Global Warming: We’re Screwed
by Gary Null, PhD. and Richard Gale, edited by Helen Buyniski
There is no longer any question that climate change and global warming are bearing down upon us more aggressively and rapidly than previously believed. It is wishful thinking to cling to fantasies that life will return to normal. Reports on approaching climate change tipping points become direr. It is no longer a question whether climate change is occurring. Instead, we should prepare ourselves for what can be done in our own lives and communities and learn to adapt to the new abnormal that has never been experienced since homo sapiens appeared during the Middle Paleolithic period 200,000 years ago. Since 1972, we have been warned about the impasse we are now reaching. Forty-six years ago, the Club of Rome commissioned a consortium of scientists, legislators, corporate leaders and economists to create the now famous Limits of Growth report. That report predicted a systemic collapse of human civilization due to obscene economic growth and the depletion of essential natural resources. But leaders throughout the developed world flatly denied its conclusions.
It should therefore be evident that believing our world’s leaders will act in unison to lessen climate change’s forward advance is both idealistic and impractical. While there is a 97 percent consensus among scientists globally that planetary warming is human-generated, only 15 percent of Americans, according to a Yale and George Mason University survey, know and understand this fact. The Trump administration and the remainder of the American population continue to embrace the fallacy that the scientific community is divided on the matter. We now have the most anti-rational government in US history, one which categorically refuses to grasp the larger picture and instead chooses to assail the environment to leverage short term gains and profits. Clearly the message is not being communicated, and this leaves millions of citizens in harm’s way as climate change worsens.
We can identify several different attitudes about humanity’s ability to tackle the accelerating challenges of climate change and global warming. The question I pose is whether it is possible or reasonable to hold two seemingly diametrically opposed positions simultaneously. I believe it is.
One view holds that technology will save us – full stop. Such a utopian outlook is ultimately paralyzing because of the massive sums of money required to implement the new world-saving technologies. Some regions can benefit, of course – ultra-wealthy Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, for example, can afford to build the fantastically expensive desalination plants that are required to turn desert expanses into arable land. But at $100 million apiece, these plants are firmly out of reach of 99 percent of the planet’s population. Other nations must therefore set their sights dramatically lower, and here the gap between what is needed and what technology is capable of becomes problematic. Some environmental groups insist we merely need more wind and solar energy, in spite of the high costs of building wind farms, their comparatively paltry energy output, and their numerous downsides – bird deaths, unlivable noise. Hydroelectric dams are a much more economically-sound model for alternative energy, but the existence of a nearby river is obviously a prerequisite. Some groups have even embraced nuclear power, claiming it is non-polluting. They ignore, forget, or disingenuously avoid discussing how enriching uranium creates tons of pollution, how there is no safe disposal process for the spent fuel rods that will remain radioactive for eons, how nuclear power plants are prone to accidents and meltdowns – particularly as catastrophic climate events become more frequent, as Fukushima continues to remind us. For the techno-utopian set, there will always be some brilliant inventor who will sweep in at the critical hour and save us from ourselves. The solutions are always just beyond our fingertips, and we are supposed to merely prepare for the arrival of our techno-saviors by thinking positively about the future. The leaders of this school of thought are the masters of positive platitudes, and nothing – not facts, science, or cold hard reality – will intrude upon their fantasy.
David Korten, writing for Yes! Magazine, asks us to believe that it is within modern civilization’s power to wake up and make the critical changes necessary to either lessen the impact of climate change or reverse its course. Korten is not alone, and I suspect most climate scientists and environmentalists agree with him. Thousands of scientists convene at climate conferences around the world to discuss their conviction that our political leaders and institutions will arrive at a moment of clarity just in time to launch a global Marshall Plan to save our planet and species. After the release of the 2018 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report arguing that limiting global warming to 1.5 degree C is achievable if drastic action is taken within a dozen years, they imagine there is still plenty of time to act together and thwart the worst consequences. This attitude is especially prevalent in the US, a nation whose unrealistic optimism stems from its historical capacity to be industrious, innovative and brilliant in finding solutions.
Although this overly idealist attitude is not by any means utopian, it lacks a deeper understanding of the psychology of power, wealth, domination, and in particular economics. The environmental crisis is intimately entwined with the economic crisis. “If hope is something expressed through illusion,” notes social activist Chris Hedges, “it is not hope; it is fantasy.” The present strategy rests on the idea that wise people from interdisciplinary fields will collectively unite and work together to slow down, and where possible, reverse deforestation and the acidification of the oceans. We can dramatically reduce industrial agricultural practices and wean ourselves away from our meat-centric food habits. And the technology is already available to rapidly convert to renewable energy sources. Within a reasonable time period–so it is believed–coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas can be phased out and replaced with cleaner geothermal, solar, wind and wave technologies.
