With climate change threatening life as we know it, perhaps it's time to revive the forgotten goal of spending less time on our jobs
GLOBAL TIPPING POINT
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top research body on the issue recognized by the United Nations, recently released its fifth report summarizing and analyzing the science and policies around climate change, striking a more urgent tone than in previous reports.
On April 13 at a climate conference in Berlin, the panel released a new report noting that greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever and urgent action is needed in the next decade to avert a serious crisis.
"We cannot afford to lose another decade," Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report, told The New York Times. "If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization."
After the panel released an earlier section of the report on March 31, it wrote in a public statement: "The report concludes that responding to climate change involves making choices about risks in a changing world. The nature of the risks of climate change is increasingly clear, though climate change will also continue to produce surprises."
The known impacts will be displaced populations in poor countries inundated by rising seas, significant changes to life-supporting ecosystems (such as less precipitation in California and other regions, creating possible fresh water shortages), food shortages from loss of agricultural land, and more extreme weather events.
What we don't yet know, these "surprises," could be even scarier because this is such uncharted territory. Never before have human activities had such an impact on the natural world and its delicate balances, such as in how energy circulates through the world's oceans and what it means to disrupt half of the planet's surface area.
Researchers have warned that we could be approaching a "global tipping point," in which the impact of climate change affects other systems in the natural world and threatens to spiral out of control toward another mass extinction. And a new report funded partially by the National Science Foundation and NASA's Goodard Space Center combines the environmental data with growing inequities in the distribution of wealth to warn that modern society as we know it could collapse.
"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent," the report warned.
It cites two critical features that have triggered most major societal collapses in past, both of which are increasingly pervasive problems today: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or 'Commoners')," which makes it more difficult to deal with problems that arise.
Both of these problems would be addressed by doing less overall work, and distributing the work and the rewards for that work more evenly.
Carol Zabin — research director for the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley, who has studied the relation between jobs and climate change — has some doubts about the strategy of addressing global warming by reducing economic output and working less.
"Economic activity which uses energy is not immediately correlated with work hours," she told us, noting that some labor-saving industrial processes use more energy than human-powered alternatives. And she also said that, "some leisure activities could be consumptive activities that are just as bad or worse than work."