Two decades ago, when I covered the first Earth Summit in Rio, the catch phrase of the day was a purported Chinese proverb warning that “if we keep going down the current road, we’ll end up where we’re headed.”
This event still ranks as the largest gathering of heads of state in history. A remarkable plenary session brought together well over 100 world leaders, including the first President George Bush and Cuban president Fidel Castro, to survey the human prospect. One after another, they paraded to the podium to deliver grave warnings, moving speeches about future generations, and pledges to get off the road drawing us to a dead end. President Bush, who had wavered about even showing up, did go off script with his adamant declaration: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” But he was just a rogue wave in a sea of earnest rhetoric. The goal endorsed in Rio was to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
What is astonishing in retrospect is that the good intentions seemed to last about as long as the summit. It now appears a moment of spectacular, ironic political theatre. Once the curtain rang down, the ominous trends that had brought the world to Rio did not slow even a whit.
Instead, the modern human enterprise, aided and abetted by these same world leaders, put the pedal to the floor and hurtled onward even faster. There were other paths and other possible futures, but most are vanishing in the rear view mirror. On climate change, we sailed past the last exit.
Today, the overwhelming factor in the climate conundrum is time. After twenty squandered years, the question now is this: is the global community capable, if it could muster the will, of cutting emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change by mid-century.
In recent years, the air of unreality in the climate debate has been growing as exponentially as global emissions. The problem isn’t just climate deniers, but also those who are concerned and active. Waving the banners of optimism, hope, vision, many continue to promise that we can solve the climate problem. They advocate new technology, organize campus campaigns to banish fossil fuel stocks from university portfolios, or foster ambitious projects to rethink capitalism and growth, all of which would be worthy indeed, had we but world enough and time.
Time is almost the only thing that now matters. It is an acute constraint. If time is not a part of the calculation, we are talking dreams or faith in technological rapture rather than plans or solutions. Over the past year, I’ve been amazed to hear scientists and activists, who anguish in private that it is too late, show a different face in upbeat public talks. We are not telling the truth about where we find ourselves.
It is way too late to prevent dangerous climate change, the goal set out in Rio.
It is also too late–as news reports drive home with an astonishing litany of disasters–to avoid extremely dangerous climate disruption. Wild, unprecedented weather extremes are battering communities around the world. A prolonged, literally off-the-charts heat wave forced Australian meteorologists to increase the top end of their temperature scale. Then torrential downpours in some areas of the country brought 53 inches of rain in three days. There is no decimal point missing in that number.
The longer range forecast? A leading climate scientist and advisor to the UK government summed it up in a single word: terrifying. Wild weather, which has become a new normal, is occurring after a rise in global average temperatures of .8 degrees Celsius. The currents trends put us on track a stunning temperature rise of 4° C by 2060. The speed of this warming is unprecedented in Earth history: CO2 is rising 10 times faster than during the last great warming 56 million years ago. The implications are unthinkable.
Such a whirlwind of change is, many scientists judge, incompatible with our current, global civilization, beyond adaptation, and likely unstable, meaning that the warming will not reach an equilibrium at four degrees, but likely continue even higher to 6° C or more by 2100. Among other consequences: count on devastation for most ecosystems and loss of at least 40 percent of the world’s corn and rice crops.
Unless some utterly unforeseen event intervenes and jolts the modern enterprise totally off course, this is the road we are traveling.
Chances are good that the trip to 4°C warming will take us past fateful thresholds and into a period of uncontrollable climate change. Natural processes—the disappearance of Artic sea ice and the thawing of the permafrost––are already kicking in. These will accelerate and amplify the warming or could even trigger abrupt, massive shifts in the global climate system.
How bad is it? One measure of the vanishing hope that the world can act in time is the explosion of interest in potential, planetary-scale technological remedies. During the past 6 years, geoengineering has metamorphosed from a highly risky, fringe idea worthy of Dr. Strangelove into the last best hope for modern civilization. Out of desperation, many leading scientists are counting on salvation through CCS (carbon capture and storage)—a technology that may never materialize and prove feasible/affordable on the scale necessary.
