What’s the greatest existential threat facing humanity right now?
There is no shortage of pressing issues facing us today, but for a moment, let’s narrow our focus to the single issue of catastrophic climate change.
The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen produced a “nonbinding agreement pledging to keep temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above where they were before we started powering our economies with coal.” What does that tiny number represent? For some delegates at the conference, even that low bar represented “a death sentence for some low-lying island states, as well as for large parts of sub-Saharan Africa” (Klein 12).
So far temperatures have only risen .8 degrees Celsius, and we’ve already witnessed “the unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the summer of 2012 and the acidification of oceans far more rapidly than expected” (ibid.). We’ve witnessed the beginnings of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, as species from caribou to coral to sea turtles to oysters to polar bears to songbirds are already struggling to keep their babies cool enough to survive “in the egg, in the embryo, in the nest” (434). (“The bells are tolling, crazily, insistently, for the creatures of my childhood,” writes David van Biema.)
We have, of course, seen scores of natural disasters that are mere previews of the apocalyptic events that will alternately scorch and drown vast segments of the surface of the earth. A rise of 2 degrees runs the risk, according to the World Bank, of “triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods” (13).
It must be stressed that this is, by now, an optimistic prediction. The World Bank also indicates that by the end of the century, global temperatures are likely to have risen 4 degrees, producing “extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” (Indeed, researchers have already predicted the demise, by 2050, of Bangkok, Mumbai, Alexandria, and half of Vietnam.)
Such a profound destabilization of the world’s climate is off the map of anything human civilization has yet endured; there is “no certainty,” says the World Bank report, “that adaptation to a 4 degree Celsius world is possible,” and Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research states that such a rise is “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community” (ibid.).
We can predict that the ongoing breakdown of the West Antarctic ice sheet will eventually cause a sea level rise of three to five meters that displaces hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But one of the reasons this is all so scary is that this and other dystopian events will not escalate slowly and linearly but asymptotically, as one tipping point after another sets off an accelerating series of compound extremes in a massive feedback loop. A warming earth means more decomposing aquatic vegetation, which produces methane that is twenty-five times more potent than CO2; it means less ice, and ice is vital to reflecting back much of the sun’s heat; it means the thawing of permafrost in which immense quantities of carbon are trapped; it means burnt forests, which will no longer be able to release oxygen into the atmosphere. And all of these devastating changes to the fragile balance of earth’s ecosystems will result in further exponential temperature spikes. The International Energy Agency now predicts a sooner-rather-than-later 6 degree Celsius global temperature rise — a point at which most life on earth literally may not be viable.
Let’s scale back and assume that the most pie-in-the-sky efforts to keep us at 2 degrees will be successful (though there are no signs that this will be the case). We are looking at mass homelessness and climate migrations of an unprecedented scale; food scarcity and neocolonial plunder of regions that still produce food; the ballooning of urban slums; and billions of dollars of damage per country, per year, in sea level rise alone. These hardships will affect developing nations first, but they are not alone; “what keeps us up at night,” even the CEO of Swiss Re Americas confessed, “is climate change” (49).
Thomas Berry puts it succinctly: “There is now a single issue before us: survival.” Catastrophic climate change is the single greatest challenge we are currently facing. It’s devastating to think that when candidates for the Democratic nomination have been asked this question on the debate stage, they’ve raised gun control and maternity care over the climate crisis. Only Jay Inslee and Tom Steyer identified it as the central concern of their campaigns; today, only Bernie Sanders mention it on a regular basis. Of course, many Republicans still hedge on the question of whether it’s happening at all.
This is disturbing because 97% of climate scientists accept the basic facts of anthropogenic global warming; when the worst of its implications are presented at climate science conferences, “the core facts are rarely disputed. What [one] hears most often are confessions from colleagues that they have simply given up hope of meeting the 2 degree temperature target” (89). Climate denial is not a question of dueling scientific theories, but of the human tendency to filter these theories through the sieve of our assumptive worldviews, which we desperately protect from shattering.
Assumptive worldviews may include the power and purpose of the free market, and one of Klein’s main theses is that climate deniers, in precisely one sense, get it right: the climate change movement does require the destruction of certain conservative political ideals. More than this, though, we assume that our children will have a happy future, that millions or billions of our grandchildren will not die in squalor and starvation as civilization winds to an end. But make no mistake about it: as hard as it is to believe (and I’ve written more about that here), our planetary house is burning, every alarm is ringing at full volume, and most of us are sitting around waiting for some vaguely defined scientific miracle to save us.
It’s incredibly disturbing that our governments have known about the problem of what used to be called, benignly, “global warming” for fifty years; but for reasons Klein describes and which I’ll synopsize, it’s been all talk, no action. We keep on careening towards disaster: “Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest” (11).
And why? With all of our renewable energy technologies, why haven’t major structural changes been put in place to avert catastrophe?
This brings us to Klein’s thesis: “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions,” Klein writes, “because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism” (18).
Read on for more.