Can we still leave a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren?
The world of our children will be different from ours. The crucial question: to what extent will that world be livable?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report last month — a synthesis of all the work it's done over the past few years to summarize the latest climate science. It noted that if urgent action is taken to tackle the climate crisis, a livable future can still be possible.
It's good news, but describing Earth's future as merely "livable" hardly paints an inspiring picture of what future generations have to look forward to. That feels like the bare minimum.
"A livable future is actually not such a difficult thing to define," said Lisa Schipper, an IPCC author and a professor in development geography at the University of Bonn. "It refers to meeting basic human needs."
Schipper's definition is useful but, digging deeper, the concept of a "livable future" is more subjective than it initially appears. Our future relations could experience different livable futures depending on who and where they are, when they're alive, and, most crucially of all, the decisions our generation makes right now. The extent to which we can secure this future depends upon decisions made right now by governments and corporations. That in turn will be influenced by the collective power of citizens demanding they prioritize a habitable, sustainable future.
That could mean a small, wealthy elite hoarding exclusive access to an increasingly scarce set of resources over the next hundred years, while everyone else suffers. Equally, it could mean that people globally live in better harmony with the Earth's ecosystems and have the clean air, affordable housing and food security they need to get by, hundreds of years into the future. That livable future is up to us to imagine and fight for right now.
"As a baseline, the future that I'm fighting for is one in which every single person is able to live in dignity, to experience joy often and not be worrying about the things you need to survive," said climate activist Mikaela Loach, speaking at the launch of her book It's Not That Radical: Climate Action to Transform Our World in Edinburgh, Scotland, earlier this year.
Something Loach says she wanted to make clear in her book was that this type of livable future is "very possible." The IPCC agrees. Its report shows us how to maximize our chances of making that livable future as good as it can be for as many people as possible.
The question of what a livable future looks like raises another question: livable for whom? Right now, the effects are felt unequally. Those who are least responsible for climate change — the most vulnerable populations — experience the most adverse impacts.
Even now, at 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels, we're seeing firsthand the impacts of human-caused climate change. Significant, unpredictable weather events are causing death, destruction and displacement of people around the world. Arguably, some of the worst-hit areas could already be defined as unlivable by Schipper's definition.
One graphic in the IPCC report, showing how climate change will affect people born in different decades between 1950 and 2020, uses colored bands on human figures to indicate the amounts of warming they'll have to endure at various life stages. It demonstrates there is potential for those alive at the end of this century to live in a world not markedly warmer than the one we live in now. But they could also face one catastrophically warmer.
If we reach 4 degrees of warming (the worst-case scenario and a projection mapped out by IPCC scientists as a possibility) it's reasonable to expect that even less of the world could meet the livable criteria.
To limit warming and keep as much of the world as livable as possible, the IPCC — along with other scientists and UN experts — are clear that change needs to happen. Much of that change will need to take place in the developed world across North America and Europe, among the countries that are the historical and present-day highest emitters due to burning fossil fuels for energy.
If governments and corporations in the developed world continue to chase profits and prioritize wealth, they do so at the expense of making things livable for the most vulnerable, explained Schipper. She is concerned that for many people on the planet, a livable future may already be out of reach due to the carbon usage of the world's wealthiest people, companies and countries.
"Many people — most in North America — are living far beyond what the Earth and climate can sustain," she said. "Thus what they might think of as their future may have to be dramatically different to accommodate for a livable future for everyone."
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the March IPCC report as "a how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb" and "a survival guide for humanity." It lays out a number of pathways we could opt to follow over the next 77 years and beyond — a sort of choose your own adventure for the future of humanity.
The best-case scenario pathways, which require totally abandoning fossil fuels, lead to a world with low emissions, where we can safeguard our ecosystems, protect global public health and ensure food security. It points to a future where justice and equity for all are built into the fabric of the systems we rely on.
Stan Cox, an environmentalist and author also writes in his book The Path to a Livable Future about a future that is not only livable and sustainable, but dignified. Expanding on this idea over email, he talked about the importance of redistributing power to allow for more self-determination among citizens, especially those who have been historically marginalized.
"A dignified future, in addition to being livable, would require that communities who have always been shoved to the sidelines come to play a pivotal role as we shape our collective future," he said. Wealth and ancestry would no longer empower a minority to decide what's best for everyone else, he added.
Eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels, and allowing this best-case scenario livable future to come to fruition, means tackling one of the biggest transformational challenges laid out by climate experts. Governments and corporations will need an entire mindset shift in order to give up "on the mirage of unlimited economic growth," said Cox.
Instead of using the diminishing resources left on this Earth to generate profits, they will instead be needed for sustaining life, he added. "If that can be achieved, those who follow us will live in a civilization that fits within ecosystems rather than plundering them."
A livable future secured by sacrifice and change may not be what citizens, governments and profit-driven corporations in the developed world want to hear. But it's through being open to transforming our systems and ways of life that the future will be made more secure, as well as more equitable and just.
In an op-ed for The Conversation, two IPCC authors, Elisabeth Gilmore and Robert Lempert, demonstrate how proactive transformation on the part of government in collaboration with local citizens could ensure the longevity of many riverside communities that are currently at risk of being washed away and abandoned by the effects of climate change.
"[The riverside community] might shift to higher ground, turn its riverfront into parkland while developing affordable housing for people who are displaced by the project, and collaborate with upstream communities to expand landscapes that capture floodwaters," they said.
In this example, the solution for riverside towns to be habitable can occur alongside the transition to renewable energy sources and green transportation. But it does require embracing what could be uncomfortable or seemingly inconvenient change — spending tax dollars, asking people to relocate and reconfiguring infrastructure. The alternative, however, is to do nothing, and risk these communities becoming obsolete.
This is a scaled-down, simplified version of the argument at the heart of the entire IPCC synthesis report. Wealthy people and institutions in the developed world have the choice to embrace change, however uncomfortable that might be, and keep the planet habitable, or to resist in favor of maintaining the status quo, and see the habitable regions of the Earth gradually wither away.
The more humanity heeds the warnings of the scientific community and takes proactive steps to embrace change, the more opportunity there is to design a livable future that works for everyone. The necessary solutions — as laid out in the IPCC report — are all there for the taking.
This vision of a livable future offers much more than just survival. It paints a picture of a safer, more equal, stable world, demonstrating just how expansive the idea of a "livable future" could potentially be. It's a definition that can encompass the ideas put forward by Loach about joy and dignity, which include freedom from oppression that many around the world currently face.
There's so much hope to be found in the idea that our future generations may inhabit sustainable futures in which humanity has managed to renegotiate a more respectful, less extractive relationship with the Earth. Getting there requires urgent transformation on the part of governments and corporations, but citizens have an important role in fighting for this change and in welcoming it when it does arrive. If we let it, imagining a livable future can be a powerful motivator for embracing this change over maintaining the status quo.
As Loach writes in her book: "To have active hope, we need to be able to envisage what it is that we are running towards, as well as running away from. We have to imagine what this new world will look like."