Low-lying atolls comprising the Marshall Islands could be completely engulfed by sea-level rise. Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr, CC BY NC SA 2.0.
In a remote pocket of the Pacific Ocean lie the Marshall Islands, which nearly 60,000 people call home. But the islanders are facing the grim and very real prospect of losing their entire country in their lifetimes. One resident, Selina Leem, spoke at the Paris climate summit in 2015, passionately arguing that she refuses to lose her homeland, which will be inexorably enveloped by the seas unless governments worldwide take dramatic and rapid action to mitigate climate change.
In his new book, The Future Earth, climate journalist and meteorologist Eric Holthaus describes this and other imminent human impacts of climate change. Even if carbon emissions decline gradually, scientists’ projections for rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, deluging floods, and more intense droughts and wildfires threaten many people and communities. But rather than dwell on such apocalyptic predictions – ground that has been thoroughly tread by other writers – Holthaus seeks to craft an aspirational vision of the future of our planet and society.
“We will have to share with one another alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable,” he writes. Instead, he believes that if we persistently focus on positive views of what lies ahead, it could create enough of a cultural shift so that radical change becomes possible, giving a chance of survival to all vulnerable peoples.
Envisioning the next three decades, Holthaus deftly deploys “speculative journalism” as if he has time-traveled, reporting from the future to inform and spur us in the present. In the world he foresees, the next 30 years turn out to be tumultuous, as humanity unites to steer the ship from the iceberg, avoid the worst climate disasters, and rebuild a greener and more equitable society. He imagines Earth on an ambitious trajectory for only 1.5º Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels, the best-case scenario put forth by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Within the next decade, Holthaus predicts that hundreds of millions of protesters around the world will regularly march in the streets to demand climate action. Activists will push for massive changes across industries and society, starting with policies like the Green New Deal in the United States. Policymakers will remove fossil fuel subsidies and eventually nationalise utilities. Climate refugees displaced by floods and fires will be provided permanent residency abroad.
For these refugees, Holthaus endorses a proposal by Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University: In a broader version of the “polluter pays” principle, countries will be on the hook for resettling climate migrants proportionate to their historical national emissions, meaning mostly the United States and China.
Despite talk of climate refugees, Holthaus rarely contemplates retreat, whether by communities tenuously residing on crumbling coastlines or in repeatedly flooded or scorched areas. Instead, he uses their dire situation as a strength: Many people would do anything to avoid abandoning their threatened homes. Rather than succumbing to fatalism, they could become “stubbornly optimistic” – and together, they might even change the world.
And that’s just the beginning, in Holthaus’s eyes. Revolutionary ways of thinking will bring about a new phase in the following decade, as society evolves toward a renewable or “stewardship” economy. “Life in the 2030s will look and feel different than life does now under late capitalism, when egregious inequality, racism, and poverty have made it transparently obvious that the system is designed to work for a specific few — and probably not you,” he writes.
Holthaus draws attention to many key areas in the future, including climate-friendly transformations of agriculture, transportation, even concrete. While cooperative and concerted action could realise these changes within some 20 years, things like melting glaciers and warming oceans cannot be restored to a healthy state within decade-long time scales. Radical action to mitigate climate change would limit the damage, but the oceans and Arctic will inevitably need centuries to recover from the damage already inflicted by carbon emissions currently clogging the atmosphere.
By the 2040s, Holthaus envisions a world where we’ve passed peak emissions but nonetheless have considerable work left to do to create a carbon-neutral world. Engineers have already made limited progress with so-called “negative emission technologies,” but he believes it’s necessary that they be fully developed and scaled up by this time. In particular, he supports the ideas of geoengineering researcher Holly Jean Buck, who calls for turning the nearly bankrupt fossil fuel companies into publicly run carbon removal entities, capturing streams of carbon dioxide and converting them into geologically stable liquids and solids.
Holthaus’s book comes as a welcome antidote to more dystopian climate writers such as David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, and to brutally realistic writers of our near future if we remain mired in business-as-usual, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction. To Holthaus, “the narrative of climate apocalypse is not a catalyst to action.” Instead, he focuses on what can be done to change the world, making his book more akin to those by Kate Aronoff, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben.
That said, these latter authors pay more attention than Holthaus does to the widespread organising and political activism necessary to transform our society and economy and overcome resistance from the fossil fuel industry. He cites philosophers and social scientists more than activists, as he’s more concerned with galvanising a shift in mainstream culture toward a civilisation based on stewardship, kinship, empathy and cooperation.
To critics who might view this as naive, he’d respond that we have no other choice. Selina Leem and others on the front lines of climate change “refuse to be annihilated”. The only alternative – and we have just one shot at this, right now, he argues – is to imagine and then build a greener, more equitable world that’s not powered by fossil fuels.
Earlier in the book, Holthaus criticises those who focus “too much on small changes that maintain the status quo,” such as encouraging people to recycle more, use energy-efficient light bulbs, and switch to electric cars. But ultimately his solution involves suggesting that people pursue such changes to their personal lives, reducing their carbon footprints, rethinking their relationship with nature, and ultimately, talking more about climate change and how the climate emergency affects them.
If he’s right, that could be how radical change begins, not by making people feel powerless in the face of looming climate catastrophe and government intransigence, but by encouraging leadership, solidarity and optimism, even among those on the brink. “Imagine a better world and how you might be able to play a part in it,” he writes, “and then figure out how to make it happen.”