So is it REALLY too late to save ourselves by shifting to a non-carbon energy sources, the assumed scenario when we talk about solutions?
Yes, and this has been clear for some time, according to leading researchers like Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research who have spent years analyzing emissions reduction scenarios and trying to figure out how to make the future compute. In giving priority to economic growth rather than to protecting conditions necessary for civilization, world leaders have framed the problem in a way that makes it unsolvable. They ensured from the very beginning, that even with rapid, urgent action and optimistic assumptions, it would be impossible to limit warming to much less than four degrees. But the world never even got serious about cutting emissions.
Attempts to find a way to make the future compute continue, but the low-carbon scenarios, which promise to deliver us from catastrophe, typically depend on ever more improbable assumptions and need to rely on CCS to get a satisfactory answer.
So what do we do now?
As one of my friends asked with panic in her voice, “Isn’t doing something, anything, better than doing nothing?
I’ve wrestled with this question for some time.
“It depends,” I replied. “It depends on why you want to jump into action? It might be better to do nothing for a while and sit with the truth that we’re headed for an unimaginable future.”
“But, it just seems so hopeless”, she protested, still itching to flee from dark knowledge.
All the more reason to consider T.S. Eliot’s counsel: “Be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”
As the gap between reality and rhetoric has grown into a Grand Canyon of denial, I’ve become increasingly dismayed by a phenomenon I’ve named “palliative activism”, a response that is likely to increase as fear about climate change grows. “Doing something” may NOT be better than “doing nothing”, especially if the measures pursued cannot–without magical thinking –alter the current trends. Veterans of the climate wars tout limited environmental “success stories” to the younger generation and pull punches about the big picture, because they fear leaving their students hopeless and in despair. While such palliative activism does not offer a remedy for the climate crisis, it does have undeniable benefits. It can definitely make someone anxious about climate change feel better and, by staying in motion, it is possible to keep the darkness that stalks us at bay.
For all that has been said and written about the dangers of climate change, one seldom hears mention of the profound psychological, spiritual, philosophical, and cultural trauma that lies ahead. Once the grave danger and our lack of control become inescapable, the emotional chaos may well match the physical upheaval. This juggernaut promises to shatter everything: the world we have known; the future we have counted on for ourselves, our children and grandchildren; our sense of security; and the modern worldview which promised that progress would deliver us from the human condition.
Like many remedies, palliative activism comes with serious side effects. Manic doing born out of fear is a way to avoid thinking hard about where we find ourselves and feeling unspeakable loss. Even worse, it prevents the reflection that might allow us to find our way forward. We need to understand which doors to the future have already closed. We need to be clear-eyed and straight-talking about our intentions and goals. If we urge others into action to combat climate change, what can we honestly aim for in the campaign? Are the promises implicit in these efforts ones we can no longer keep?
The conclusion that it is too late should be followed by a question: too late for what? Odds are it is too late for some cherished hopes for our children and for our civilization. If there are still meaningful things to do and other hopes, they can only be discovered by confronting the bitter truth of our situation and giving hard thought to what may still be possible and helpful. Are we willing to admit the loss of the future we had imagined, counted on, and grieve? Can we muster the courage and strength to renegotiate the grounds for hope?
If our civilization, which has been a radical cultural experiment, is doomed to self-destruct, can we hope for those who may make it through climate hell and write the next chapter of the human story?
Facing the future and telling the truth—this is another kind of very hard work. If we are not honest, then there is, indeed, no hope.
Dianne Dumanoski is a SEHN Board Member and an author and environmental journalist. She has reported on a wide range of environmental and energy issues for broadcast and print media and has been among the pioneers reporting on a new generation of global environmental issues.