When a 16-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg spoke with trembling anger of the unspeakable crimes today’s adults are committing against her and future generations, a chill ran down my spine. She will be alive to see the pulses of rapid sea level rise, the unraveling of industrial agriculture, the mass migration of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and the disintegration of Earth’s biosphere. Today’s world with the ever-worsening breakdown of the biosphere is much more dangerous than during the Cold War when the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation hung in the air like the sword of Damocles, as expressed by President Kennedy: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” Not only does the threat of nuclear war persist, the sword of abrupt climate breakdown now looms ever larger as governments are rendered impotent.
Scientists and the Red Cross recently warned the world is currently suffering at least one climate catastrophe per week and nearly two million people per week are needing humanitarian assistance. A UN global assessment confirms the planet is currently experiencing 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuel, water, food and land — conflicts directly related to the ongoing collapse of the earth’s biodiversity. No civilization in history has faced a complete reshuffling of the planet’s biosphere, let alone the ecological armageddon brought on by a Pandora’s box of pollutants from industrial civilization. Microplastics are literally raining from the sky. Irrevocably out-of-step with the natural world, modern civilization is destroying its host ecosystem by altering the geochemistry of the planet. A mass extinction event unlike any in Earth’s history is underway. Even if a small fraction of the global population survives this overshoot, it will take 10 million years for biodiversity to bounce back. Since atmospheric CO2 will ultimately be drawn down through a very slow natural process called sedimentation, the Earth will not reach pre-industrial CO2 levels again for more than 100,000 years. The last time CO2 levels were this high was 3 millions years ago during the Pliocene when temperatures were 3-4°C(5-7°F) higher globally than today, and sea levels were 15-20 meters(50-65 feet) higher. It was too warm for glacial ice sheets to even exist in the northern hemisphere.
At 412 ppm and rising, experts said temperature rises of 3-4C are likely now locked in.
What does any honest scientist have to say about mankind’s prospects in a 4°C world:
“There is a widespread view that a +4ºC future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond adaptation, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable.”
Professor Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (Video, 58:00)
“We have already observed impacts of climate change on agriculture. We have assessed the amount of climate change we can adapt to. There’s a lot we can’t adapt to even at 2C. At 4C the impacts are very high and we cannot adapt to them.”
Rachel Warren, University of East Anglia
“There is a growing sense of panic in those who really understand what a 4°C world might be like.”
Prof. Will Steffan, Director of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute
“Thinking through the implications of 4 degrees of warming shows that the impacts are so significant that the only real adaptation strategy is to avoid that at all cost because of the pain and suffering that is going to cost.”
Prof. Neil Adger, University of Exeter
“…there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today. The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.”
World Bank report (2012) Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided
“If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately stabilize CO2 — and we also have to draw down a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. If we don’t achieve that, there’s no real prospect for a stable society or even a governable society…”
Jason Box, Prof in glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland
People are completely oblivious to our dependence on the complex adaptive systems that allow humans to exist and persist. To be clear, when the global temperature rises by 4°C within this century it will be faster than the blink of a geological eye, and we, along with 80% or more of the planet’s species are finished. 96% of all marine species and more than two-thirds of terrestrial species perished during the Great Dying at the Permian-Triassic interface. Global mean temperature at that time rose an estimated 5-8°C over a timespan of 3,000-20,000 years. A 4°C rise over just two centuries will be a rate of warming 15 to 100 times faster than that past extinction event. At this speed of warming, regions would experience temperature spikes of 10-15 degrees above normal in some months. Ecosystems would implode and the services they provide that sustain us would be obliterated. Virtually every vertebrate species on Earth would disappear, along with most plants and many invertebrates.
At just 1°C of warming we are already seeing major ecosystems such as coral reefs unraveling. Hurricanes so powerful that they require a new category now barrel across the Atlantic ocean and completely decimate islands; the cataclysmic Storms of our Grandchildren that Hansen warned about have only just begun. Arctic permafrost melt has already exceeded 2090 projections. It was economist William Nordhaus that set the 2°C warming target in 1975, not scientists. What did he get for this dangerous speculation, divorced from empirics? The Nobel, naturally. These days he is saying 3.5°C is just fine. John Kerry says we cannot leave the climate emergency in the hands of the neanderthals in power, but I dare say that anyone promoting mainstream economic theory is guilty of omnicide. Capitalism’s “extractivism” has turned the entire planet into a sacrifice zone.
