Come Hell or High Water
When she appeared before the US Congress last September, Greta Thunberg merely submitted a copy of the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and asked Congress to accept that as her testimony because, "I don't want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you." Her plea expressed the frustration of the millions of people in the world today who understand the clear message that climate science is sending and yet see an entire generation of world leaders unwilling to give more than lip service to any action to avert disaster. Along with Greta, we ask, why cannot those in power listen to the scientists? It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?
What science is telling us is that the greenhouse gases that the human race is emitting into the atmosphere are heating up the planet to levels not seen since before the evolution of homo sapiens. It tells us that unless the world can keep the human-caused temperature rise below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, we face a disastrous near future with devastating and possibly unforeseen consequences. It tells us that in order to avoid this temperature rise, we must bring the world-wide combustion of fossil fuels to net zero within a very short time frame. Given that this has been common knowledge for decades while CO2-equivalent emissions have continued to rise, climate scientists who are usually averse to venturing into the realm of social policy are now warning us that,
Incremental linear changes to the present socio-economic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking in the Hothouse Earth pathway; these include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance and values.1
This reflects the fact that the atmospheric warming is more than just a straight-line progression of temperature rise, as is commonly perceived, with x amount of CO2 equal to y degrees of temperature rise. Rather, the Earth System is a complex system consisting of interacting parts with cascading feedback loops from deforestation, melting ice caps, melting permafrost, and increasing CO2 emissions from the warming ocean compounding the effect. This process is capable of shifting the entire Earth System into a totally different state once a critical threshold is reached. We are now on the cusp of such a tipping point.
As more information is obtained through new and ongoing research, additional feedback loops are added to the mix. Recent research on reduced cloud cover reported in the journal Nature Geoscience presents substantial evidence, using computer simulations, that as the Earth warms clouds are reduced, causing a further feedback loop by diminishing the reflectivity provided by white clouds and thus increasing the warming. If business as usual continues, the researchers assert that by the end of the century this could cause a tipping point to be reached that would add 6 degrees to the already produced 4 degrees! This would produce conditions that nobody would even want to imagine. They report that instability in clouds has contributed to abrupt climate changes in the geological past and seems to be the missing variable that scientists have been looking for in order to explain fully the causes of past geological warming events.2 For a glimpse of what a Hothouse Earth of the future would look like if CO2 levels continue to rise, Mark Lynas has mapped it out in his 2008 book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.3
Although the scientists are telling us that wholesale radical transformations are needed to prevent our crossing the threshold to Hothouse Earth, those who sit in the seats of power—who have had the opportunity over the last few decades to take action to mitigate the catastrophe—have had neither the desire nor the will to do so. That is because the fundamental transformation of the socio-economic system required to effectively halt global warming threatens the power structure within which those very world leaders derive their authority, their status, and their wealth.
While science has made incredible strides since the beginnings of the scientific revolution in comprehending the laws and relationships between elements in physics, chemistry, geology, and biology—that is, in the natural sciences—there has been little advancement in what Robert A. Wilson has termed the fragile sciences, sociology and economics in particular.4 It takes a scientific analysis of contemporary social relations to identify the dynamics at work in the present fossil-fueled economy. Economics had bailed on this task by the mid nineteenth century when it abandoned classical political economy, with its examination of labor as the source of value, in favor of the marginal utility theory. Today mainstream economists and social scientists shy away from identifying ecological problems with the structure of the capitalist system and instead look to market-based solutions to solve those problems. They fail to see that the process of unending growth required by capital accumulation is at odds with a finite biosphere. A social system in which the exchange of commodities in the market regulates the production and reproduction of the necessities of human existence, one that is beyond the conscious control of the human agents involved, is seen as the natural order of things rather than as a particular and peculiar historical development. From the conventional point of view, in which wealth is conceived of as deriving from exchange, only commodities that can be sold on the market are understood to have value. The natural world, the water, atmosphere, and living things of the planet are then only conceived of as means for the expansion of the economy—free gifts of nature to be used for the accumulation of wealth and the expansion of capital. From this it is only a short step to projecting the growth of the economy far into the future, despite the dire predictions of climate science about the consequences of the existing economic regime.5 With little hope that those in power in government or industry will initiate fundamental change, the continuation of business as usual appears guaranteed.
