Climate Change is much too mild a label for what we’re facing. And, climate change is not, as some have claimed, an existential crisis.
Crisis, yes, in fact crises. Rising sea levels, wildfires, droughts, famine hurricanes, floods, insect borne pandemics, and migration wars – are all coming our way because of our lousy attitude and reprehensible behavior toward the habitat that gives us life. Not because we wonder about the meaning of our existence (‘existential’).
Perhaps it’s the inflated human ego, the one that feels that life owes us something besides life, the one that wants to disbelieve that this is all there is, the one that doesn’t see the link between the living body and imagined soul, that let us believe that we could trash the earth and not suffer global consequences.
Perhaps it’s just evolution.
In his 1985 novel Galápagos Kurt Vonnegut took a radically different view of human evolution. He postulated that evolution went off track when humans developed over-sized brains.
In an interview after the book came out Vonnegut noted, “Our brains are much too large. We are much too busy. Our brains have proved to be terribly destructive.”
Big brains, Vonnegut said, invented nuclear weapons. Big brains demand constant amusement. Big brains like to invent and to demonstrate the power of their inventions. And, our big brains thought of a thousand-and-one uses for fossil fuel.
We called it human progress.
In his 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells writes, “That history is a story that moves in one direction is among the most unshakable creeds of the modern West.”
And, since human history, as the popular argument goes, is one of surviving war, famine, genocide, epidemics and of trying to correct grotesque racial, cultural and gender injustices, “we are on the right side of history.”
If that is true, Wallace-Wells argues, then, “On what side is climate change?” The answer: “It’s own side.” Climate change is anthropocene, caused by humans, the consequence that butts up against the myth of our progress.
Climate change is antithetical to any and all kinds of progress. “There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming.”
Wallace-Wells is just as blunt in the opening chapters of his book, describing what he calls the ‘Climate Cascade’ – an overview:
- The Industrial Age of the 1800s was fueled, literally, by fossil fuel, in the forms of coal, oil and natural gas. The result: massive carbon emissions floating up into earth’s atmosphere.
- Today, two hundred years after it began, we are dumping 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Combined with the billions of tons of our accumulated carbon waste, our clogged atmosphere is holding in the heat of the sun, not letting it reflect back into space as effectively as it once did. This is the ‘Greenhouse effect’ which creates global warming.
- Global warming, in turn, results in the melting of the polar ice caps and Greenland/Iceland glaciers. And with far less ice left to reflect back sunlight (as much as 80% of sunlight that strikes ice is reflected back into space), we’re trapping more heat.
- Melting permafrost releases more GHG (Greenhouse Gases) in the form of methane which traps 21X more heat in the atmosphere than carbon.
- Global warming has dramatically shifted global weather patterns, creating record-setting rainfall in some areas and droughts in others.
- The raging wildfires perpetrated by droughts add tons more CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s only just begun. In the last 30 years, on the U.S. west coast wildfires are six times more acreage than before and last almost five times longer.
- Oceans, which have absorbed much of the planet’s added heat, but the warmer the ocean gets the less they are able to continue absorbing planetary heat.
- Warmer ocean feeds the strength of hurricanes. The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes has increased dramatically since the 1980s.
- Warmer oceans are also less oxygen rich, challenging life-supporting eco-systems.
- And, sea levels will continue to rise.
Al Gore says what we’re experiencing is ‘weather systems on steroids.’ David Wallace-Wells takes it a step further insisting that with our reckless use of fossil fuels we have ‘weaponized the environment’. And though he does not go so far as to say that our grossly inadequate response to climate change is criminal, I will.
We have known about climate change for three-quarters of a century. We’ve been in it, witnessing its impact for thirty years. In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben alerted everyone to the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, as Wallace-Wells points out we have “made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy.”
Global carbon emissions have continued to increase. On May 3, 2019, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded atmospheric CO2 levels that are the highest in human history: 413 ppm (parts per million).
