Humanity isn’t prepared to deal with the complex and esoteric existential threat of climate change. Our flight or fight biology can’t comprehend the grandiose yet invisible nature of catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Yet our Darwinian success has enabled us to extract and drill and pollute and dominate nearly every corner of the globe. It’s part of our ethos, especially in America’s White Man’s Burden, Wild West, pioneering spirit mentality to keep pushing further afield to ‘new planets, new civilizations, to boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before’ (thanks, Gene Roddenberry).
Now that we’ve basically run out of planet to conquer, I wonder what’s Plan B? Relocate to the moon, perhaps? Gingrich 2012! Just Kidding. But seriously, what’s gonna happen when we hit 2°C in a decade or three, and suddenly there’s massive crop failures, epic droughts, 100 year floods every year, massive climate refugee migrations, and fossil fuel prices through the roof?
As an environmental policy student, I learn daily about ways we’re destroying the ecosystem services that allowed our species to rise to our dominant status, and how little policymakers or humanity in general seems concerned about this eminent danger. And then we all go buy our coffee and go to Crown & Anchor and fly on vacation and get jobs in DC writing white papers about mangrove tree extinction or fracking or international shipping treaties, and …
Then what? It can’t go on like this forever, I’m convinced of that, as I sit here in my well-lit apartment typing on my computer, with the heat on and a mango from who-knows-where on my plate. Society can’t continue to create and consume and dump exponentially increasing amounts of finite, unsustainably extracted, and/or toxic material… can we? How much economic and environmental debt can we accumulate until the house of cards comes crumbling down? I would’ve predicted game over a long time ago, but we keep trucking along, a capitalist super-monster on PCP.
I realize this is the same rant I’ve sung before, but it had a new poignancy for me this week as I heard Grist‘s environmental economics blogger David Roberts speak about our generation’s biggest environmental issue – human caused climate change. Roberts said that since he’s just a blogger and not a climate scientist (sick of being called alarmists and accused of exaggerating the truth), he can say it how it is, which was in so many words, we’re scr$wed. Royally. Because the chances of our doing anything to mitigate climate change are “vanishingly small’ adaptation and mitigation are now necessities, and all that remains to be seen is how much suffering will occur. If you want to read an article he wrote that’s similar to the talk he gave regarding exactly how scr$wed we are, see his article ‘The brutal logic of climate change.’
However, apparently humans are so incapable of conceiving of the reality of our own stubborn self-genocide, that even the scientists haven’t looked into what might happen if we don’t knock off the fossil fuels. Roberts says there is basically no climate modeling of what will happen past 2°C warming, even though 2°C is in the rearview mirror. To have any hope of holding global warming at 2°C, we would need to start reducing emissions by 5% a year, starting in 2015. Want to know when that’s happened in human history? The collapse of the Soviet Union. That’s right. The one and only time in human history. The closest we get after that is Sweden and France going through a massive national conversion from coal to nuclear power, which yielded a whopping 3.8%. And since half the rock-stars driving this crazy train refuse to acknowledge science and reality, it’s unlikely they’ll do anything to avert catastrophe.
Roberts didn’t leave it at that, of course, but went on to point out that by 4°C, according to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, the climate will be incompatible with organized global community, devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and highly likely unstable.
So, to the moon then?
Why does humanity suffer from this curse of “hyperbolic discounting,“ refusing to pay forward the smallest crumbs of survivability to our future? How did the power of the Fiscal Quarter manage to overcome the Seventh Generation? Roberts points out that capitalists and neo-cons can’t afford to accept the reality of climate change, it is too expensive to their pocketbooks and their ideologies. He quoted the notorious climate denier Senator James Inhofe as saying “I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.” Because if this is true, then everything has to change.
How to help Americans connect the dots? Roberts gave a convincing spiel that most Americans don’t even really know what climate change means, “they think it has something to do with polar bears and recycling and Al Gore,” and it’s basically just a cheap way to posture your own superiority. Does that mean it isn’t even worth trying? (maybe…)
Roberts ended by observing that those who oppose big government intervention as a reason not to engage in climate politics will be sorely pissed when the federal government needs to start moving climate refugees. I guess we’ll have to wait until there’s a few dozen million east coast elites whose multi-million dollar properties are under sewer water, we’ll see whether FEMA will be able to break out the champagne and caviar or whether the 1% will get Super-Domed.
After the talk ended, I asked Roberts whether he has any plans for his family, in case some of these dire predictions are to unfold. And he doesn’t have a bugout plan either. Is that because we figure we’ll still have time before it’s really really time? Or because it’s too awful to place a bet on humanity dying? Do we want to believe in the ingenuity of people to get this train back on track? Is it overwhelming paralysis, laziness, malaise, or all of the above? All I know is every time I hear an expert give a talk on how irrevocably we’ve annihilated the planet, and then we go out to dinner at a nice restaurant, and they take a plane back to their corner of the globe, I wonder, when will this all become real life, and will the zombies be able to climb trees?
** I faithfully represented David Roberts’ perspective as best I understood it, however there may be accidental mischaracterizations. Please see his article on the subject for disambiguation.