This is a noble view. Its optimism offsets the otherwise growing sense of apathy, indifference and fear that climate change instills in billions of people who are experiencing environmental catastrophes at this moment. I fully support those who embrace this optimism such as David Korten, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, and others. I want to believe that what they believe will come to pass. But there is a serious problem that nobody I am aware of in the popular climate movement or among scientifically-literate legislators have understood. That is, every movement requires an intelligentsia with the capacity to serve as policy makers and opinion leaders to answer the most crucial questions. There cannot be an orchestra without a conductor. It is not the case, as Marx would have us believe, that the masses of average people are capable of agitating and launching a revolution as gargantuan as a much-needed Marshall Plan for the climate. Such a grand strategy to tackle the demands of climate change has been discussed for a decade, and yet the rush to extract and consume more fossil fuels has only increased. Consistently, American presidents including Bush, Obama and now Trump prefer to follow the road to Hades by favoring the illusions of perpetual growth over human survival. In order to mobilize the masses, scientifically-committed and powerful inspirers must step forward to take up multilateral leadership positions. As long as the powers that be value short-term gain over long-term survival, there can be no meaningful change on a societal level.
On the other hand, there is another growing faction of people whose awareness has expanded beyond the desire for self-gratification and acquisition of power and wealth. Their attitude is pragmatic yet cautiously optimistic. They are not policy makers and their efforts never make headline news. This is the new civilized, literate segment of humanity who are going off the grid and moving to sustainable regions. Their conscience is aligned with the changing times and planetary needs. They realize that the over-use of land to feed Americans’ hunger for a meat-based diet is contributing dramatically to climate change, and they understand that going vegan cuts their carbon footprint in half. Princeton University calculated that the animal-based American diet accounts for 85% of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and wastes about 90% of arable land that could otherwise feed an increasing population more efficiently and nutritionally with plant-based foods. Unfortunately, multiple industries and the entire banking sector benefit from economic growth within the livestock industry. The new climate literati’s efforts will not affect the time limits before climate tipping points chaotically cascade. For that to commence, a worldwide effort is necessary and there is a very slim chance that will ever happen.
The third attitude is best exemplified by scientists willing to speak out about worst case scenarios such as Paul Beckwith, Kevin Hester, Guy McPherson, Natalia Shakhova, and the anonymous climate scientists blogging under the pseudonym Sam Carana at Arctic News. These are the messengers of despair with only flickers of hope. There are already too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to make any discernable corrections. Humanity has waited far too long and it is past the time when nations are capable of mustering the necessary resources and collective will to do anything truly constructive. However, scientists such as McPherson are not advocating complete apathy nor suggesting that we retreat into a stupor of do-nothingness. Nor is this small contingent of Cassandras saying we will experience an apocalyptic end to the world. Rather, they encourage us to understand that half the climate tipping points have already tipped, and it is prudent to prepare now for the new world we are entering. Their message was much too harsh when it was first introduced for most of the population to swallow, and as a result they mostly disappeared off the radar, their positions not renewed, their books unpublished. They tell us truths we are unprepared to act on: that we have to stop blindly spending, that growth for growth’s sake is unsustainable and ultimately self-destructive. How is a society to digest such messages when its entire economy is based on the accumulation of stuff? But these are the pragmatists, and their message is very simple: educate yourselves, change your habits, network with like-minded people and communities, and realize not everyone will have a place in the lifeboat.
Finally, there is the attitude of the climate change deniers who will discover the lifeboats have been filled when their personal Katrina moment arrives. Professional climate change deniers, almost none of whom are climatologists or experts in anything related to atmospheric sciences or the environment, have generated about 200 arguments on why we should not be worried about global warming. Almost none of these opinionated views are based upon peer-reviewed scientific publications, and the few that are contradict themselves and are amateurishly thought out. One of the stupidest relies on a theory called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity to debunk a relationship between CO2 release and temperature increases on the earth’s surface. Grammar school physics can deconstruct the theory because the theory completely ignores that when water gets warmer, it evaporates, thus increasing the greenhouse effect! And the enormous illiteracy among large segments of the American population is indulged by its media echo chamber, the chorus of Fox, Infowars, Breitbart, the Trump-o-sphere, and the evangelical Christian networks telling them there’s nothing to all this climate nonsense – just keep performing the rituals and parroting the dogma and all those floods, fires, storms, and droughts will stay confined to the television where they belong. No one wants to believe their home will be burned, flooded, desiccated, or otherwise destroyed – and these types simply choose not to. They ignore the weekly reports of new climate disasters hundreds or even dozens of miles away, reasoning that if it’s not happening to them, it’s not their problem. Among these are found the evangelical Christians who believe God will save them at the last moment, whether via an emergency Rapturing or a last-minute stilling of the roiling tides of an angry planet. They stand side by side with the Schadenfreude addicts, so blinded by the joy they feel in seeing others’ misfortune that they cannot see that misfortune is also their own. America is a nation of individualists who deep down might find hard to stomach the notion that with regard to the environment, the human race stands or falls together. But we must get over our aversion to collective thinking quickly unless we wish to sacrifice ourselves for a principle we don’t fully understand.
