The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just come out with its latest report on the Earth’s ecosystemic health, and even in its gussied up findings — what many are calling “hopium” these days — it is, if read carefully, a prediction of the end of civilization.
In fact, it calls for an end to civilization as we know it and says that’s the only thing that will prevent disaster.
The report, the work of more than 90 scientists, says that climate change is not going to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (it’s already at and maybe just above 1), the most optimistic goal of the 2015 Paris accords. In fact, it figures that “global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052,” with “risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth.”
It’s no good trying to say that the warming isn’t happening or that it’s part of a natural cycle that Earth has always gone through. This is real, and dangerous, and nothing like anything that has come before except the severe warming that brought about the extinction of species in the Permian age 250 million years ago.
The 10 hottest years on Earth, since quasi-global records began to be kept in 1850, have been between 2005 and 2018, and the four hottest have been the last four years. The measurements are global and were monitored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus multiple global stations in Europe, Asia and the poles.
Hotter temperatures mean many reinforcing and reciprocal consequences. First, melting ice at the poles, in Greenland, and on glaciers creates rising sea levels, with of course the inundation of many islands and coastal cities, including major population centers. The loss of ice means a loss of reflection of sunlight back into the atmosphere — the albedo effect — and therefore more sunlight reaching the oceans and increased temperatures. Loss of ice in the Arctic and Siberia opens up previously covered methane deposits, and methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2, which increases global warming significantly.
You see, it is a connected process, and all the parts point to disaster.
And what is to be done? According to the U.N. report, the only way to avoid this disaster would require “rapid and far-reaching” changes in the capitalist system that is the substructure of civilization, East and West. What must be changed, it says, are energy systems, land use, urban design, transportation, and building design — at a minimum. Changed so they contribute no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — and can you imagine a world where transportation, for example, doesn’t pollute the air and we get along without cars, airplanes and cargo ships?
Though “energy systems” looks like a mild phrase, it actually implies the end of coal, gas and oil in the near future, the very fuels upon which industrial capitalism is based. There is no way that so-called “renewable” sources (which of course are not renewable because solar panels, windmills and batteries have finite lives and must be replaced) could ever replace those carbon-based fuels.
No wonder that most scientists — and anybody else who knows how politics works — say that this sort of wholesale economic change will not come about. There’s not a political system of any stripe anywhere in the world that is prepared to, or even knows how to, transform a society out of our modern way of life. That’s why one scientist has said in response to the U.N. report that it is nothing more than an academic exercise in “what would happen if a frog had wings.”
Let us not be misled by the recent Nobel Prize to an economist who believes in carbon taxes and such amelioratives, and think such minor reforms will achieve anything in time. In fact, if we stopped using carbon this instant — and that, of course, is not going to happen — the gases we’ve already built up would continue to have their deleterious effects for decades.
The collapse of civilization is what we are talking about here. Nothing less. Of course, as a critic of computer technology I have been talking about that for years. In fact, I made a bet 23 years ago, written about in Wired magazine (and available online for other people to join in the bet) that this would happen in 2020. Whether or not that date will prove to be correct, it does look very much as if it is not too far off.
But then, that should not really surprise us. Every civilization ends. It’s in the nature of such systems, for as they grow and spread and become more complex — that’s what civilizations do — they become increasingly difficult to manage, increasingly unstable from the edges to the center, and increasingly disruptive to the very environments they depend on.
Easter Island, anyone?
Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books, most recently “Human Scale Revisited.”