January 17, 2019
As published on Forbes.com
Last week, the Rhodium Group reported that U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “rose sharply” in 2018. By “sharply,” the research firm meant 3.4%, the second largest annual gain in the last two decades. A common reaction was, “So what?”
Bombarded by climate news, perhaps we are becoming numb to the numbers. I’d like to contextualize this news in a way that may give you pause, regardless of where you fit in the political spectrum.
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have caused 1° Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) in global warming since pre-industrial times. Climate experts warn that we need to contain warming to 1.5° C. The world is composed of systems that, like human beings, are sensitive to temperature changes.
The average human body temperature is 37° C (98.6° F). If it rises 1°C, you have a fever and probably feel sick. If your temperature rises 2° C, you’re very sick and need treatment. A prolonged temperature rise greater than 2.5° C can cause serious, irreparable damage.
Have you ever brought an infant to the emergency room with a fever higher than 39° C (102.2° F)? Then you know how scary it feels. Your child cannot vocalize what’s wrong. She cannot describe the pain or answer questions about the symptoms.
Similarly, our planet cannot vocalize the impacts of climate change. We see symptoms like bleached coral reefs, melting glaciers and lethal wildfires. However, we struggle to determine what these symptoms mean for the systems they represent.
When the Rhodium Group says that U.S. emissions increased 3.4%, you’re being told that the world is getting sicker. Our temperature, a vital marker, is deviating to the point where we could suffer irreversible damage.
In a human body, if the liver fails, the rest of your body can’t just pick up the slack. Earth’s systems, like your body’s, are not interchangeable. They are interdependent. If we heat up the oceans and kill off its ecosystems, planting more trees won’t compensate.
CO2 is critical to multiple Earth systems. Without enough CO2, Earth would be more like Mars – a frozen, barren desert, inhospitable to life. When the sun’s heat bounces off the Earth’s surface, CO2 traps a portion of the heat in our atmosphere. That heat has enabled life for roughly 3.5 billion years. But raising the concentration of CO2 literally gives our planet a fever. Make no mistake: Earth’s fever will settle (but potentially without humanity).
When you hear that CO2 emissions increased, imagine someone injecting your sick infant with more of the bacteria she is struggling to fight. When you hear that oceanic systems are failing, imagine that the bacteria have caused early-stage liver failure.
Patients or Doctors
Planet Earth and its 7.5 billion human residents are suffering a fever. If it were a conventional disease, how would you feel if our healthcare leaders said, “The plan is to sit back and let other countries come up with an antibiotic.”
Ostensibly, that is our plan. We North Americans aren’t just letting Earth systems fail. We are turning our backs on the future and letting antidemocratic countries become the world’s moral, industrial and political leaders.
The Rhodium Group reported that transportation is the biggest contributor to U.S. emissions. While North Americans continue to produce (and buy) gas-guzzling vehicles, Chinese companies are working on the antibiotic. In 2018, China produced more electric vehicles (EVs) than the rest of the world combined. Chinese consumers bought 1 million EVs and are projected to buy 1.6 million this year.
Foreign carmakers are falling over each to get into the Chinese market or at least partner with one of 100 Chinese electric carmakers. Tesla’s hyped debut in China is cute by comparison. Affordable Chinese EVs, not $75,000 Teslas, are treating the fever and winning the future.
What Climate Inaction Means
North America is on course to see a headline like this in 2025: “Chinese Automaker BAIC Acquires Struggling Ford.” The U.S. automaker’s sales continue to plummet in China. Meanwhile, the Ford F-Series was the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. for the 42nd consecutive year. North American firms are flaming the fever while Chinese firms work on a cure.
Maybe you’re dejected that North America is acting like it has already lost the fight against climate change. Or, you might wonder why we’re ignoring emerging consumer markets, which McKinsey says represent a $30 trillion opportunity by 2025. It’s an enormous business opportunity. Affordable EVs, not F-150s, are going to win in places like China and India, where price, capability and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive.
So, what does our complacency about the 3.4% rise in CO2 emissions mean? It means that North America is shedding its technological leadership. Meanwhile, countries with antithetical values are monopolizing the technology that will cure Earth’s disease and sustain long-term economic growth. Unless we change course, they will own the clean industries of the future, and we will become dependent on these countries for our foundational energy and transportation systems.
When you read the next dismal climate report, think of a sick infant quietly suffering a fever and losing liver function. Imagine that we have not only neglected our responsibility to treat the child, but that our actions are making the fever worse.
Rising emissions are a threat and an opportunity. We talk so much about innovation but seem to resist the new economic realities of 2030 and beyond. We cannot control our future and treat this fever of our own design while clinging desperately to the past. Let’s compete more seriously in the industries that will be good for our economy and vital to our planet’s health.