The end is nigh…

If you’ve been reading through the sequence of “apocalyptic” posts I’ve put up recently, you’ll have read war, pestilence and famine. I actually started writing following an extremely timely piece which George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian some while ago, given that at the time the COP26 talks in Glasgow were just starting. I agree with virtually everything he says, but think the chances of the world generally taking sufficient action to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures are very slim indeed. The end result of COP26 doesn’t improve my outlook, unfortunately. I also agree with the UN’s take on the situation. A meter of rise in sea level would be fairly disastrous, but probably supportable, but at present we’re headed for something between 2.5 degrees and 6 degrees. That would be wholly unsupportable, given predictions of somewhat over two meters of rise for each degree in temperature. Many of the world’s biggest cities would be underwater, the crop-growing temperate zone would be in Siberia and Canada, leaving all the current agricultural powerhouses desert or semi-desert, there would be an even greater destruction of wildlife including, perhaps most importantly, insects. My own house, 40 miles inland but only about 4 meters above sea level, would probably be flooded (I live in mid-Yorkshire, just south of York, and am in the middle of the red splotch in Yorkshire on this very cautious projection), along with the large area of productive farmland around it.

The targets set at Paris (which would have produced a rise toward the bottom end of that bracket) have not been met, and this is COP26. There have been 25 previous meetings, and very little has been achieved, particularly in the biggest current contributors to climate change, China, India and the United States. It is now over three years since Greta Thunberg walked out of school and sparked a global movement, but her message has so far fallen on deaf ears (though she does, I think, represent another feature of apocalytic scenarios, that they throw up someone who is a shining example to the rest of us, even if doomed to failure). A dishonorable mention here to Brazil and Indonesia, both of which are busily removing old rain forests which fix large amounts of carbon. Hansi Freinacht wrote (in 2013) “If we are to globally make the cli­mate goal of keeping the temperature below a 2°C increase (which is still possi­bly catastrophic, as we’ll have more carbon in the atmosphere than for millions of years), we need to re­duce our carbon emissions by something to the tune of 25 billion tons per year before 2060 (as compared to the “bus­iness as usual” scenario). Now imagine this. Re­ducing with one (!) bil­lion tons would require either doub­ling the world’s nuclear power output, or expanding our wind power output by 50 times (some two million new mills), or expanding solar pow­er by a factor of 700, or using a sixth of all globally available arable land to grow biofuels to replace fossil fuels… And if we do all four (linearly increa­sing the output over the period 2013-2060), we are still only done with a small fraction of the overall necessary carbon red­uction; four out of the nec­ess­ary 25 billion tons reduced. And as things stand today, carbon emiss­ions are still grow­ing according to the “business as usual” scenario.” It seems extremely far-fetched to think that we can now, 8 years later and with no significant progress, reach that goal.

Since I starting writing, we have the recent IPCC report – which gives us three years to start seriously reducing emissions (not just stopping the increase), if we are to have a chance of 1.5 degrees of warming. I see little chance that this will happen, despite the pious mutterings of world leaders, 195 of whom have signed off on those proposals. (This post has been hanging around for quite some time, most recently delayed by personal sampling of Covid, which I do not recommend – but have survived).

Is this an apocalyptic scenario? Well, in the sense of apocalyptic used in Biblical studies, meaning an unveiling of a hidden truth, what has been the case since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been progressively revealed over the last 30 or 40 years. It has been a hard sell for many of those of my generation, who grew up with the opposite fear, that a nuclear exchange could bring about a “nuclear winter”. What it has most definitely revealed is that governments everywhere (though somewhat less in Europe than elsewhere) are afraid to take the steps necessary to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperature, presumably because they don’t think they can sell the concept to their electorates. It has also revealed that there are many among us (particularly, it seems, in the USA) who are prepared to use any excuse, including blatant falsehoods, to avoid limiting their profligate use of natural resources – so the governments are, perhaps, right. There is clearly a massive failure of public education going on, given the number of people who kick and scream against what the science is telling us (and telling us more and more forcibly as time goes by); at least in a substantial number of European countries, there seems to be some generalised appreciation that things cannot continue along the trajectory they are doing, but this is by no means shared worldwide.

