Why Millenials Fear the Future – Part I: The Inevitability of Climate Change

Anxiety: no other feeling does a better job of describing the current mental state of the Millennial Generation. Much of this anxiety stems from the fact that we are entering adulthood on the crest of a massive wave of advancement – a wave that could crash at any moment and that is being driven by forces moving far more swiftly than our ability to control them.

From climate change to automation to human enhancement, we’re inheriting a world on the cusp of radical transformations, many of which feel like they’re already out of our hands. And that is a very scary feeling…


Climate change is a prime example.

Scientists tell us that if we want to avoid catastrophic consequences, we have to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), as compared to the world’s pre- industrial revolution average.

In 2011, the IPCC determined that if we wanted to stay below this 2-degree limit, we could only emit 1,000 more gigatons (GT = 1 billion tons) of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere; nearly every developed country in the world signed off on this global “carbon budget”. In the four years since then, we’ve poured another 150 GT of carbon into the atmosphere, reducing that budget to just 850 GT.

shell carbon pollution

Here’s the thing: if we burned all of the world’s proven reserves of oil, coal and gas, we would release nearly 2,800 GT of carbon into the atmosphere — nearly four times more than the carbon budget prescribed by the IPCC.

Proven reserves are typically defined as reserves that have at least a 90 percent probability of being extracted. That’s a scary thought when you consider that we would need to leave almost three-quarters of those reserves in the ground to stay under our 2-degree limit.

It’s worth noting here that the IPCC’s 1,000-GT carbon budget is based on the assumption that we will rapidly cut back on deforestation and other sources of climate change in the near future. If we fail to address those issues, however, we could have as little as 300 GT left in our carbon budget. Have fun trying to convince Shell, Exxon, BP and the gang to leave 90 percent of their proven reserves in the ground.

And here’s the kicker: even if we manage to stay within the carbon budget prescribed by the IPCC, there’s still a one in three chance that the Earth will warm by more than 2 degrees anyways. Real comforting, guys…

carbon budget graphic

The ironic thing about this whole discussion is that right now, the issue of climate change is getting more international attention than ever before. Both the United States and China have made notable climate pledges within the last few months, and the United Nations is preparing to host the historic COP21 climate conference in Paris next month. The conference, which will be held from November 30 to December 11, aims to craft a legally binding global agreement on climate change.

In preparation for the conference, each of the 147 attending countries had to submit a proposal outlining measures to limit greenhouse emissions. Unfortunately, scientists who recently analyzed those submissions came to the conclusion that all of them were woefully inadequate. The Guardian reports,

[The proposed emission cuts] still fall well short of the amount needed to prevent a 2C warming by 2100, a fact that will be underlined later this week when the Grantham Research Institute releases its analysis of the COP21 submissions. This will show that the world’s carbon emissions, currently around 50bn tonnes a year, will still rise over the next 15 years, even if all the national pledges made to the UN are implemented. The institute’s figures suggest they will reach 55bn to 60bn by 2030. 

To put that figure in context, the world will have to cut emissions to 36bn billion tonnes of carbon to have a 50-50 chance of keeping temperatures below 2C, scientists have calculated. Current pledges will not bring the planet near that reduced output.

climate policymakers

That’s the modern reality of climate change: we know what we have to do to prevent it, but we’ve gotten so addicted to fossil fuels that we’re simply unwilling to take the necessary action.

I don’t want to completely disparage the COP21 conference, because any step in the right direction is a good thing. But with the problem of climate change, we simply don’t have the time for slow and steady progress. If we want to give ourselves a fighting chance of avoiding the disastrous consequences of 2C warming, we have to make drastic changes — not in 20 years, not in 10 years, but right now.

Unfortunately, all signs seem to indicate that we’re far from being ready to do make those changes. And as someone who plans to inhabit this planet for at least another 60 years, that makes me extremely apprehensive about the future.

BONUS: On Monday (Nov. 9), the World Meteorological Organization published a new report that, “showed strong growth — and new records — in the concentrations of all three of the most important heat-trapping gases,” the National Post reports.

Speaking about the report’s findings, WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud said,

“We are moving into unchartered territory at a frightening speed.”

I can’t think of a better quote to sum up our current predicament.

Editor’s Note: This is part one in a four-part series about the challenges facing millennials as we look ahead into the future. Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part II: Technology, Automation, and the Obsolete Human Worker.

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