As this becomes apparent to more and more people, a realistic view of the problem leads inevitably to resignation or despair. What we see when we look around is the agonizingly slow response by governments and corporations as well as the resistance of most people to anything more than superficial change in their own life-styles. Nathaniel Rich's recent exposé of the history of the American government's awareness of the causes of global warming and the perils of carbon dioxide emissions, along with the recalcitrance of those in power to act appropriately in the face of it, demonstrates the difficulty if not the impossibility of getting the federal government to commit to anything near the level of change required. In Losing Earth, he recounts the tortuous process that scientists, activists and concerned citizens have gone through since the nineteen-seventies and before. As early as 1956, he writes, Life magazine published a story about the “long-term change in world climate that was already raising global temperatures.” Every American president since Kennedy knew about the connection of carbon dioxide emissions to the rising global temperature and each of them debated what to do about it. Scientists knew, the oil companies knew, the politicians knew, and yet here we are, sixty years on, and nothing has been done to halt the increasing pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere.6
What can a single person do in light of what now constitutes an imminent existential threat to human civilization? In spite of our best intentions, we as individuals are severely limited in the effect we can have. Regardless of our desire to curtail carbon emissions, no degree of personal green behavior can have enough effect in a world of 8 billion people where industrial production is so heavily reliant on fossil fuels. While it is clear that any solution to catastrophic global warming will involve radical individual lifestyle changes, these will have to be organized on a social level and must also involve a thorough reorganization of society's production, circulation, and consumption.
Here we are talking of a radical change in the way human production is managed and how business is conducted. It is going to take forceful regulation of all aspects of production and consumption, seemingly impossible in today’s liberal democracies, where the world’s business community manages regulations to promote its own interest in maximizing profits by continuous growth. When even a minor regulation like a carbon tax gets voted down in an environmentally conscious state such as Washington voting in the massive and restrictive measures needed to safeguard the human race’s future on the planet Earth can only appear as a fantasy, an ignis fatuus rising from the miasma of our dissipated civilization.
If not voted in democratically, what then? The world's nation states, their governance now safely embedded in the world capitalist order, may eventually become dominated by politicians and government workers who realize that the business community is leading us all on a suicide trajectory. Environmental crisis conditions could possibly lead to a breakup of the modern corporate state. One possible outcome would be the rise of authoritarian governments able to institute the draconian measures necessary to halt the rising temperature and effectively deal with the climate emergency. China at present is in the best position to make this transition, but there is a large managerial class that will not give up its privileges and opulent life styles easily, and it is questionable whether their state-capitalist system would be immune to the costs to profitability that the climate crisis will produce. In the USA, a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders, even if their party were to control both houses of Congress, would still have a tough time passing any but the mildest constraints on business as usual. Even a stable non-capitalist regime in a country large enough to become self-sufficient beyond the boundaries of the capitalist market would still be helpless to prevent increased global warming unless the rest of the world complied. The climate emergency and all the compounding anthropogenic environmental crises can only be effectively dealt with on a world-wide scale with universally accepted policies, laws, and enforcement.
So what’s the alternative? The last time that capitalism found itself in similar dire straits was during the world-wide economic meltdown known as the Great Depression. It triggered a political crisis within the ruling capitalist classes that spawned the fascist movements and parties that led to World War II. There has been talk of instituting a World War II-style, all-hands-on-deck mobilization of society to bring about the transformations needed now to deal with the climate emergency. However, those twentieth-century efforts to combat fascism united the entire population behind the ruling class within the very political and economic institutions that now need to be transformed. And tanks rolling across borders, submarines and bombers threatening cities, and harbors impose themselves in a more immediate and substantial way than the present climate crisis does, even though the stakes now are so much higher.
While many social scientists and mainstream environmentalists believe that a radical restructuring of society is unnecessary, that the trajectory towards Hothouse Earth can be avoided through the processes of the marketplace, with proper guidance and regulation, the failure of market-based solutions to stem the ever-increasing flow of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the last thirty years belies their faith. Fossil fuel consumption has increased world-wide by 40% in the first fifteen years of this century, so that even as investment in renewable sources of energy has grown, it is shrinking relative to that in fossil fuel production.
