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Do We Need a Dictatorship to Respond to Climate Change?

Globally, June 2019 was the hottest June on record. Though it is tricky to attribute any particular event to anthropogenic climate change, scientists estimate that the likelihood of the month’s extreme heat was made five times more likely by human contributions.

This heat is no anomaly. The top ten hottest years on record globally have all occurred since 1998. This list includes every year since 2013, which is to say, 2012 was the last year that was not one of the ten hottest recorded. (See “The 10 Hottest Global Years on Record.”) Because 2019 is an El Niño year, when temperatures tend to be higher, some are already predicting that it will end up being the hottest year on record.

In India, people are running out of water. In the US Midwest, farmers are having difficulty planting crops. Greenland ice is melting at unprecedented levels. Drastic events continue to happen “sooner than predicted.”

This list of dire events could go on and on, but so could the list of measures we should be taking but are not.

I’m not talking about individuals changing light bulbs, going vegan, or giving up driving for cycling. Such actions only benefit the individual (i.e., lower electricity bills, improved health, nicer calves) and have zero effect on the system as a whole.

Given the stakes—famine, war, extinction—nothing less than a complete reorganization of society is required at this point. Most of what we in the techno-industrial world are doing now must be drastically curtailed or eliminated: the military, consumption-based economics, debt, animal agriculture, baby making, just to name a few. (See “What Does Eliminating Carbon Emissions In 10 Years Look Like?”)

So how do we implement change on such a level? Won’t it require centralized decision-making and top-down implementation? And not just a regulatory authority—à la the UN with teeth—but a “benevolent dictatorship,” to invoke a well-worn phrase? Don’t humans need to be forced to do the right thing, at literal gun point if need be? Some people think so.

Now, I don’t get around enough, but so far I’ve only heard this idea from fellow citizens of the techno-industrial world. I don’t know if people in Bangladesh (where farm fields are being inundated by rising seas) or on low-lying Pacific islands (where “Climate Change Is an Existential Threat“) or in Africa (a continent especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change) would agree that dictatorship is the only option, but I’m certain that when people here make the insistence that it says something about us for sure.

Which is: Here in the techno-industrial world, we live in a domineering society. Our dominant religion grants us “dominion” over all living things. Our workplaces are hierarchical. So are our families. Top-down arrangements are our default setting. We don’t have much experience doing anything any other way. The old adage that everything looks like a nail when you’re holding a hammer doesn’t go far enough for us; we’ve forgotten that we’re holding a hammer at all and now we mistake that limited tool for our hand.

Is our way the only way? Are our limitations everyone’s else’s? Are we “realistic” or do we lack imagination? Again, I haven’t traveled enough, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that we cannot judge all of humanity—and certainly not human nature—from a sample size comprised of the US in the present day.

We’re damn cynical about the whole world here in the US, but not—I repeat not—for good reason. To the contrary, I think our outlook is clouded by a nihilism that’s a product of our privilege. Our empire is declining and I surmise that the mood on a sinking ship is rarely festive. Our creative force here is depleted—materially and otherwise—and now we have our legacy to deal with: that we wasted our wealth on war. There’s no taking back the centuries of brutality against other humans, other creatures and the planet, and this is our karma: to be miserable and view everything through the pessimistic lens of the rich man made penniless and lying in the gutter. But it’s ourkarma, not everybody else’s.

So yeah, maybe we need a dictatorship—we here in the US—but if so, it’s not up to us to install it. If it’s time for us to take orders, it’s got to be from people who aren’t saddled with our shit. People who aren’t US Americans.

Need further justification for that? According to a new report from the United Nations Human Rights Council: “Developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs of climate change… despite the poorest half of the global population contributing just 10% of global carbon emissions.” (See “Looming ‘Climate Apartheid’ Could Split the World into the Rich and the Dead, UN Warns.”) That’s who should be in charge: the people most affected. At some point, the logic of that could overwhelm other factors.

Is there any chance that the US could change course and take responsibility for its actions on its own? That the people could revolt, overthrow the corporate oligarchy, and set up an eco-republic that inverts our history of rapacity for a future of creativity?

Personally, I believe it’s possible for an individual’s outlook to change radically, sometimes within a short time frame—even instantly—due to extreme circumstances. So I wonder if the global climate crisis that’s unfolding could provide a similar catalyst on a collective level here. That’s what I”m rooting for.

However, in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

I’m not going to argue with King or Niebuhr. But I hope that certain “groups”—that is, the other nations of the world—prove to be exceptions to the rule.