Aside from Americans being poorly educated about climate change, the entire dominant edifice of corporations, government and the media is determined to keep everyone pacified and in denial. And this is largely due to an embedded elite that rule over the institutions responsible for alerting citizens and preparing the nation for an uncertain future. The entire mainstream media has acted criminally by keeping Americans ignorant about climate change and the science supporting human’s responsibility for global warming’s escalation. Media Matters reported that during the 2018 heat waves, three major networks–ABC, CBS and NBC–only made reference to climate change in one of 127 segments. For FOX, hurricanes devastating the Florida panhandle and the Carolinas or California’s 1.6 million acres ravaged by wildfires in 2018 are nothing more than acts of God. The reason for our media’s denial is obvious. It is the same leaders of industry and government who optimists are placing their faith in who are silencing the media from speaking out about climate truths.
To tackle climate change, an economic overhaul of the entire financial establishment is critical. For corporations to cooperate and retool for the new future, they will need to receive subsidies from taxpayers through the government. They will also likely need to defer and reduce their profit shares. Yet the neoliberal capitalist system is never altruistic. It is intrinsically mercenary. Investors hold stock or equity because these consistently assure high profitable returns. Shareholder equity is the number one financial fiduciary responsibility to those who invest in corporate interests.
And here is the dilemma of adhering to irrationally idealistic attitudes. The majority of private industries that fuel economic growth depend upon and are powered by the very same fossil fuel addiction that drives climate change. We are therefore forced to demand that all of the largest polluters change their entire paradigm of business-as-usual and invest in long-term sustainability immediately, because none of them can transition their financial agendas overnight. Fossil fuels have been the engine driving manufacturing and the quality of life that is taken for granted in developed nations. To change the paradigm in order to save the planet, and our species, means separating ourselves from this pernicious neoliberal ethos. Survival must be prioritized above the growth and profit that feed the insatiable oligarchy. Not just for the few, but across all industries. Populations in the developed world will need to lower their purchasing to that of a third world banana republic in order to minimize their carbon footprints. More taxes will be required to reforest, not just for their own nations but for poorer regions such as Brazil’s Amazon, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea that are being leveled and cannibalized by the US and other first world countries. And the ongoing development of gated communities for the elite, with private golf courses, sucking up enormous amounts of water from aquifers must cease. The idea that an oligarchy can live in a private desert oasis is no longer feasible.
The facts are crystal clear. The past several years have taught us that perpetual drought and more frequent wildfires in the Pacific coastal and southwestern states are here to stay. Southern states have been battered by category 4 and higher hurricanes. All of the science points to more extreme weather events and conditions as the planet’s surface warms. It is very likely that another Category 5 superstorm during the next year or two will result in the largest human migration in modern American history. Following hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Michael, homeowners are realizing their insurance is not covering what they believed they were paying for. A year after Harvey, thousands of Texas residents still do not have their lives back in order. And both the federal and state governments need to be honest about where Americans should and should not live. The hard truth is that certain regions of the country simply cannot be protected from climate-related environmental disasters. Massive funding will be necessary either for population relocation or extensive climate-proofing infrastructure, or both.
Unfortunately, none of this happening. My greatest disappointment has been observing the US regress into the most self-absorbed, narcissistic and selfish citizenry in its history. There are always exceptions, but they seem to be progressively becoming a minority. Poll after poll indicates that concerns about climate change pale in comparison to the desires for economic growth and national security from imaginary terrorists. After almost fifty years of counseling people about their health conditions, even after heart attacks and strokes, and providing the best advice based upon hard scientific evidence, I watch patients continue to resist making fundamental changes even when their lives depend upon it. So even as sea levels rise and superstorms worsen, people will continue to rebuild along coastal regions while believing they are entitled to a pleasant climate and a normal life. Deep down, they understand the laws of cause and effect – that there are consequences to unchecked growth, that one cannot get something for nothing. But most people secretly believe they are the exception to the rule.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are approximately 61 million Americans in the professional class, which includes engineers, higher management, architects, physicians, computer and IT specialists, psychologists, diverse scientists and researchers, academics, clergy, etc. And according to some wealth analysts, this includes close to 11 million millionaires as of 2017. Over 90% of millionaires are married with families. Taking into account family size, this means there is a social class of approximately 181 million people, including 33 million living with ridiculous wealth. This latter group considers themselves among the privileged elite. To understand the economic obstacles thwarting any viable climate change initiative, we can ask a simple question. Who amongst this privileged elite will agree to downsize their lifestyle to help reverse human greenhouse emissions and preserve the environment? The US has never before been so polarized into two economic classes competing with each other. The professional careerists who are highly educated, work hard and carry enormous debt exist in sharp contrast to the remainder of the nation that struggles to make ends meet, living from paycheck to paycheck.
Having participated in or organized many dozens of demonstrations over the years, I have noticed that it is the average working people who go into the streets and protest. Rarely do you see many from the professional class and certainly none from the rank and file of the wealthy elite. Yet with the future set for more artificial intelligence technologies, higher education work visas, automation and off-shoring, once economically secure families are now starting to sink into the ranks of the new poor. Both classes are fully capable of agreeing that the environment is a defining problem, if not the defining problem of our time, but there is at most a nominal overlap between those capable of making a change and those in whom making a change will have an impact on their surroundings.
This realization came home to me recently after a conversation with a prominent Wall Street financial planner. For over three decades, he has counseled hundreds of clients in the multi-million dollar class. He said that in recent years he has witnessed something he has never encountered before. Rather than seeking investment advice, his clients are asking for assistance to sell off assets: antiques, designer clothing and jewelry, paintings, art, etc. Why? Because although many elite earn millions annually, they are spending millions-plus. They need cash. These same wealthy individuals are speculating at unprecedented levels, at margins of nearly 100 percent, convinced they can beat the system. They watched too-big-to-fail banks bounce back stronger than ever after the 2008 crash that should have killed them. They’ve seen hedge funds and equity partnerships create piles of money out of nothing, enriching their owners beyond their wildest dreams. This hyperconsumptive model has become the new American dream, the province of an emerging professional elite that lives off of debt in order to maintain a lifestyle that is no longer within their means to sustain. They live artificial lives solely to preserve artificial appearances. Private sector debt is astronomical. If the US debt clock is accurate, Americans’ total personal debt is now over $19 trillion, including $15 trillion in mortgage debt, $1.5 trillion in student loans, and $1 trillion in credit card debt.
If the US were a solvent nation without or with very little debt, with substantial currency holdings, a national effort to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change might be paid for. Yet the government can barely pay for the interest on its insane debt, and Trump’s perverted tax cut promises the country will be dead in the water when global warming cascades into catastrophes we can now barely imagine. So where will the tens of trillions be found to prepare the American public for the dismal future ahead?
Those who have built and profited most from the economic structure of the neoliberal regime are those who have brought upon us the climate crisis we face today. The elites’ habits of consumption have desensitized them to harsh natural realities. Al Gore is an excellent example, a man who has sculpted his image as one of the planet’s leading climate crusaders. Gore’s Generation Investment Management, a London-based investment firm co-founded by a former chief of Goldman Sachs’ asset management, David Blood, has made a killing on the speculation of putting a tax price upon carbon emissions. However little of this has anything to do with actually getting rid of fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. Gore is not an environmentalist. He is simply the exemplar of climate change capitalism as he flies around the world in a private jet giving speeches for hundreds of thousands of dollars and racking up monthly electricity bills of up to $22,000. According to the National Center for Public Policy Research, our renewable energy champion’s own solar power installation only accounts for under 6% of his monthly energy consumption, which is 21 times that of the average American family.
