By Mark Dunlea, Green Education and Legal Fund
Accelerating climate change will likely cause the collapse of civilization. Sooner rather than later.
Civilization is a complex web of social and economic interactions that takes centuries to reach its peak, but once it begins to unravel, collapse often occurs swiftly. Prior collapses of human societies have primarily been due to environmental factors. In most cases, solutions existed, but they threatened the power and wealth of the ruling elite. The elite chose the status quo.
Scientists increasingly raise the possibility of the extinction of the human species. We are already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of species, with half or more of the species expected to die off. Insects and pollinators are rapidly disappearing. Humans are dependent on other species for many things critical to human survival, such as food and oxygen. (Plankton, which produce half of the world’s oxygen, are rapidly approaching extinction.)
Scientists too often have sugarcoated the realities and threat of climate change. All reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have significantly underestimated the speed and severity of the problem. Their worst-case scenarios have been overly optimistic. Thus the IPCC’s recent warning that the world has 11 years left to take unprecedented global action is overly optimistic, relying on the development of a miracle technology (carbon capture and sequestration) that has failed to produce results despite the investment of tens of billions of tax dollars in research. Even with such a Hail Mary pass, the IPCC estimates the chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change is only 50%.
Many scientists contend that we have to avoid telling the truth about climate change because it will plunge people into despair and a sense of helplessness. They worry that people won’t even bother to fight if the are doomed to lose. The soft-peddling by scientists however has spectacularly failed to produce the necessary action.
Last year, when the NY Times Magazine last year devoted its entire edition to the proposition that life on our planet is doomed, its author argued that while technology existed to avoid climate collapse, our leaders lacked the political will to make the radical changes needed.
Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase worldwide. While other countries are failing to take the necessary actions, the United States remains by far the principal climate denier, especially under the Trump (Denier-in-Chief) administration. But even under Democrats (Clinton-Gore-Obama-Biden) the U.S. has been a climate evader – a policy direction encouraged, if not dictated, by campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Obama pursued an all-of-the-above strategy, with minimal efforts to promote renewables while pushing the U.S. to become the leading fossil fuel producer on the planet, driven by the fracking of gas (even though methane is 82 times more potent short term as a greenhouse gas than carbon). New York State’s recent “best in the country” climate legislation, with its goal of a 85% reduction in emissions by 2050, will be far too slow to avoid climate chaos.
No recent climate study provides much ground for optimism. Just this week, prominent European climate scientists writing in Nature raised the fear that we have already reached the tipping point for runaway climate change, rather than the 4-to 5-degree Celsius warming that was previously thought as the death zone.
When faced with the prospect of their imminent death, many people rise to the occasion, seeking to live their remaining days with dignity and purpose, lifting the spirits of their loved ones. Extinction Rebellion (XR) addresses the issue of grief, the pending loss of life as we know it, while demanding that politicians tell the truth about the climate crisis (declare a climate emergency) and set a goal of slashing emissions to zero by 2025.
How we as society responds to the climate crisis matters – not only on a spiritual level but as to the prospects for some quality of life for future generations. The most likely response is to further accelerate wealth polarization, with the well-off seeking to survive in protected biosphere communities while the rest of us fight over dwindling access to food, water, land and oxygen.
Or, we can decide that we are in this together, that no one has the right to survive more than any other human (we should also protect other species), and we adopt a cooperative approach based on the common good. Consumption patterns, especially in countries such as the U.S., must change to be sustainable. We must immediately slash greenhouse emissions, starting with halting new fossil fuel uses and phasing out existing ones.
We need to build a renewable sustainable economy that provides for the well-being for all. That includes funding climate adaptation initiatives across the planet. Climate change has been driven by the wealthy industrial nations. The initial victims will be the poor and developing countries that have done little to contribute to the climate disaster.
Surviving climate change will not be easy. While many of the needed technological changes already exist, a significant amount of research and innovation still needs to be done. It will be expensive – though less costly than destroying life on the planet.
If humans do survive, it will likely be in far smaller numbers than present. We may turn to genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to help us adapt to the increasingly hostile living conditions. Whether we could call the survivors human is a different question
Resistance to the radical changes needed will be significant, especially if people feel that they will be left behind while the privileged benefit. That is where the Green New Deal comes in, which I and the Green Party (especially Howie Hawkins) launched in the US back in 2010 when our initial goal was net zero emissions by 2020. We have to combine economic justice, an economic bill of rights, with climate justice. As even Pope Francis has stated, we have to end the dominant role of capitalism, where the wealth of the few overshadows the needs of the many. Ecosocialism with democratic control of our economy is the better approach.
I still have hope amidst the grief. The IPCC warning that we have 11 years left, while overly optimistic, struck a chord with many, even politicians in the US. XR arose to waken us to the threat of extinction and the dire need to struggle against it. The youth of the planet are demanding action, indicting the so-called adults who failed to take action for 3 decades even when the science was clear. Their demand for a future is a human right that the rest of us must work to make a reality.