Others, like MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanual, think that “possible economic collapse caused by nearer term climate change might curtail carbon emissions before the tipping point is reached.”7 The assets of the fossil fuel industry that account for a significant share of the world’s capital have been likened to an overvalued bubble ready to burst. As it becomes clearer that the fossil economy cannot continue on its present trajectory, the massive investment in the oil, gas, and coal industries and their billions in untapped assets still in the ground will inevitably lose their value. Either through government regulation or by the cheapening of renewable energy sources, the energy industry will have to face the reality of declining profits and stranded assets. This could then trigger a financial crisis and it is the hope of some that this would help to forestall the worst-case climate change scenarios. However, with dangerous, unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic climate change come additional economic impediments, like losses to infrastructure and property that can quickly grow and lead to a worldwide economic collapse. The growing costs of mitigation and recovery from the disasters of climate change will severely hamper the ability of the world economy to continue to produce profit. This is in addition to the weakened central governments of many of the world’s nations. With infrastructure collapse, and the loss of the internet and electrical grids, entire populations could be thrown back onto pre-fossil-fuel modes of existence very quickly. Social upheaval, famine, epidemics, mass migration, and war would stalk the Earth.
So here we have two avenues of rather desperate optimism: one, the magic of the market, and the other, the blessings of economic collapse and plummeting population. The light and dark of climate optimism, the angel of fantasy and the devil of realism. Any reasonable person who looks unflinchingly at the facts and the scientific models that have been painstakingly produced must come to grips with this reality and ask, “what is our responsibility to ourselves, to future generations, our species, and our fellow creatures? Where can we look for hope for the future?”
Some have taken the realist stance: that is, given the immensity of change that is required and the short time we have to implement it, and given the history of intransigence of the world's economic and political powers ... we’re fucked. An extreme take on this realist approach is the idea of Deep Adaptation, in a 2018 paper by the sociologist Jem Bendell which calls for resigning ourselves to catastrophic collapse and preparing for the worst case.8 Others take this to an extreme of misanthropy—humans caused it and we deserve to become extinct. The planet will be a better place without the human species.
These are both reactions to the impotence felt by anyone looking at the situation honestly. As I said, there is little one can do as an individual, but our ability to organize ourselves in an effective manner seems to be severely constrained by the political and economic institutions controlling our world and limiting our actions. Additionally, as human beings with finite life spans we necessarily view the world through the perspective of a century or less. Beyond that time we will be dead, and as much as we would like to show concern for the future after we leave our mortal coil, inevitably that time is more abstract to a greater or lesser degree. To a septuagenarian, the condition of the world in fifty years’ time is less pressing in a visceral way than what will happen in the next ten. As the evidence of cascading tipping points mounts and the threshold for avoiding the impending catastrophe approaches, it changes the outlook of those with their lives stretched out before them and opens a rift between generations. Which brings us back to Greta’s plea and the question of why the world’s leaders are not listening to the scientists.
From the seventeen-year-old’s point of view, this failure of leadership boggles the mind, and the virality of Greta Thunberg’s message reflects this total puzzlement. We are born into a society which, despite its conflicts and problems, we assume to be a stable and benevolent one, a community which the wise adults in charge understand and manage with care. Today, as children enter into adulthood they see that the entire society is facing devastation beyond their worst nightmares and yet everyone carries on as usual. And they ask, why can’t you listen to the scientists? As we have seen, those in power have been listening, but they cannot act. They hear but do not see. They cannot see the way out because it contradicts every assumption they have about how the world operates. When the climate scientists tell us that widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations are needed to prevent crossing the threshold from which there is no return, they are met with blank stares. Widespread fundamental changes are hard enough to conceive of, but to accomplish them rapidly, within ten years, beggars belief. That the transformations must include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance and values only adds to the seeming impossibility of it all.
