Messenger of the Global Crisis and a Call for the Great Transformation
Photo essay by Fridolin Walcher
Thoughts by Thomas Stocker
The eternal ice: cold, hard, silent. Greenland: a seemingly infinite expanse of white desert, a realm forbidding to humans. But a closer look reveals: it is moving, it is melting, it is disappearing—maybe for good! Greenland is the harbinger of the man-made climate crisis that threatens the existence of this unique part of the world, one of the least explored on our beleaguered planet.
Explorers have been fascinated by the sheer vastness of this foreign world, by the tempting challenge to discover it, and by the urge to understand its history. Scientists are drilling deep holes into the ice cap and extracting the history of our climate over the past 100,000 years. We are learning about the inner workings of the ice, about channels and rivers deep inside the ice, about its vulnerable surface that is being transformed into an icy sponge by global heating.
Science reveals how fragile the Greenland ice sheet is. We know that natural warm periods in the past have eroded the Greenland ice over millennia and raised global sea levels. Today the heating caused by humankind’s relentless emissions of greenhouse gases is unleashing the same processes—but one hundred times faster! We do not have to travel far to see the evidence. Glaciers around the world are sharing the same fate. Burning coal, oil and gas simply to extract various forms of energy from them, destroying pristine forests and poisoning soils for agro-industry have long mutated into dangerous actions that have set us on a path of irreversible changes to the planet and all its ecosystems.
Our impact on nature will be seen by explorers many thousands of years from now. They will be able to recognise our activity in the geological records of the future. This is the Anthropocene. They will wonder what happened in this short epoch of a few centuries. They will ask why the exponential growth so evident in all key indicators was not stopped before the crash. They will ask why—if they can.
Global heating and its impacts on humans and nature is the existential crisis that we must solve now. Simple fixes will not help. Cleaner cars will not eliminate the problem, nor recycling bottles or avoiding plastic wrap. What is now required is the most fundamental transformation in human history: the complete replacement of two paradigms that have governed our industrial era, but that would lead to the collapse of the world we know today.
First, fossil fuels must be completely replaced by renewable energy sources. We must achieve zero emissions before 2050 to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. Fossil fuels are the most pervasive energy source today, and our infrastructure is almost uniquely based on them. Therefore, this transformation amounts to nothing less than an industrial revolution. After mechanisation, electrification and digitalisation, this will be the Fourth Industrial Revolution: decarbonisation. It will be the most difficult and challenging of any that we have accomplished before.
Second, continued growth and unrestrained consumption as the only metric of economic success must be completely replaced by a holistic circular economy. All natural resources, biodiversity in ecosystems, and the commons of clean water, clean air and clean soil must receive a fair value that safeguards these goods for the next generations and beyond.
The fragile ice is the silent messenger of the global crisis that we have manoeuvred ourselves into. The way out is to launch the Fourth Industrial Revolution and establish the circular economy; both represent the greatest opportunities of the 21st century. This far-reaching transformation is the door to a sustainable world, to a new economic future and to improved quality of life. Overcoming the climate crisis is both an ecological necessity and an economic imperative.