Grand Bahama island before/after Hurricane Dorian made landfall, Sept 1, 2019
Humanity has essentially documented its own demise for the last half century while the Keeling curve inexorably rises faster than ever. As MIT Prof Daniel Rothman says, “When carbon levels in the atmosphere spike dramatically, the web of life collapses.” We are now seeing a record 10ppm of CO2 rise every four years and have have failed to curb emissions growth let alone move towards any sort of carbon neutral world. Alternative energies remain a sliver of total global energy consumption. In fact, “the annual increase in global energy use is greater than the increase in renewable energy, meaning fossil fuel use continues to grow.”
The rise of political ‘populism’ and the election of reactionary politicians in the U.S. and abroad has thrown yet another monkey wrench into any possibility of tackling the climate crisis. The demagogic Trump administration is simply burying any scientific evidence and ignoring its government’s own research on such things as the recent surge in climate refugees from Latin America due to climate-induced food insecurity. Russia and Brazil have both encouraged and precipitated the wildfire infernos raging in their countries. The catastrophe unfolding in the Amazon is a direct result of President Bolsonaro’s neoliberal policies designed to plunder the Amazon much like Trump’s dismantling of the EPA and deregulation of corporations. Both ignore the science of climate change and the reality of ecological collapse. In the case of Russia’s Putin, it was a cold economic calculus: “If the cost of putting out these remote fires is greater than the profit that could be made from selling the timber, they can decide to let it burn.”
And then there’s the global debt bomb of $250 trillion waiting to explode, not to mention the $200-250 trillion global carbon debt which increases by 16 trillion every year. Meanwhile, banks are quietly shielding themselves from climate catastrophe at taxpayers’ expense by shifting risky coastal mortgages off their books and onto the federal government’s Fannie and Freddie programs. Just as the U.S. government is leaving vulnerable countries to fend for themselves, so are private institutions unloading the risks onto the public. For those at the very top of our economic pyramid scheme who control public policy, dwindling resources will be kept first and foremost for them while everyone else is treated as collateral damage. This dereliction of responsibility, this cutting and running, is how the deteriorating conditions of the world are being handled. Throughout history, society’s elite have shown the same arrogance and hubris in the face of impending calamity. For example, the Fall of the Roman Empire:
If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find a safe place where they could find safety for themselves. We don’t know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a castle in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.
We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus’ poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.
Thunberg’s speech alluded to such behavior by the polluting nations:
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.
Yes, Greta, they are evil; they have access to every expert on the seriousness of the crisis and they are building walls and saving their own skin while continuing business-as-usual. Lest we forget, the fossil fuel industry’s own scientists accurately predicted the life-threatening effects of its product decades ago and not only did they do nothing to stop it, they funded and orchestrated a vast network of climate denial propaganda which continues to this day and have raced to exploit even more fossil fuels from the melting Arctic. When you consider that billions of people are going to die as a result, their actions become by far the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. Make no mistake, our society is trading a livable planet for an unsustainable way of life that is irreparably depleting finite resources and altering the earth for eons, making it uninhabitable for organized human societies. Each day of business-as-usual further degrades the planet’s biodiversity.
“As the temperature rises, the patricians will seek refuge as polar migrants, or set sail on heavily armed ocean liners. Millions more will live in underground cities, anywhere to escape the sun. Dazzling reports of new methods for sopping up the gigatons of carbon dioxide will create ripples of enthusiasm and then fade in the next news cycle. Fisheries and agriculture will collapse, drugs will provide little solace, and everyone will curl up in a foetal position in the end, like the ash-entombed victims at Pompeii, whimpering in the inescapable heat. The likelihood of this outcome increases as the years pass and the smoke rises.”
~ Nicholas P. Money, THE SELFISH APE: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction