In Our Half A Degree: What It Means To Believe In Climate Change

Eden is burning.  Either get ready for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.

Bob Dylan, 1978

Monday’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rightly inspired panic in those who value the continuation of life on the planet.  The statement, commissioned by the United Nations and drawing on the world’s leading climate research, contained two significant revelations: “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052” and “Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5oC than at present, but lower than at 2oC.”  It’s nightmare reading.  If warming reaches 1.5oC, “Marine ice sheet instability and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could result in multi-metre rise in sea level”; coral reefs will “decline by a further 70-90% (high confidence) with larger losses (>99%) at 2oC (very high confidence).”  There will also be an astronomic surge in “the level of ocean acidification,” “heat-related morbidity and mortality,” “vector-borne diseases,” “projected food availability,” and “species loss and extinction.”  The report tries to strike an optimistic chord by promising that keeping warming at 1.5oC instead of allowing it to reach 2oC could reduce “ecosystem transformation” by 50%, or save “several hundred million” people from climate-induced “poverty and disadvantage” by 2050.  But this is interspersed with sentences like “Some impacts may be long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems (high confidence).”[1]

The implications are substantial in the ecological movement, which has been trapped, reasonably, in despair since November 8, 2016, when the world’s most powerful country selected as a President a right-wing billionaire who never apologized for tweeting, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  These numbers tell us we were already fucked.  “Catastrophe,” a word thrown around a lot in the Paris Agreement but prudently avoided in the IPCC report, was written into the Paris Agreement.  Even if Trump had not absurdly withdrawn the United States from the treaty, rendering it entirely toothless and incentivizing other high-emissions economies to do the same, there was nothing in the agreement preventing the disasters we all fear.  Obama did not save us.  2oC, not 2.7oC, means “very high risk” with “significant irreversibility” of coral die-offs, Arctic permafrost melt, and coastal flooding; it means “high risk” of “severe and widespread” crop failures, severe weather events, and collapse of terrestrial ecosystems.

But more unsettling, and not mentioned in the (already limited) news coverage of the report, is the fact that these revelations are new only in their level of detail.  This document, a special report on Global Warming of 1.5oC, was commissioned only after the Paris Climate Agreement failed to take the findings of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report into account.  The Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014 as part of the Intergovernmental Panel’s scheduled series that started in the year 1990, frantically stressed the imperative of a low-emissions, high-mitigation scenario in which warming was capped at 1.5oC degrees.[2]  When, at the Paris Agreement, it became clear that the United States and China would not be willing to accept the restrictions on emissions necessary for even a binding 2oC cap on warming, a union of delegates from the African and Pacific countries almost walked out of the agreement, considering it meaningless.  The presence of environmentalist protestors and dissenting scientists in the thousands in Paris as the agreement was signed means that Obama should have known about these numbers; the fact that they were widely published, and that his own administration regularly cited other parts of the IPCC report, means he definitely did.

American discourse describes climate change denial as a binary – conservatives, who are stupid and/or funded by big business, deny global warming, while liberals, who are smart and virtuous or at least trying their best, believe in global warming.  In fact, the denial of science is more of a spectrum, and almost all political figures in both parties are clustered at one end of it.  Donald Trump, who is stupid and takes oil company money, denies the premise of global warming altogether, and encourages his base to the same.  Democrats like Barack Obama, who are less stupid but still take oil company money, pretend to side with the scientific consensus until it requires they turn on their corporate backers.  Ultimately, both Obama and Trump are climate change deniers.  Both of them denied the IPCC’s core findings in 2014, Trump just happened to also deny a ton of other obvious facts.  Trump may have withdrawn from the treaty – a disgusting gesture purely designed to appease the more rabidly hateful members of his base who truly want to watch the world burn – but Obama had already destroyed its potential by changing its regulations into “guidelines” that his or any other government faced barely any consequence for ignoring.

The language of this report’s media coverage should absolutely arouse suspicion.  “Catastrophic climate change” is not a particularly well-defined term.  Even in the worst case scenario, climate change does not threaten a catastrophe in the way that, say, nuclear war does – even as coastal cities are swallowed and the algae stops producing oxygen, there will still be some life on Earth, and that will most likely include some human life.  Will it be a catastrophe in 2048, the last year in which the ocean will have enough oxygen to support fish life? [3]  How about in 2100, when the last tree in what was once old-growth forest will be chopped down?[4]  Will the 700 million climate refugees in 2050 constitute a catastrophe?[5]  Or was it already a catastrophe in 2010, when the number of wild plants and animals had been reduced by half,[6] the number of sea creatures by three quarters, the number of insects by as much as four fifths,[7] in only forty years?

Indigenous activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson tells us, “The impetus to act and to change and to transform, for me, exists whether or not this is the end of the world.  If a river is threatened, it’s the end of the world for those fish.  It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along.”[8]

Our catastrophe as it currently stands: since the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth has warmed 0.8oC, with the vast majority of that increase happening since the year 2000.  Every day, 150 species are pushed to extinction by environmental destruction. [9]  Along with them, over 300,000 people are killed by climate change every year[10] in heatwaves, floods, storms, and forest fires – substantially more than die in any other interpersonal violence.  The United States, the wealthiest country in world history, is still recovering from its deadliest single disaster in over a century: Hurricane Maria, which killed as many as four thousand people in Puerto Rico last winter.[11]  Wildfires raged this summer north of the Arctic circle.  The north pole spent weeks above freezing this February.[12]   Twenty-two Pacific Island nations are seeking land to relocate their people, facing the certainty of being completely submerged.

We have already long since passed the threshold of catastrophe and unacceptability.  Things are bad.  And things can still get immeasurably worse.

Who is in the position to undertake a program of radical harm reduction?  What would such a program look like?  The IPCC’s 2014 report found that if every country in the world brought emissions to zero by 2016, the carbon already emitted into the atmosphere would result in at least a 1.6oC warming of the Earth.  To bring us closer to this goal, capitalism offered a wide array of “green” products: investment funds entirely divested from polluters, energy companies that rely on purely renewable sources of power, revolutionary ways to break down plastic and reduce waste, elaborate cap and trade policies.  In 2017, green technology and energy proved more profitable than ever before.  Yet also in 2017, far from releasing no carbon, human activity released 45 billion tons of carbon, a two percent increase over the previous year.[13]  The creation of an entire industry dedicated to an eco-friendly approach to civilization failed to even make a dent in our toxic output.

Capitalism, the social order of the profit motive, will offer us any number of solutions.  As the crisis grows more extreme, we can expect backyard air-purifiers, or charities that send air conditioners to underprivileged youth, or geo-engineering by dropping chemical bombs over Africa, or first class tickets to unspoiled settlements on Mars.  Each time we pass through another threshold of catastrophe, this liberal greening will gain more and more momentum.  But capitalism will not allow us to leave trillions of dollars of oil in the ground, so our emissions, until we have either drained the Earth of fuel or overturned capitalism, will only increase.  Naomi Klein laid out the paradox nicely in her bestseller, This Changes Everything: “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.”[14]

Climate activists have rightly voiced dismay about the fact that for at least two and potentially six of the remaining twelve years we have to reverse course before hitting 1.5oC, American politics will be controlled by Donald Trump.  With Brett Kavanaugh having secured a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, a body which can determine whether any law is or is not legitimate, we can safely assume that the world’s most powerful government will not take any meaningful action against climate change for at least a generation, regardless of the Democrats’ ability to retake Congress this fall or the Presidency in 2020.  But even with the best of our governments, where would we be?  Another Obama, another mindset of “I don’t deny that climate change exists, I just don’t think its worth jeopardizing private property to prevent its worst consequences”?

Radicals are often belittled for their unfeasible hopes, but the unspoken assumption of any person still committed to a liberal politics in the twenty-first century is either “The upper class in United States, China, India, and Western Europe will all willingly become committed anti-consumerists and reverse two centuries dedicated to the profit motive through the already existing systems of political power in the next twelve years” or “I will survive climate change, therefore this is not a catastrophe for me.”

The latter sentiment, though nobody would admit it, undergirds much of the contemporary political imaginary.  Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s excellent new book Climate Leviathan articulates a very feasible future, in which the crises of climate change are seized as opportunities by capital to establish worldwide totalitarian control: “We think the most likely scenario…is that, through the coming decades, the waning, US-led, capitalist bloc will collaborate with China to create a planetary regime that, in light of political and ecological crisis, will brook no opposition in defense of for which it volunteers itself as the first and last line of defense.”[15]  Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes recently released a volume of essays, The Secure and the Dispossessed, describing the smoothness with which the military-industrial complex has already moved to seize power in anticipation of climate-sparked conflict to, in Mark Akkerman’s words, “secure the current world order, no matter how unjust or unsustainable it is.”[16] American billionaires have even revitalized fantasies of space colonization.  It is the global billions of poor people who will suffer the consequences of ecocide; the rich, who are entirely responsible for the crisis, will find a way to escape it and even benefit from it.

Frederick Jameson famously wrote “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”[17]  It is easy to imagine a horrific future in which the powerful revel in as-of-yet unimaginable opulence and the majority suffer horribly under a poisoned sky, where the living biome that once created and sustained us is gone forever.  It is easy, especially given the disturbing timescale we face, to create any sort of substantial change, to assume such a future is a given.

But the rulers have overplayed their hand.

Societies that rely on the production and expansion of commodities have always clashed violently with the systems of life they draw upon.  In civilization’s oldest written text, Gilgamesh tells Humbaba, the fierce defender of the forest, “I will cut down the cedar, I will establish for ever a name immortal!”[18]  The Mesopotamians followed their mythical hero in slashing down trees and turning soil into sand; the name immortal they left was the vast desert in modern Iraq, once lushly wooded land.  The deforestation that began with civilization’s birth had already released enough carbon to substantially heat the world, transform weather patterns, and spread enormous deserts five thousand years ago.[19]  Nancy Fraser describes how in the logic of capitalism the value of nature “is both presupposed and disavowed” [20] in order to extract profit; this contradiction, thousands of years old, has sent civilization itself hurtling down a path toward ultimate environmental collapse.

But it is not just the environment that is on the verge of collapsing.  Human beings, who existed for 200,000 years in symbiotic relationships with their biome, are proving now more than ever before that civilization produces profound alienation from what Marxists once called our “species-being.”  In an 1844 essay, Marx wrote, “The less you are, the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life, the more you have, the greater is the store of your estranged being.”[21]   And our collective estranged beings have become engorged to a tipping point.  Recent years have seen enormous and multi-faceted resistance to structures of life incorporated as normal under liberal capitalism – this resistance includes the feminist and anti-racist insurgencies in the United States, the pro-climate “Blockadia” fronted by indigenous protestors across North and South America, and the misguided backlash to “globalism” appropriated by a populist but destructive right wing worldwide.  Though these movements have vastly different consequences and implications, they all signify what should by now be a universal condition: something is not right.  It is not a coincidence that they converge with historically unprecedented rates of suicide and drug addiction even at the most privileged levels of society.

Walter Benjamin, shortly before his death fleeing the Gestapo, wrote “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.  We must attain a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.  Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.”[22] No society in human history has ever approached as many emergencies as ours and survived.  The sheer breadth of alienation has created a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class.  As they rule, their power is seen (at times even by themselves) for what it is: arbitrary, coercive, and weak.  A population so bored by government eventually must realize its own ungovernability.