What hope can there be for social transformation when everyone on the planet is locked into the present set of economic relations, the very ones responsible for warming the planet? These economic relations are also the social relations that tie us to one another within the capitalist system that provides us our livelihoods, that we depend on for survival, and which are in turn dependent on the continuing burning of fossil fuel. The transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the very short time needed to prevent runaway and unstoppable global warming, because it entails fundamental changes that challenge these social relations, will not only be bitterly opposed by those in positions of power but is likewise unimaginable for much of the world’s population as well. It truly is the case for most people that, as Fredric Jameson observed some years ago, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Adding to the problem is the nature of the process itself, that despite the obvious increase in the severity and frequency of dramatic weather events and storms, wildfires and droughts, rising seas, climate refugees and mass species extinctions, the actual results of our current carbon combustion will not become fully manifest until decades later, at which time we will have crossed the threshold and it will be too late to prevent our descent into Hothouse Earth.
Just like Greta, we should be angry that we have been left this situation. Even though scientists refer to global warming as human-caused, and despite the use of the term “Anthropocene,” the human era, it is not all humans who bear responsibility. The climate crisis is not the fault of the human race as such. It is not the result of some evil flaw or dysfunctional trait of homo sapiens. The onus is not on the individuals who are born into this world without the power to control the poisoning of the atmosphere, who must work for a living in order to survive in whatever conditions they find themselves in. The responsibility lies with the capitalist manufacturers and financiers who, bowing to the demands of capital for its greater expansion and for the accumulation of their own profit, have loaded the atmosphere with carbon for the last two hundred years and who now, in their refusal to give way, threaten the future of all humankind. It is the rest of the world, those who control nothing but their own labor power, who must unite and take back the world before it is too late.
As much as such a transformation of the world’s socio-political structure seems a remote possibility at the present time, it must be remembered that humans are now an integral part of the Earth System and that human society is itself a complex system subject to the same kinds of feedback loops and thresholds leading to sudden changes of states as the Earth System. Just as human capitalist society is now the major factor in the changing climate of the planet, that climate change is now a major factor in human social change as well. The indisputable fact of global warming and the clear picture of the dangerous trajectory that the Earth System is on forcibly inject themselves into politics as usual. The obvious need for unified action from all the world’s people to save ourselves weakens nationalism and the political division into nation states that have been essential to the development of the capitalist order since its inception.
The inability of the capitalist system to respond adequately to the climate emergency throws open the door for the idea of an alternative form of social organization. Any discussion of an alternative to capitalism necessarily involves socialism and a rekindling of the debates on the nature of socialism, communism, anarchism, and Marxism that roiled working-class intellectual circles for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The lessons learned from the failures of the Soviet Union and the state-capitalist descendants of the Bolsheviks can provide a basis for the development of a democratically run, consciously coordinated socialism. The need for universal cooperation in the great endeavor of transforming human society into a sustainable, secure, and equitable one strengthens the already growing sense of our common humanity, our “species being” (as the young Marx called it), and the demand for a world that ensures human rights and equal treatment for all.
New and emerging social forms of communication, information sharing, and coordination made possible in part by computer technology, change the playing field in which movements for social change have operated. The massive power of modern computing and information processing now expended on such worthless and wasteful pursuits as advertising, marketing, stock-market investing and bitcoin mining could be redirected to provide tools for the complex and intricate organization of a sustainable system of world-wide production and distribution.
Hope for this lies in the fact that there is truly no precedent for the current historical moment and so no prediction can be accurately made for how the world will respond. Nothing can be ruled out. The complex system that is human society has reached tipping points before in history, when the world was suddenly turned upside down—revolutions, uprisings, and social movements that have seemingly emerged out of nowhere onto the world stage. If ever there was an event consequential enough to move the world-wide human social system over a tipping point into a new state, the current climate crisis is one.
- Will Steffen, et al, “The Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” Edited by William C. Clark, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved July 6, 2018 (received for review June 19, 2018). Published on August 6, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115
- Schneider, T., Kaul, C.M. & Pressel, K.G. Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming. Nat. Geosci. 12, 163–167 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0310-1
- Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, National Geographic, 2008.
- Robert A. Wilson, Boundaries of the Mind: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences, 2004.
- See John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. p.53
- Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: A Recent History, 2019
- Wolchover, Natalie. “A World Without Clouds.” Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019. https://www.quantamagazine.org/cloud-loss-could-add-8-degrees-to-global-warming-20190225/.
- Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating ClimateTragedy, IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, www.iflas.info, July 27th 2018 Professor Jem Bendell BA (Hons) PhD. http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf