A new perspective is urgently needed. We are headed for catastrophe. As stated by John Holdren, in his role as senior scientific advisor to President Obama:
The current situation of the world in relation to the climate problem is that we’re in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog, and the fog is the scientific uncertainty about the details that prevent us from knowing exactly where the cliff is. The climate change sceptics are telling us that the fog is a consolation and that we shouldn’t worry because we’re uncertain about the details, but of course any sane person driving a car toward a cliff in the fog and knowing that the brakes are bad, that it takes the car a long time to stop, will start putting on the brakes, trying to slow the car, without knowing exactly where the cliff is but just in the hope that by putting on the brakes we’ll be in time to keep from going over the cliff. You don’t have to be sure that you can still avoid going over the cliff to put on the brakes, you want to do it in any case. And that’s what the world should be doing with respect to the emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing this climate problem. There’s a chance we’ll go over the cliff anyway but prudence requires that we try to stop the car. (2008)
This is the responsible view. Going over the cliff means no more humans. Clearly, he is saying, we really ought to do something significant. Now, a decade further on, again and again, we do not. As George Monbiot summed up the result of the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris:
By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster. (2015)
The carbon content of the atmosphere continues to build, but in order for humankind to flourish, it needs to halt and then diminish. And the more effective measures are delayed, the more painful the cuts will need to be in order for our species to even survive. James Lovelock does not mince words:
Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable. (2006)
It could take longer, but it now appears the worst case scenario is that it could happen within a few decades. If global warming goes unchecked there will be mass extinctions, very likely humans included. A summary of the current situation is given in Global Warming. In a nutshell, as Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, explains, we cannot burn more than one fifth of the oil we have available without turning planet Earth into a wasteland.
As Bill McKibbon describes, there are three crucial numbers in the science that make our plight horrendously clear. The first is 2° Celsius, which is the limit to global warming called for by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. As he states:
So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone). … NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” (2012)
The second number is 565 Gigatons:
Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. …
This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target. (2012)
That was in 2012, and at present there are still not even any serious plans for meeting this target. Global agreements on principle have led to little in the way of implementing the ambitious policy measures worldwide required to keep to it. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons:
This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. … In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. …
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value.
… those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. (2012)
Burning these fossil fuels would enter the world into a dystopia of climate science fiction, a rise in sea levels not seen in human history, droughts, superstorms, heat waves from hell, massive species extinctions and consequences we cannot yet imagine. As shown by the team at the Hadley Centre, just getting to a 3° rise means the end of the world really is nigh. The carbon cycle goes into reverse, meaning that instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it. This tips the planet into runaway global warming. And this could happen by 2050.
The required action is transparently clear. Don’t. But the trouble is, it is all of that oil that forms the primary asset of the fossil-fuel companies. So tremendous economic and political effort strains toward burning it all. As stated by Naomi Klein:
… these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do. (McKibben, 2012)
It seems so incomprehensible when the stakes are so vast that the people in command of this situation do not waver. As KcGibben states:
The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.
They’re clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.
This, however, is simply standard mammalian psychology. As described in The Privilege Program it is the product of standard human neural wiring; so we need to counteract it with something not only equally powerful but even more useful. Interactive destiny fills the bill. Even those with enormous privilege, however exalted, must be drawn to the empowerment it engenders. One is reflected in the world at large, and at the point of death one’s position in the world will be random.
In the meanwhile, while there may seem to be a number of real world solutions, there is really only one. Those with established interests in fossil fuels are very keen on geoengineering, fighting back the effects of carbon with yet more technology, such as putting up a layer of tiny reflective particles into the Stratosphere. But as responsible experts in the field show this will almost certainly lead to far more drastic problems. As as critics are making increasingly clear, there is no guarantee of success, and by interfering with the Earth’s holistic system there may well be runaway catastrophic consequences that were not forseen. Clive Hamilton’s book Earthmasters (2013) is a good resource. The only real world solution is to stop using.
How can we make this happen? We know legislation works. CFCs were damaging the ozone layer, but once legislation banning CFCs was in place, technical alternatives appeared much more quickly and easily than even the most optimistic had hoped. In fact, some were cheaper to produce, despite the producers having strenuously denied that alternative chemicals were even possible. The real issue, as with fossil fuels, is a crazy level of egoism, meaning when self-interest trumps all other concerns. However precious our holy cow of more money and endless growth, what is the point if it all comes to an end for everyone. Surely, if there is even a mild risk that there will be no humans past a certain point in the near future, we should be putting aside some of our treasured preoccupations and changing our ways. As this is not happening, this is clearly an issue of psychology. It did seem as if we need to to change human nature if we were ever to arrive at an egalitarian world where everyone has an equal chance of happiness. Happily, since that seems to be impossible in the light of human history, exactly the effect we need arrives automatically when we adopt the new worldview. By regularly picturing the future one is aiming for and making it as real as possible one moves toward it in reality. And by communicating the rationale we evolve the effect. The conceptual revolution is born, and a new age becomes possible.