Governments, authoritarian rule at large, elite intervention will not save the vast bulk of the world’s people – and we, the people, understand that.  As civilization begins to fall (we feel its teetering already), power will be enforced increasingly through violence.  But I believe – I must believe – we are ready to create our own state of emergency.  Perhaps the next twelve years will pass without a climate revolution, but to me, it does not seem unlikely that oil-burning society will have swallowed itself by that time.  The role of a climate movement must be to guide – with our bodies, with protest, with solidarity, with at times violent action – that collapse, so that as civilization as we know it comes apart it does not bring life in the universe with it.  The question of solving climate change is not a difficult question.  We know, and have known since Robert Revelle’s report to President Johnson in 1965, the answer: stop destroying the biome at a rate faster than it can regenerate, stop pretending that progress is worth collective misery, stop burning carbon, and stop anybody else from burning carbon, by any means necessary.  To quote the slogan of the indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, “Keep it in the ground.”  That isn’t too much to ask, or at least it should not be.

Destruction is valuable only if it also creates, and so I believe that as we tear down the old society we must cling religiously (yes, religiously) to Donna Haraway’s insistence that we “make kin” with the human and non-human victims of our way of life.  “Living-with and dying-with each other potently in the Chthulucene can be a fierce reply to the dictates of Anthropos and Capital.”[23]  The suffering ahead is unfathomable but not irredeemable.  Never before in the history, not just of humanity, but of life itself, have those seeking for justice been less alone.  How ironic that humankind, at the peak of its comfort, is unable to overcome the grief of our brutal separation from and subjugation of the natural world.  I believe we have arrived at the historical moment when our solidarity can extend, as it did in the time before slaves chopped cedar in the Mesopotamian sun, beyond the meaningless barriers of intelligibility.  Revolution will be easy compared to the new communism we must create in its ashes –  a communism that bears witness to a civilization’s immeasurable millennia of horrors and attempts to make them right.  But as we create, we can draw strength and inspiration from the system of life that has developed, self-sustainingly, for hundreds of millions of years, if we have saved that system from annihilation.

Roy Scranton writes, “Humanity can survive and adapt to the new world of the Anthropocene if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths.”[24]  I believe that can be true.

I believe this because there is nothing else to believe, and I have no option but to believe.  Though I know I make a leap of faith, I consider it far less audacious than, “Oh, we can get back the presidency in 2020, then you’ll see!”  Whether or not there can be a future, however, I know that we will always be responsible for standing between the destroyers and the destroyed.

 

 

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5oC, copy edit pending (2018), http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group III, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[3] Boris Worm et al, “Impact of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, issue 5800 (2006): 787-790.

[4] Gerald Urquhart et al, “Tropical Deforestation,” NASA Earth Observatory, n.d, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/tropical_deforestation_2001.pdf, pp.l,k: idan (chool-shootings.. e link between plague and deforestation was firstwith the most reduced answer possible.

lessne.

[5] Koko Warner et al, In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration (New York: CARE International, 2008), 21.

[6] World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016, (Gland: WWF International, 2016).

[7] Caspar A. Hallman et al, “More than 75% decline over in 27 years in total flying insect biomass,” PLoS One 12, issue 10 (2017).

[8] Interview with Naomi Klein, “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation With Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson,” Yes Magazine, March 5, 2015,

[9] Gregory E. Kaebnick and Bruce Jennings, “De-extinction and Conservation,” Hastings Center Report 47, no. 4 (2017): S2-S3.

[10] John Vidal, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank,” Guardian, May 29, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/may/29/1.

[11] Nishant Kishore et al, “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” New England Journal of Medicine 372, no. 2 (2018): 162-170.

[12] Jason Samenow, “Arctic temperatures soar 45 degrees above normal, flooded by extremely mild air on all sides.”  Washington Post, February 22, 2018.

[13] R. B. Jackson, “Warning Signs for stabilizing global CO2 emissions,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 11 (2017).

[14] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 21.

[15] Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future (New York: Verso, 2018), 32.

[16] Mark Akkerman, “Greenwashing Death: Climate Change and the Arms Trade,” in The Secure and the Dispossessed, ed. Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 162.

[17] Frederick Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (2003): 76.

[18] The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 20.

[19] William F. Ruddiman, “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago,” Climate Change 61, issue 3 (2003): 261-293.

[20] Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 63.

[21] Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 150.

[22] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 2007), 257.

[23] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 160.

[24] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 24.

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