And the average American family uses an appalling share of the world’s resources. Americans consume 26 percent of the world’s energy with only 4 percent of its population. The professional class has grown exponentially, and its members now occupy most of the power positions in the country. Their lifestyle is one of excessive consumption, and this consumption is integral to their self-concept – how will they show everyone they’ve “made it” in life if they aren’t surrounded by all the nicest stuff? To stop consuming is unthinkable. Who in this group of 181 million people will volunteer to lower their standard of living in order to set a good example for their peers, for their country, for the world? These people do not make sacrifices – they are not even willing to vote for a third-party candidate, to throw their support behind a Ralph Nader or a Rocky Anderson in order to register their dissatisfaction with a hopelessly corrupt duopoly. If these – our policymakers and opinion leaders – are not willing to change, we cannot be surprised that we find ourselves with:
The largest epidemic in overweight and obesity among children and toddlers
The largest medical bill in world history, comprising a full 17 percent of GDP
More people engaged in more speculative investment than before the 2008 crash, with derivatives, hedge funds, and equity partnerships thriving and bankers bringing home bigger paychecks than ever
Corporations kept on life support while families are foreclosed upon, 21 to 28 million homeless
Private prisons bringing back the once-unthinkable concept of debtor’s prison, for the swelling underclass caught in a series of financial traps
This leaves us with a bleak impression for the future. Perhaps this is the most we can expect, looking to the elite to side with humanity in order to prevent a global climate catastrophe. If so, we are in dire straits. Gore and his ilk should never be counted upon as inspiring examples to lead an effective climate Marshall Plan. When we look at the potential leaders who could advance such a plan, all we find is greedy Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms ready to make money off the next new green technology. Obama may have started an organic garden on the White House property, but he still signed the DARK Act to protect Monsanto and the chemical-agricultural industry’s profits from states passing legislature to label genetically modified foods. Such is the utter hypocrisy of our national policy makers. And it is futile to pray for an epiphany to awaken the corporate elite and our legislators from their insatiable need to acquire more stuff. Can we expect the commanders of finance and industry to give up their Wagyu Kobe or vintage cote de boeuf steaks, ostrich feathered handbags and massive consumption? It would be like trying to get a meth or crack addict to give up a drug dependency voluntarily. Good luck with that effort. If our leaders who profit from the military industrial complex are incapable of shedding a tear for dying mothers and children in Yemen and Palestine, how can we expect them to sacrifice their interests to protect poorer Americans from future cataclysmic climate events? For the elite, deaths associated with wildfires, superstorms, tornados and flash floods are the new collateral damage, an unfortunate necessity to keep the fossil fuel machine rolling.
In the meantime we are spiraling downward with the clock ticking. Whether it is a dozen years to fundamentally turn our energy consumption around as the conservative IPCC report allows, or the more thorough independent analyses giving us seven years or less, the time is rapidly approaching when nothing can be done. Party affiliation–Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or Green–will make absolutely no difference. Global warming doesn’t align with political ideologies. Nor do superstorms, floods, droughts and wildfires give a rat’s buttocks for human hubris or our illusions about any divinely ordained exceptionalism. The framing of climate change trends in the future depends entirely upon human beings and our consumption and psychological behaviors. We either harness our knowledge and resources or we don’t.
So where are the wise humans in higher positions of authority and policy-making to grasp the reins of a national climate change initiative? They are out shopping and supporting the very industries contributing to the Sixth Extinction and a hotter planet. To remain optimistic that they will do the right thing is foolishness. Consider that two major cities directly in the pathway for more devastating climate events — Miami and Houston — are also the two fastest booming regions for urban growth and entry of new residents. Yet nobody is warning new urban migrants about the future dangers they will face. The alternative would be to live a sustainable life in rural America instead of depending upon government to spend exorbitant dollars to fund energy-intensive cities in order to accommodate further urbanization. If no efforts to mobilize and shift the economy have been made since the warnings of the Limits of Growth report nearly five decades ago, we mustn’t waste time waiting for the corporate and political elite to have a change of heart. More than ever, as the IPCC report shows, we are capable of agreeing that the environment is the single most important problem facing us as a species. We understand, in no uncertain terms, that we must change. But we won’t.
In 2016, almost 11 percent of the world’s population, approximately 815 million people, suffered from chronic malnourishment. Tens of millions more are food-insecure. Last year almost 12 percent of Americans, 40 million people, were food-insecure, meaning they were unable to daily have sufficient food to sustain an active, healthy life for all family members. For a nation that prides itself as the wealthiest and most progressive in the world, this is unconscionable. But is also a clear sign that things will get far worse as national and personal debts continue to climb and extreme climate catastrophes increase. You’d be hard-pressed to find 15 countries living a sustainable existence, even those whose leaders admit in public that the environment is the most pressing problem of our time. Everyone wants to see the change, but no one wants to be it. Until a group of people with the intelligence and resources to lead a far-reaching shift in human consciousness steps up to the plate and gives voice to the existential quandary we all face, we remain paralyzed by the enormity of the problem and our own powerlessness as cogs in the neoliberal machine. This is the perfect recipe for disaster.