Climate scientists learned that we didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Their reports were called ‘alarmist’ and ‘fatalistic,’ their works sometimes referred to as ‘climate porn.’ No wonder they were reticent to publish new findings, new warnings from their projections. Many were said to be relieved with the 2018 IPCC Report came out.
The report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that if Earth warms by just 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times by 2100, rather than 2 degrees, we would see fewer life-threatening heat, drought and precipitation extremes, less sea level rise and fewer species lost.
But, the IPCC scientists — ninety-one of them from 40 countries – agreed that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.”
Most projections show we’re not moving fast enough and that we are likely to hit 2.0º warming or more. This grim forecast was somewhat of a relief to the much-abused climate scientists. It told them, finally:
“It’s OK to freak out!”
We can all freak out. It’s gut wrenching to look at climate projections and not freak out. But, then it’s time to get mad, and to get busy. Because we have the tools we need to address climate change.
Solar energy technology has increased in efficiency by 25% and dropped in price by 80% in just the last ten years. We’re learning to eliminate carbon emissions from our buildings, from our farming practices and from our food-supply chain. The ‘electric vehicles of the future’ — electric cars, buses, trains, trucks and boats — are already here. And, ‘carbon capture’ technology is beginning to show great promise. We have the ability. We just need commitment.
And, it will require the greatest single human commitment ever made. It will require a global overhaul of energy infrastructures, replacement of our fossil-fuel-based economy with one based on clean energy and a massive restructuring of jobs and international trade.
Addressing the level of commitment needed – from all sectors of society – David Wallace-Wells asked a question I had not yet heard. What about the immense technological and financial resource represented by the Silicon Valley and other worldwide tech hubs?
His conclusion is that we can expect no help from tech. He further indicts them, referring to “rapid technological change transforming nearly every aspect of everyday life, and yet yielding little or no tangible improvement in any conventional measures of economic well-being.”
Furthermore, he argues, modern tech, especially the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, is an unproductive distraction. He quotes poet and musician Kate Tempest who said we are, “staring into the screen so we don’t have to see the planet.”
But, while the $1.6 trillion (per year) tech industry could be immense help in climate action, it is not the most significant sector standing in the way. The greatest obstacle to accomplishing the kind of global climate policies needed to head off the worst of the climate crisis is politics. And, the wretched reality is that world politics has been headed in precisely the wrong direction.
“Just as the need for cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances – recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other.” Wallace-Wells doesn’t name names, but it’s quite clear that the single best example of climate-deniers and climate-action obstructionism is the Trump administration.
While Greta Thunberg receives daily affirmation for the GHG emissions policies she’s helping to change in the EU, while China has accelerated it’s commitment to Paris Climate Agreement, and while dozens more countries are exceeding their own projections toward net-zero carbon emissions, Trump has urged the EPA to collaborate with the fossil-fuel industry and has chosen as his top climate advisor a man who said, “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”
But, we don’t just need to defeat Trump and the his head-in-the-sand GOP colleagues. We don’t just need to rebuild global alliances and focus multi-national energy and resources on climate action. We need to believe we can do it.
American futurist Alex Steffen referred to it as “the monumental cultural undertaking of imagining together a thriving, dynamic, sustainable future that feels not only possible, but worth fighting for.”
If we do not start believing in our collective ability to confront the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, we are lost.
We may as well then imagine a dystopian future, as William Vollmann, did in Carbon Ideologies, with a survivor confessing: “Of course we did it to ourselves; we had always been intellectually lazy, and the less asked of us, the less we had to say. We all lived for the money, and that is what we died for.”
Perhaps climate change is, after all, bringing us face-to-face with the answer to the existential question of human purpose: survival of the species.
We have 12 years to cut global carbon emissions by half. Find out how you can help:
- Climate Reality Project
- Moms Clean Air Force
- Green New Deal / Sierra Club
- Peoples Climate Movement