Imagine this scenario. Your medical doctor informs you: “You need to stop all industrial activities immediately, or you’ll be dead in twenty years. And so will your five-year-old child. Eventually, of course, you will die anyway — after all, nobody gets out alive — but your death is guaranteed if you do not stop relying on fossil fuels for travel, heating and cooling, water from the tap, and food from the grocery store.”
Naturally, you go straight from the clinic to the nearest store. You need liquor, and time to ponder whether the trade-off is worth it.
About three years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced we were committed to warming the planet by about one degree Celsius by the end of this century. Never mind that we were almost there when they reached this profound conclusion. Simply for elucidating the obvious, the IPCC was granted a share of the Nobel Peace Prize (climate crusader Al Gore received the other half).
Two degrees, four degrees, no more please
About two years ago, the Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research provided an update, indicating that, in the absence of complete economic collapse, we’re committed to a global average temperature increase of two degrees Celsius. Considering the associated feedbacks, such an increase likely spells extinction of the Homo sapiens sapiens, the “wise” ape. After all, such a rapid and profound increase in the global average temperature probably leads to release of methane hydrates from the deep sea, combustion of peat from the world’s northern regions, and reduced albedo (the latter a result of reduced cover of ice and snow). Each of these feedbacks enhances the likelihood of “runaway” greenhouse gasses once we cross the Rubicon of two degrees. But the models also fail to include an important point: we can and almost certainly will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a staggering amount within the next few years.
Late last year, the United Nations Environment Programme concluded we’re committed to an increase of 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, thus leaving little doubt about human extinction by then unless we change course quickly and dramatically. A few weeks later, Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme indicated we can kiss goodbye two degrees as a target: four is the new two, and it’s coming by mid-century. In a typical disconnect from reality, the latest scenarios do not include potential tipping points such as the release of carbon from northern permafrost or the melting of undersea methane hydrates. Importantly, they also fail to include the prospect of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, which certainly will occur when the ongoing economic collapse is complete.
Even an occasional article in the mainstream media indicates a few media outlets know an increase of four degrees Celsius likely spells the end of the line for our species. But these outlets rarely express knowledge of economic collapse, assuming economic growth will continue indefinitely. Giving the response I’ve come to expect from politicians, the Obama administration calls any attempt to reduce emissions “not grounded in political reality.”
No cutting carbon
An article in the renowned Proceedings of the National Academy of Science throws a bucket of salt into the open wound of imminent extinction. An article in the 10 February 2009 issue concludes that anthropogenic climate change is essentially irreversible: atmospheric carbon dioxide persists at least a thousand years. Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 392 parts per million is here to stay, yet most climate scientists concur that human societies cannot persist, long-term, at concentrations exceeding 350 ppm.
Have you noticed a set of patterns? Each assessment is quickly eclipsed by another, fundamentally more dire set of scenarios. Every scenario is far too optimistic because each is based on conservative approaches to scenario development. And every bit of dire news is met by the same political response.
Is there any doubt we will try to kill every species on the planet, including our own, by the middle of this century? At this point, it is absolutely necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, to bring down the industrial economy. It’s no longer merely the lives of your grandchildren we’re talking about. Depending on your age, it’s the lives of your children or you. If you’re 60 or younger, it’s you.
In 2002, as I edited a book about global climate change, I concluded we had set events in motion that would cause our own extinction, probably by 2030. I mourned for months, to the bewilderment of the three people who noticed. But about five years ago, I was elated to learn about a hail-Mary pass that just might allow our persistence for a few more generations: Peak oil and its economic consequences might bring the industrial economy to an overdue close, just in time. My pessimism about our climate future was verified in November 2009, when a paper in the vaunted journal Climatic Change concluded that the only way to stave off runaway greenhouse and the consequent extinction of our species is to terminate the industrial economy. I’m an optimist, so my response is, “yes, we can!”
Industry vs. humanity
If we abandon the industrial culture of death, we might persist until your children are old enough to die a “normal” death. But the odds are long and the time short. Although he likely is a decent man by most measures, Barack Obama epitomizes the actions of every politician in the industrialized world by ensuring, with every political act, a miserable future and insufferable death for his wife and children. In this case, resistance is imperative not merely for our privileges and rights, but also for our survival.
Now I mourn because the solution is right in front of us, yet we run from it. We fail to recognize our salvation for what it is, believing it to be dystopia instead of utopia. Are we waiting for the last human on the planet to start the crusade? Or will we terminate the industrial economy and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% within the next few years? My hope is for the latter.
Editor’s Note: How to communicate warming?
By now, we should all know that global warming is perhaps the greatest threat ever to human civilization, and a historic challenge for our generation. How will we approach it? Much has been said about the best way to talk about climate change to motivate people to finally take action.
Some call for direct, impassioned jeremiads sounding the alarm of a massive threat, hoping to wake the public from its cretinous torpor and jolt our whole society into rapid solutions. Others say that the threat is so huge, so amorphous — the atmosphere is getting warmer globally but how does it impact me and what can I even do about it? — and so scary that the only way to keep people from mentally shutting down and instead engage them in constructive action is with skillful communication. It reminds us of a poem by Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
We don’t know the answer, but we hope to foster a discussion of how to talk about warming in these pages. We welcome your comments and contributions on the issue.