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Living in the climate lag

  • 22 July 2019


Five years ago I woke in the middle of the night and wrote a letter to myself about climate change. I've never shared it with anyone. I didn't think other people would relate to how I was feeling. But now that articles about the end of civilisation are going viral, I can see I'm not the only one who's been up late at night, shuddering with this awful premonition.

The letter I wrote to myself is called 'living in the lag', and it starts like this. 'The world around you right now no longer exists. The conditions that created it have already changed and the society you know remains the same only due to inertia. Recognise this lag. Plan according not to what you see around you today — a reality established by causes decades or centuries before — but according to the emerging conditions that will dictate the future.'

All abstract stuff, so let me draw out the lessons. Our current society's wealth is the product of centuries of burning fossil fuels. Our economic system is a carryover of 18th-century ideas that the environment is an abundant, endless resource for exploitation. None of this holds true anymore: we have to stop burning coal, gas and oil for energy if we are to have any hope of maintaining a stable climate, and we know there are hard limits to destroying the ecosystems that sustain us. 

The foundation of our way of life has already crumbled away, but most of us haven't noticed because the worst effects won't hit for decades, and we can only see the world through limited human timescales. The next five or ten or 20 years can't be predicted in precise detail, but the general trajectory of the next 200 years is pretty clear: the world will keep getting hotter, and our current civilisation will deplete the 'natural capital' that underpins it. Technology will mask the initial symptoms, but ultimately compound the problem. (Air-conditioning, for example, can provide temporary relief during heatwaves, but increases electricity use and therefore greenhouse gases, heating our planet even further.) We are facing a sudden collapse, a slow but terminal decline, or an evolution to a society that uses far less energy and resources.

Climate change isn't the only environmental crisis, but it's the best example of what I'm talking about. The current overheating of the planet is a slow-motion catastrophe. Once in the atmosphere, the