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Our Dying World

It’s hard to believe that our stupendous human enterprise, with all its blood and bombs, its megacities and spectacular technology, is ending. Yet the scientists – the true scientists, not the shills for oil companies – imply that this is so. We’ve done ourselves in, are destroying ourselves with our own, fatal success. True, we have a bit over a decade to soften the blow, reduce the lethality of the megatons of carbon and methane we’ve pumped into the atmosphere. The question is: will the men with power, the heads of state, even listen? So far, the outlook is poor. World leaders evidently do not care what happens to the next generation – they do not even appear to care what happens in the next fifteen years, just so long as business continues as usual, profits keep rolling in, and capitalism’s thirst for endless, cancerous growth is regularly slaked.

Consider a tiny bit of what has already occurred, as reported in David Wallace-Wells’ recently published The Uninhabitable Earth:

“Half of the Great Barrier Reef has already died, methane is leaking from Arctic permafrost and may never freeze again, and the high-end estimates for what warming will mean for cereal crops suggest that just four degrees of warming could reduce yields by fifty percent.”

Don’t even try to imagine what double that warming will do.

The altered climate will cause multiple catastrophes, listed in Wallace-Wells’ table of contents: heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfires, out-of-control weather – typhoons, tornadoes, floods and droughts – a fresh water drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, the spread of plagues not seen in millennia and of tropical diseases throughout the world, climate wars and more.

Meanwhile, “twenty-two percent of the earth’s landmass was altered by humans just between 1992 and 2015. Ninety-six percent of the world’s animals, by weight, are now humans and their livestock,” writes Wallace-Wells. He describes “the forces that unleashed climate change – namely ‘the unchecked wisdom of the market'” to conclude that “neoliberalism is the God that failed on climate change.” Indeed those who hope that salvation from the human-induced climate catastrophe will come from our neoliberal leaders are deluding themselves and wasting time.

For those who consider our ravaged climate the work of centuries, this book will be a shock. “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in the past three decades,” Wallace-Wells writes. The climate catastrophe is predominately the creation of the World War II generation, the boomers and their children. And if we don’t wean ourselves quickly from oil and gas, from our meat-intensive diet, and if we don’t stop pouring concrete, large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable. In fact, the UN projects “200 million climate refugees by 2050.” At the high end, Wallace-Wells quotes “a billion or more vulnerable people with little choice but to fight or flee.” You think the Syrian war produced a refugee crisis for Europe (a war, by the way, largely fuelled by climate-change induced drought)? Or that Central American drought has propelled unsustainable numbers of migrants to the U. S.? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

If business continues as usual, by century’s end, we humans will have the distinction of having produced eight degrees of warming. (Currently we’ve produced one degree of warming.) People “at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around outside without dying…whole regions will become unlivable…as soon as the end of this century.” Train tracks will buckle and roads will melt. Another way of stating matters is “twenty-five Holocausts and the worst case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.” And this disaster has just started. “Since 1980,” Wallace-Wells writes, “the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves…The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002.” Humanity has been playing with fire. “In 2010, 55,000 died in a Russian heatwave…In 2016…temperatures in Iraq broke…120 in July, with temperatures dipping below 100, most days, only at night.” Regarding the Chicago heatwave of 1995, which killed 739 people, “of the many thousands more who visited hospitals during the heatwave, almost half died within the year. Others merely suffered permanent brain damage.” Without curbing emissions, global damages could be “as high as $100 trillion per year by 2100,” which would wipe out world wealth. Meanwhile “nearly two thirds of the world’s cities are on the coast – not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands and rice paddies…Already flooding has quadrupled since 1980…and doubled since 2004.” NOAA has predicted a possible eight feet of sea level rise just in this century, Wallace-Wells reports.

Everything human must change: our meat-based diet and industrial agriculture, our power and transportation, the megatons of concrete we pour; in short we need not just a Green New Deal but, as Wallace-Wells argues, a Green Marshall Plan for the entire world, and since the criminally irresponsible Trump regime would try to block this, the world needs to circumvent the U.S., until a saner administration is in place, by creating an international body far more powerful and effective than the UN. We need a global government. No individual nation state has taken the lead on this, not effectively anyway. And no sovereign country can afford the costs of runaway warming. It will not be a Great Recession or Great Depression, “but, in economic terms, a Great Dying…Should the planet warm 3.7 degrees…climate change damages could total $551 trillion – nearly twice as much wealth as exists in the world today.” Wallace-Wells writes. “We are on track for more warming still.”

A human holocaust looms. We need better leaders. We need an international government that can police fossil burning compliance. And we need it yesterday.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Carbon. She can be reached through her website.

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