When I wrote about the topic of global climate change in this space a mere two months ago, the situation was dire.
Each of a series of assessments indicated an increasingly disturbing outcome for global average temperature. The latest of those assessments, based on more data and more sophisticated models than prior efforts, suggest we have passed tipping points that may lead to the extinction of our own species, along with many others. A global average increase of two degrees Celsius likely leads to runaway greenhouse. This means destruction of most human habitat on Earth.
About six weeks after my brief review graced Transition Voice, the situation took a turn for the worse. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook was released in early November. It contains a shocking assessment: We’re headed for a global average temperature increase of 3.5 C by 2035. If an increase of two degrees spells runaway greenhouse, you can bet the consequences of a 3.5 degree increase within 25 years is catastrophic.
On the other hand, I also pointed out unexpectedly good news in my previous essay. Completion of the ongoing collapse of the world’s industrial economy might prove sufficient to save the planet and us.
Although climate-change assessments fail to incorporate positive geo-physical feedbacks such as the release of methane hydrates and decreased albedo, they also leave out the negative feedback of world economic collapse. Yet it appears a single path — collapse of the world’s industrial economy — allows us to avoid runaway greenhouse and the associated extinction of Homo Sapiens.
Fortunately for us, we’re inadvertently following that path.
Assuming we transition from economic collapse to economic growth or to a steady-state economy, what are the likely outcomes?
If we could wrest control of policy from the corporations who currently run the government, what choices would be wisest?
What are the costs and consequences of choosing to pursue action on the climate-change front?
Two roads diverged
First, let’s consider two simple outcomes associated with the no-action alternative to which federal and state governments are firmly committed: (1) runaway climate change and (2) no significant change in climate.
If climate change turns out to be as dire as predicted, then pursuing the current no-action path leads to probable extinction of human life on Earth. First, though, we will cause mass human suffering by destroying our ability to grow food. We’ll also continue to cause the extinction of several hundred species daily. But never mind the non-human species we’re driving to extinction. After all, we’ve never expressed serious interest in them in the past. Instead let’s focus on the ability to produce food for our large and growing human population.
Gleaning the truth
Many people assume food-producing regions will change locations as the planet heats up. If we can no longer produce grains in the Midwestern US, these folks believe, we’ll simply move the great American breadbasket further north. This would turn Canada into a food-producing superpower. Unfortunately, however, that’s an unlikely outcome. Canadian soils are no match for the deep, organic-rich soils of the American Midwest. Climate might be favorable for crop production as Canada warms, but grossly inadequate soil isn’t.
If climate chaos turns out to be a false alarm then the path of non action appears to be the correct one. We don’t have to make big economic sacrifices on behalf of an ambiguous future if Earth can tolerate infinite carbon emissions. This tidbit of good news comes with a warning, however. At some point, the thousands of species we’re driving to extinction catches up with us. At some point, wiping out the pollinators, decomposers, and direct sources of our food turns out badly. We depend on other species for our own survival in ways we barely understand.
I’ll not make the ethical case for saving non-human species because I don’t know a dozen people in the industrialized world who care about them. But I’ll make a selfish one: we need those species for our own survival.
As with the no-action alternative, simplistically I will address two outcomes associated with the “take-action” side of the climate-change issue.
If we take significant action — which at this point probably entails allowing complete collapse of the world’s industrial economy — and climate change turns out to have been a hoax, then we’ve obviously made a horrible mistake by terminating the dream of never-ending economic growth. We will have destroyed the potential for every high school student in the US to spend a summer in Europe for immersion in another culture (sic). We will have caused economic hardship that will lead to destruction of the social safety net upon which we’ve come to depend. We will have caused people in industrialized countries to forgo fuel at gas stations, food at grocery stores, and water coming out of the municipal taps.
This scenario sounds horrific. But in fact, it’s nirvāna.
Pull the plug, save the patient
Only by terminating the world’s industrial economy is there any hope for the thousands of species we drive to extinction every year. Only by terminating the world’s industrial economy is there any hope for the people in non-industrialized countries we oppress to prop up economic growth in the “developed” world. As a consequence, only by terminating the world’s industrial economy is there any hope for the future of our own species to squeeze through the Sixth Great Extinction.
The second outcome, if we take action, is the potential for averting runaway greenhouse. Please read the prior paragraph again. All the benefits listed there are realized anew in light of the ongoing and accelerating climate-change apocalypse.
Further, averting climate chaos, if it’s possible at this late date, spares us environmental catastrophe in the near term. Averting climate chaos, if it’s possible at this late date, spares us catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires, floods, dust bowls, famines, epidemics, and climate refugees. Averting climate chaos, if it’s possible at this late date, spares us miserable lives and untimely deaths for the 205,000 new people we add each day to an overshot planet.
Resistance against the imperialism of never-ending economic growth is imperative, and not merely for our privileges. Our very survival as a species hangs in the balance. For those of us young enough to anticipate being alive in 2035, our survival as individuals is at stake.