The Climate Emergency Continuum: from Bad to Cataclysmic

June 7, 2019

I’m pretty attuned to being on the receiving end of regular apocalypse-fixes. But even for me, Monday last week (20/5) was a tough one, with a new research report indicating that the worst case sea-level rise by 2100 has now been assessed at a possible two metres. Previously, it was thought to be no more than one metre.

As I’ve said before, avoiding a climate-induced descent into despair gets harder by the year – if not by the month. So it was with something of a sinking feeling that I decided to read both David Wallace-Well’s ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ and Bill McKibben’s new book, ‘Falter’, in the same fortnight. But I’m ever so pleased I did – not least because they’re both beautifully written, utterly compelling in their analysis, and, surprisingly, useful antidotes for premature despair! Both of them should be high up on your reading list.

I’ve discovered that there are now a series of staging-posts on the way to full-on apocalyptic despair, on a ‘going, going, gone’ continuum.

1. First, there’s ‘going’, as in ‘Bloody hell, this looks bad. Is it really slipping away from us?’

2. Then there’s ‘going, going’, as in ‘Bloody hell, this is far worse than I thought, but surely we’ve still got time to turn it all around?’

3. Then there’s ‘going, going, and all but gone’, as in ‘We may still have time to avoid a complete climate meltdown, but that ‘window of opportunity’ is closing faster and faster – and it’s probably going to be pretty grim, come what may.

4. Then there’s ‘going, going, gone’ – as in ‘OK, it’s too late to avoid massive global disruption, but we could still stop the infinitely worse effects of runaway climate change’.

5. And finally, there’s ‘going, going, gone – and no coming back’ – as in ‘Game over for humankind’.

David Wallace-Wells (DWW) and Bill McKibben (BMcK) are both emphatic ‘Threes’, with a strong possibility of becoming ‘Fours’ within the next year or so.

(For what it’s worth, I’m still a reluctant ‘Three’, nervously contemplating the psychological consequences of becoming a ‘Four’!)

Reading both at the same time allows for a little bit of compare and contrast, in five key areas:
1. The state of our climate-impacted world today.
2. The state of our climate-impacted world tomorrow.
3. Knowing all that, what is their current state of mind?
4. How do they deal with human nature, as a key variable?
5. How do they deal with political will, as the other key variable?

1. The state of our climate-impacted world today.

Both of them are cauterisingly honest about this. ‘It’s worse, much worse than you think’ (DWW). And so it is – remorselessly spelled out by DWW in 12 separate chapters (Heat Death, Hunger, Drowning, Wildfire, Disasters No Longer Natural, Freshwater Drain, Dying Oceans, Unbreathable Air, Plagues of Warming, Economic Collapse, Climate Conflict, and Systems), at the end of which he helpfully comments, ‘If you’ve made it this far, you are a brave reader.’

‘The assaults will not be discrete – this is another climate delusion. Instead, they will produce a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummelled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted, for centuries, as the stable foundation on which we walk, build homes and highways, shepherd our children through schools and into adulthood under the promise of safety.’

Bill McKibben is no less honest, with a particularly disturbing section on his very own apocalypse-fixes (mega-fires, disrupted photosynthesis, collapsing agricultural productivity and nutritional value, etc etc). He acknowledges that he could spend even more time in order to ‘scare you silly’ if he really wanted to, especially in contemplating the kind of ‘biological annihilation’ that will be driven by accelerating climate change.

At this point, you have to take a deep breath, as you remind yourself that all of this is happening right now, all around the world, on the basis of an average temperature increase of around 1.1 degrees C/1.2 degrees C since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

2. The state of our climate-impacted world tomorrow.

Both authors see sharp rises in average temperature as inevitable, heading rapidly towards a world of an average temperature increase of at least 2 degrees C by 2100 (neither thinks that staying below 1.5 degrees C is remotely realistic), and possibly (in DWW) by as much as 4 degrees C. And even if we get real about addressing today’s climate emergency, the ‘legacy leverage’ of decades of rising emissions makes serious disruption completely inevitable. As BMcK says, ‘Even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, one-third of the planet’s ice would melt anyway.’ Which takes us back to that worst case two metre sea-level rise.

This is obviously where it gets very bad, on the basis of their wholly reasonable extrapolations from where we are today. I will not imperil your own state of mind without you having a chance to read this for yourself, not least because I really appreciate the cautious, conscientious way in which they both contextualise all of this.

What I can say is they’re both pretty bloody angry about it. Both comment on the fact that around 50% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere currently warming up our planet have been emitted in the last 30 years. And 30 years ago, companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP already knew (on the basis of the impeccable scientific analysis provided by their own scientists), that we were about to start cooking the planet. BMcK describes this as ‘the most consequential lie in the history of humankind’, and is explicit in his determination to see these ‘climate criminals’ indicted, prosecuted and incarcerated, starting with Lee Raymond (the CEO of Exxon Mobil at the time).

3. Knowing all that, what is their current state of mind?

This is where it gets really fascinating! As I said, they’re sort-of in the same place (‘Threes, going on Fours’), and in a chapter headed ‘Outside Chance’, BMcK reassures us that ‘It’s not too late. Not quite.’ ‘We can still figure out how to keep humans healthy, safe, productive – and human.’ (That final comment, by the way, is based on BMcK’s deep concern about the direction of travel in genetics – providing a fascinating and almost equally scary excursion from his principal focus on climate.)

DWW, it would seem, is equally keen to hold people back from premature despair. ‘The thing is, I am optimistic’, with a number of brave, optimistic notes seeded through the narrative. ‘The fight is, definitively, not yet lost – in fact, will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.’

But with DWW, somehow, I don’t really believe him. He contradicts his own narrative of hope on too many occasions, commenting for instance that ‘There is almost no chance we will avoid that scenario’ – the scenario in question being the Hothouse Earth scenario of around a 4oC average temperature rise by 2100. ‘According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia, would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat desertification and flooding.’

Deep down, I think DWW is already a Four, preparing for the psychologically shocking moment of evolving into a Five. Were it not for the birth of his daughter, Rocca, as he was writing ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, I think that’s probably where he’d be headed.

4. How do they deal with human nature, as a key variable?

Neither of them quite spells it out in terms. DWW is fascinating on all the deep cognitive biases that have prevented us from understanding what’s really going on over the last 20 or 30 years, and on the whole question of the impact of accelerating climate change on people’s psychological wellbeing (highlighting examples of climate-induced Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).

We should take comfort, he believes, from the fact that we now know it is 100% down to us where we eventually end up. ‘If the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation too. We all also know that second lifetime. It is ours.’ But he’s disturbed by the gathering ‘philosophy of inhumanism’.

‘Online, the climate crisis has given rise to what is called “eco-fascism” – a “by any means necessary” movement that also traffics in white supremacy and prioritizes the climate needs of a particular set. On the left, there is a growing admiration for the climate authoritarianism of Xi Jinping.’

BMcK has been an unwavering humanitarian throughout his life (‘By and large, humans continue to believe in humanity’), and remains wholly convinced that on some of the other grim challenges of the age (like inequality and poverty, for instance), ‘the pendulum will swing back again’. The only thing that will prevent that would be an accelerated climate emergency, resulting, for instance, in hundreds of millions of climate refugees. But he still clearly has faith in the deep-down goodness of human beings to get stuff, even the worst stuff, sorted out.

5. How do they deal with political will, as the other key variable?

It’s impossible to detach what we might think about human nature from the particular political and socio-economic system which shapes our views about human nature.

This is where BMcK is at his strongest. He argues that the principal reason why we’ve failed so comprehensively to address the climate challenge is because that challenge emerged, in all its complexity and contestability, during the most vicious, ideologically extreme version of capitalism since the time of the laissez-faire robber barons back in the late nineteenth century.

He takes us back into the origins of that neo-liberal, government-hating market absolutism – in the 1950s – when the novelist Ayn Rand (‘You could argue that Ayn Rand is the most important political philosopher of our time’) gathered around her a circle of acolytes to share the ideas expressed in ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’. These acolytes (including Alan Greenspan, Rex Tillerson, the Koch brothers and countless future CEOs and financiers) have shaped the politics of the USA for the last 50 years: ‘It was precisely America, in precisely those decades, that may have decided the planet’s geological and technological future.’

I totally buy this analysis, and have long been persuaded that the decades of intransigent climate contrarianism can only be explained by those contrarians’ sure knowledge that the market alone cannot possibly address climate change – necessitating the resurgence of ‘big government’. And that, for them, is something to be avoided at all costs. Literally.

This analysis leads directly to BMcK’s principal reason for abiding hope: civil resistance. ‘We have the tools to stand up to entrenched power.’ Combined with today’s unstoppable solar revolution (the only technology fix that he really loves!), this is what will keep us on the right side of ‘going, going, gone – and no coming back.’

DWW doesn’t really do the politics, and seems unconvinced by civil dissent as a necessary (if not sufficient) part of the fight-back. That leaves him much more dependent on possible technological solutions than BMcK, even to the point of flirting with wholesale geoengineering and other, as of now, ‘unfathomable innovations’. ‘We may yet see a deus ex machina.’ But he’s honest enough, at the same time, to share his deep scepticism about ‘the Church of Technology’.

A final thought: one thing they both have in common is the paradoxically hopeful assumption that as the inevitable climate shocks bear down on us ever harder and ever faster, political, technological and financial transformation will simultaneously accelerate to meet the scale of the challenge.

And isn’t that exactly what Extinction Rebellion and the School Strikes would seem to confirm? I seriously hope so.

Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play itself Out?’ by Bill McKibben, published by Wildfire, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth: a Story of the Future’ by David Wallace-Wells, published (USA) by Tim Duggan Books, 2018; and (UK) by Allen Lane, 2019  

Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt: I was born in 1950. The next couple of decades flowed by effortlessly at Eton, Magdalen College, Oxford, and messing around planting trees and farming in New Zealand and Australia. I first got involved with environmental issues in 1974, at the same time as I became a teacher in a West London comprehensive, which I absolutely loved. Ten years later (during which I was also very involved in the Green Party),  I left teaching to become Director of Friends of the Earth where I stayed until 1991, just prior to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – which for me, was a life-changing experience. In 1996, we set up Forum for the Future, which remains my ‘home base’ in terms of all the different things I do today. I was Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission between 2000 and 2009. I got married in 1986, and we have two daughters Eleanor and Rebecca. At the moment, I'm on the world tour for my latest book, The World We Made.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, climate emergency