Companies are hamstrung both by the tragedy of the commons and the neoliberal dictum that shareholder value is the only consideration, which leads to incredibly short-term thinking. We cannot expect companies in the grip of this belief system to act in a communally responsible way, they need government action to compel them. Arguably, just government action is insufficient, we need global government action, and there is no functioning global government (and little prospect that there will be).

Is it apocalyptic in the more popular sense of the end of civilisation, Mad Max style? The best known Biblical apocalypse, Revelation, obviously has a large amount of doom and gloom scenarios in it as well as “revealing hidden truths”, so the popular understanding is hardly without precedent.We might, however, want to recall that Revelation includes the lines  (Rev. 21) Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Even in the Bible’s most “doom and gloom” book, there is a promise of something better…

Well, with a lot of careful planning, the vast populations which would be flooded out or find themselves living in deserts might be moved to newly agriculturally productive areas and those might be sufficient to provide for the surviving population – but that’s the sort of careful planning which could remove the need for such massive relocations and which is clearly not being done. Add to that the generally joyous reception given to large scale migration in the world (sarcasm alert), and I see a recipe for a lot of wars and rumours of wars. Not quite, however, Mad Max territory, perhaps, unless you add in the possibility of killing off pollinating insects or one of the vast grain monocultures such as wheat or rice. Without those, we could possibly get away by killing off only, say, 95% of the world’s population. With them, we’d probably be looking at something more like 99.9%. Even that would, of course, still leave several millions of humans potentially alive. It wouldn’t however, leave our economic systems intact.

And, indeed, Monbiot is almost certainly correct in suggesting that in order to achieve climate change goals at all, we need a radical restructuring of our economic systems, which would probably also demand a radical restructuring of our political systems. Conservation, protection of the planet, is just incompatible with economic systems which demand constant growth in order to continue functioning. The report “The Limits to Growth” is now nearly 50 years old. The Guardian commented on it at around the 40 year mark, and was not optimistic. There seems little reason to be any more optimistic now. The only way I can see that the world might move towards the kind of systems Monbiot envisages is a worldwide popular uprising, sweeping away most of the economic and political structures we have in place at the moment. Gradual change is something we are probably already too late to rely on – and that kind of popular uprising might be nearly as catastrophic as the anarchy which I envisage when climate change renders much of the globe uninhabitable. Tad DeLay, on the other hand, is pessimistic about the likelihood we will do this.

There are, of course, those who have a touching faith in the ability of science to find a solution where none currently exists. To me, it resembles the faith of Biblical apocalypticists that God would intervene and create a new world order, which I might point out has not happened in the nearly 2000 years since the last of those canonised was written. The days of the “Deus ex machina” appear to be over. Yes, maybe science will find some solution (though wholesale alteration of our climate in the short term seems to be an incredibly risky prospect), but that is wholely in the area of “hope over experience” at present.

This post is the fourth of the series, corresponding to the Fourth Horseman:- “When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a pale horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”— Revelation 6:7–8 (New American Standard Bible)

It is very tempting to see that passage as a prediction of the effects of climate change, which will bring war, famine and probably pestilence with it, and most certainly chaos. Not, however, so much of the wild beasts of the earth, as we are in the middle of a great extinction and many species are disappearing before humanity. But I don’t, except inasmuch as all total failures of a society look somewhat similar. The probable target of that vision of the future was of a collapse of the Roman Empire, which the writer no doubt saw coming in or around the second century (whereas it didn’t happen until the fifth century for the Western Empire and, arguably, the fifteenth for the Eastern). For the writer, the Roman Empire was essentially the whole world. Climate change, however, IS  a whole world problem.

I hope above hope that I might be being unduly pessimistic here, but in conscience, I just think I’m being realistic. My generation and that before it, in particular, have failed our descendants. I apologise on their behalves. We will not be around to see the full effects and apologies then…




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