Climate breakdown, civilisation breakdown?

While climate optimism may make us feel a little better about the looming climate crisis, does it inhibit the urgent, significant action needed to avoid the catastrophic civilisational breakdown threatened by runaway climate change? Rupert Read issues a warning

Burning trees
Burning trees
Dr. Rupert Read

Green World, like the Green Party itself, has been ahead of the curve on so many issues. Possibly the most important issue of them all is the climate crisis.

But we have to be honest with ourselves; there has not been nearly enough success on this. This is the age of consequences. There are already consequences – and these will only multiply – of the human failure to act adequately on climate.

Instead of facing up to the reality of the climate crisis, even we Greens tend to slip into a sort of lived denial of what we humans are doing to our climate.

Of course, we all love to hate climate change deniers, but what if widespread assumptions around climate actually embody, tacitly, a structurally-similar level of denial? 

Consider the hard realities around the ‘successful’ Paris climate change accord:

  • The Paris Agreement has an inadequate definition of ‘dangerous’ climate change: it is clear that the climate change unleashed by human action is already seriously dangerous, and we're not yet even at 1.5 degrees of overheat compared to pre-industrial average temperature levels.
  • The Agreement's targets are inadequate to safely stop what it itself considers 'dangerous climate change' – 1.52 degrees of over-heat compared with pre-industrial levels – because it gives us at best a 66 per cent chance of reaching those targets (imagine being asked to get on board a plane given a 66 per cent chance of safely reaching its destination).
  • The pledges made by countries are entirely inadequate to add up to those targets – they head us instead toward probably 2.73.4 degrees of over-heat.
  • There are, in most cases, no clear plans of how countries will reach their pledges, and virtually no legallybinding such plans (Britain’s Climate Change Act remains a rare exception; and even its enforceability remains unclear. Meanwhile, Britain is ‘on schedule’ to miss our climate targets without urgent action).
  • Virtually all countries have economic, industrial, agricultural and transportation policies and plans and practices that directly contradict their aspirations to tackle manmade climate change.
  • There is no enforcement mechanism for Paris. None.
  • In order to reach its own – inadequate, unsafe, purely aspirational, unenforceable – targets, the Paris Agreement explicitly commits us to using nonexistent, utterly reckless and almost certainly both unaffordable and ineffective 'Negative Emissions Technologies’.

The conclusion one has to draw from all this is an unattractive but unavoidable one: it’s not going to happen.

The Paris targets are pie in the sky. Barring a multifaceted miracle, they are definitely not going to be achieved. Within a generation or two, we will be facing an exponentially rising tide of climate disasters – and an inexorably rising tide. Not to mention global temperatures heading up toward 3 or 4 degrees of global over-heat.

Furthermore, a key reason why some scientists and Paris have slightly arbitrarily picked 1.5-2 degrees as the maximum 'safe' limit of temperature increase for the world's climate is that, above this, we probably face escalating feedbacks, leading potentially to run away climate change. These feedbacks are many, including albedo loss (i.e. less sunlight reflected back toward space), the disastrous consequences of the die-off of the Amazon, and, above all, the (already growing) presence and viciously-circular further release of the ultra-potent GHG methane into the atmosphere.

So, in turn, the further uncomfortable conclusion has to be drawn: this civilization is almost certainly going down. 

It may take until the end of this century or so, if we are lucky, and if we truly do our best to delay it. Or it may come quicker, if we are climatically unlucky, and if we don't try really hard to mitigate climate change. It may come quicker still, within just a generation or so, if climate disasters and/or climatically-forced mass migrations, resource wars and so forth collapse our stretched, unresilient, overly-globalised systems sooner.

But any which way, barring miracles, this civilization is going down. It is time we stopped engaging in the absurd contortions and pretences of 'climate-optimism'. It's time now for climate-realism. That entails not only an epic struggle to mitigate and adapt, an epic struggle to take on the climate-criminals, but also starting to plan seriously for civilizational decline and collapse. This planning, for the sake of brevity, means thing like: planning for greater self-reliance; building community; crafting values and a spirituality for a more local and Earthly future; creating seed-banks; learning to grow food; and getting yourself and your loved ones a knife-proof vest.

And for those Greens who simply can’t give up on the chance that we might yet get lucky and pull off a miracle, here's the cure in the tail: we must wake up to the remorseless logic with which I began this little piece as it is possibly our best remaining (albeit slim) chance of truly appreciating just how desperate our situation now is, and thus of having some slight hope of still being able to head off the otherwise inevitable collapse that awaits us.

Furthermore, if we start living now in a way that prefigures a future in which we cannot rely on any of the accoutrements of this civilisation, then we will be starting to undergo the very transformation that this civilisation needs to survive.

Once we understand the extremity of our plight, once we no longer deny it, then we just might have the will to try and drastically change course... Because here is the tragic and awful (and yet hopeful) thing about this appalling situation that we find ourselves in: if collectively we only had the will, it would be perfectly possible still for us to make the (unprecedented, revolutionary, but nevertheless possible) changes we would need to make in order to transform this civilisation and, to put it bluntly, to save ourselves.

This civilisation is going down unless, just conceivably, it transforms – we transform – in revolutionary, unprecedented ways undreamt of in Paris’s philosophy.

Dr. Rupert Read is Chair of Green House (