is to get comfortable with not getting a response to your outreach efforts. The imagined fear is usually that the person will be angry at your presumption, or that you’ll be humiliated with a scornful reply. This almost never happens. Instead, the most common rejection is simply no reply at all.
Not getting a reply typically means nothing. The person hasn’t given much thought to your request and it doesn’t damage your reputation. Of course, don’t spam people. Don’t send multiple unsolicited requests in a row or endless emails to “follow up” when it’s clear the person isn’t interested.
I understand the trepidation about doing this because I’m hardwired the same way. I also resist doing this, but that’s exactly why I need to push myself to do it more. If you spend all day talking to people, reaching out to an additional person has diminishing benefit. But if you never do this, doing it a little bit can have enormous returns for your life. Thus, the practice is all the more valuable, the harder you find it is to do.
The Tangalooma Wrecks is a shipwreck site on the western side of Moreton Island in South East Queensland, Australia. It consists of 15 vessels that were deliberately sunk in 1963 to form a breakwall for small boats. In addition to providing safe harbor, the wrecks also created a popular dive and snorkel site, attracting a variety of marine life such as wobbegongs, trevally, yellowtail, and other tropical fish.
Sometimes you run across an aspect of reality and it just completely blows your mind. You’ve heard of dark matter, right? Well, meet dark fish: biologists suspect that up to 95% of the world’s total fish population lives in a deep layer of the ocean that is difficult to detect and we know little about.
An international team of marine biologists has found mesopelagic fish in the earth’s oceans constitute 10 to 30 times more biomass than previously thought.
UWA Professor Carlos Duarte says mesopelagic fish — fish that live between 100 and 1000m below the surface — must therefore constitute 95 per cent of the world’s fish biomass.
“Because the stock is much larger it means this layer must play a more significant role in the functioning of the ocean and affecting the flow of carbon and oxygen in the ocean,” he says.
See also this thread from ocean scientist Andrew Thaler:
There’s a globe-spanning layer of mesopelagic fish that is so dense it distorts SONAR. For decades we had no idea what created the Deep Scattering Layer or why it moved. We still know almost nothing about it.
It’s astounding how much we don’t know about the ocean:
There’s an entire family of whales with at least 22 species that we know almost nothing about.
We know way more about stars that are billions of light years away than about some parts of the ocean a few hundred feet below the surface of our own planet.
See also dark fungi: “By one estimate, there are between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi — and more than 90% of them aren’t cataloged.”. (via @_zeets & @chadmumm)