If you’ve been on the internet at all the past few days, you’ll know that artists in New York City recently unveiled the Climate Clock, which is exactly what it sounds like: a final countdown to the moment when we deplete the Earth’s natural carbon deposits, at current rates of emission. At the time of this writing, we have about 7 years and 99 days until that happens. If that terrifies you, here are some things to consider.
First of all, it’s important to know that there are a number of different metrics for measuring just how much “time we have left.” At a website also known as the Climate Clock, run by what looks to be a small Montréal-based startup the Human Impact Lab, the timer currently tells us that we have about 12.25 years until we push the global temperature to 1.5 celsius above pre-industrial levels. This would have some devastating effects that are not to be understated, but is also generally considered the last relatively “safe” juncture of temperature increases. For many reasons, explored in depth here by NASA, the buck needs to stop at 1.5.
But if we do go the next 7 years and 99 days without drastically reducing carbon emissions, all you need to do is look around you at the world today for just a small preview of what we can expect. Via the Washington Post, the artists behind the NYC climate clock claim that, “A total depletion [of the carbon budget] would thrust the world into further turmoil and suffering through more flooding, more wildfires, worsening famine and extensive human displacement.” For a more long-term look at the (still too close for comfort) effects of inaction, by 2050 many scientists agree that human civilization will be forced to contend with its survival: there will be 20 days of lethal heat a year, and so much less of the planet will be livable that 1 billion people will be displaced.
So what do we do with these ticking time bombs of information? For me, we have to do things differently. Whether it’s COVID, wildfires, flooding, political uncertainty, or social unrest that’s rocking the boat (spoiler alert, it’s all at once) we have gotten far too comfortable with running the same rat race everyday. What I love about the travel community, and what I feel has provided me with a lot of inspiration to keep my head up throughout the trying times of 2020, is our track record of experimenting with alternative lifestyles, and our commitment to constantly be creating. This can be hit and miss, of course, as we take on risks to move abroad, travel solo, or go where the uninitiated tell us it’s too dangerous. But as travel remains limited, we have to reassess our relationship with inspiration and risk.
Perhaps you’ve also recently seen headlines about “flights to nowhere,” and the fact that they’re selling out faster than flights with actual destinations. I never thought we were all interpreting the idea that “it’s all about the journey” so literally. I understand being incredibly restless in this moment, but I can only think of one reason that this idea might actually take off:
We aren’t asking enough of the companies, authorities, and institutions who are supposed to be the stewards of our adventures, the facilitators of our curiosity.
Before I sound like a total buzzkill, consider that some of the most profitable companies on earth (airlines) routinely ask for bailouts at times of economic downturn, and yet they are now apparently able to generate demand from thin air by offering… nothing, except the chance to fly in a circle with dozens of strangers during a pandemic.
The whole thing smacks of “innovation” in the vein of Apple ditching headphone jacks on the iPhone. They made the product less convenient than it was before, and then charged us extra for the chance to use it in the same way we already were. Large corporations are experts in creating a problem and then passing the buck on down to the consumer, which might be the reason so many of us — even children — feel climate anxiety. It’s a very good thing to assess our own lives and look at ways that we can live more sustainably, but this climate clock and initiatives like it speak to the more pressing need for institutional change.
Without companies and countries taking a different approach and making real emission commitments now, the climate chaos that awaits us on the other end of the countdown becomes more real by the day. After all, corporate and state bodies have more resources at their disposal to conduct research and devise solutions. It’s just a matter of how they use them. In recent years, documents have revealed that Exxon sponsored scientists to conduct unprecedented research into the effects of harvesting oil and gas 40 years ago. The results that came back were just the first batch to say what science has been saying ever since: that the Earth is warming, and irreversible climate change is real. They decided to ignore it.
The good news? Some of the dominos have already started to fall amongst major companies. Amazon pledged last year to be carbon neutral by 2040, while Microsoft announced plans earlier this year to be carbon negative by 2030 and on a path to completely offset all emissions in the company’s history by 2050. Consumer goods giant Unilever, which in all odds produces at least a handful of the products in your home, made a similar carbon-neutral pledge for 2039. In the time that I’ve been writing this article, California today announced a ban on sales of new gas-powered vehicles to take effect in 2035. This is the first example in the U.S. of a ban that has already been announced by several European and Asian countries, with an inauguration date of 2030 in the U.K., Germany, and India. China, home to the largest auto market in the world, is currently researching a timeline for their own ban.
If you ever shared a good-news article about the climate breathing a sigh of relief during global lockdown a few months ago, or were happy to see that rare pink dolphins have recently returned to Hong Kong’s waters in the past few days, understand that the climate clock is not there to strike more fear into our already-heavy hearts. It’s the kind of constant, enduring reminder we need for these times, when our attention spans get shorter and our heads spin faster every day. Just as we moved on from the Australian bushfires, devastating hurricane seasons, and Apple ditching the headphone jack, those who capitalize on our short-sightedness will keep asking us to open our wallets, even to literally fly nowhere. The clock is there to remind us that no matter what distracts us, makes us giddy, or terrifies us in the next day of 2020 that comes, there is something demanding our attention: the home we all share. We have to listen.
Words by editorial manager Joseph Ozment.