Through a Glass, Darkly

March 10, 2023

“Transformation is what we need.” the civil rights leader Rev. William Barber has stressed. And indeed, there is growing public sentiment in the United States for deep, transformative change.

 But there is a problem in the path of transformative change and, indeed, in the path of any positive future. Those paths will be blocked or at least severely constricted by the continuation of lax climate action here and abroad.

The reality of global warming and climate change is already hard upon us, and it promises to worsen, willy-nilly. Greenhouse gas emissions in the US are down about 15 percent since 2005, but only back to the high level they were in 1990. A continuation of current trends together with the new Inflation Reduction Act, if carefully implemented, could improve these reductions considerably. But the United States has a long, long way to go. Meanwhile, and disturbingly, global greenhouse gas emissions are up by about 40 percent since 1990.

The emerging climate catastrophe threatens to eclipse positive possibilities in a number of ways. Assume, if we dare, that governments continue their slow and inadequate pace in doing what is so clearly needed—a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for all the culprit gasses across all the offending sectors and all the major countries. In such a case, we know from innumerable scientific reports what is in store for us and the world.

As the climate crisis grows, and the so-called positive feedbacks become stronger, governments, communities, and individuals will all be increasingly forced to deal with multiple problems. Wildfires, droughts, water shortages, severe storms, heat waves, floods, sea level rise, biological losses, the spread of diseases, and other consequences will be among the first-order effects. They will lead to crop failures and famines, other economic losses and disruptions, climate refugees and mass emigrations, political destabilization, resource and other conflicts within and between countries, and costly efforts at adaptation and, most likely, geo-engineering.

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As governments and societies struggle to cope with the ensuing situation, the stage will be set for political and other recriminations, scapegoating, anti-immigration hysteria, cross-border and other conflicts, the proliferation of failed and failing states, and political responses that are anti-democratic and authoritarian. Such responses may be brought on by ruthless opportunism but may just as likely result from widespread demand from a public that is fearful, feeling victimized, or betrayed. Meanwhile, governments will likely act to protect their major economic actors and elites, further dividing societies, as well as turning increasingly to their militaries for solutions.

Equally telling will be the psychological burdens and mental problems: the loss of homes, communities, and livelihoods; the millions of “excess deaths” caused by climate change; the destruction of much-loved natural and recreational resources including species, forests, and coastlines; the civil strife and social conflicts spawned by climate change’s effects; the pall of grief, dread, failure, and powerlessness—the list could go on.

It is painful to consider, but scenarios like this are both more likely and more near-term than many imagine.

In a world of climate disruption and destabilization, the prospects for positive futures are bleak.  At the national and international levels, the capacity to move forward with bold and carefully conceived plans for emissions reductions and climate adaptation will be severely impaired.  A world consumed with the consequences of climate chaos will have little time for anything else. The multiple inadequacies and failures of global governance, never strong except in certain economic spheres, will likely be magnified by international tensions and conflicts as well as domestic preoccupations. And at the community level, energies will be monopolized by efforts at simply surviving and coping.

If this analysis is even approximately correct, we are led again to the well-established but profoundly important need for early and major gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions here and abroad. Domestic US climate action to reduce emissions and the platform that gives for US leadership internationally are now truly urgent. It is hard to cajole, rally, and lead the world’s major emitters when there are clay feet at home. The Inflation Reduction Act certainly helps give the United States stronger standing internationally, but, as noted, much more is required.

Right now, the intensification of the climate crisis is leading in two inevitable directions: public demand for action to reduce emissions is growing, and, more rapidly but locally, demand is growing for action to cope with and adapt to climate change’s consequences.

Perhaps sooner than most think, there should come a point when public demand in the United States for corrective action to free us from fossil fuels is sufficiently intense that, if Congress and a  unified NGO community are prepared, then at that point decisive, major legislative action could finally be possible. That is the moment for which we must be ready, but for which we are not prepared today. Delay at that point could be tragic. Simultaneous with the demand for action, climate devastation will be rising steadily, and societies could eventually enter a new realm in which careful climate mitigation prescriptions and international cooperation are steadily foreclosed as societies struggle mainly with the consequences of the emerging climate chaos.


Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Gus Speth

James Gustave Speth is author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (Yale Press) and, most recently, They Knew: The U.S. Federal Government’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis (MIT Press). He has served as Dean of the Yale School of the Environment, as President of the World Resources Institute, and as Administrator of the UN Development Programme. He was Chair of the US Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter Administration.

Tags: American climate change policy, American politics, climate change responses