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The Illusion of Saving the World

Old power plant, West Linn, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

At the end of this month, as you probably know by now, an extraordinary hoopla event will descend on Manhattan in the form of a “Climate Action Summit,” summoned by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, to get the nations of the world finally to take seriously the threat of “global warming” and pledge to actually take serious action to save the world from catastrophe.

The chances of that happening are nil.

Oh, yes there will be speeches and promises. Under increasing pressure from alarmed citizens, led by the enlightened youth of the world who know they will be the primary victims of the coming environmental disaster, most national leaders will toss around ideas like carbon taxes, bans on coal mining and nuclear energy, building “retrofitting,” renewable solar fuels, carbon dioxide entrapment, and “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions. Some will be willing to start doing something about one or another, while simultaneously asking for somebody else to pay for the astronomic costs.

But the whole thing is an illusion. The problem is too big, the solutions too imperfect, and the timing, even if everything got fixed in a decade, is too late.

Most scientists believe, with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that if the earth’s temperature should increase by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Farenheit) the rise in sea levels would engulf 280 million people, earthquakes could wipe out 17.6 million, and subsequent droughts and famines would like result in another 231 million, not to mention uncontrolled worldwide migrations, the collapse of many fragile states, and the threat of civil disorder throughout the developed world.

This is why the last global climate gathering, in Paris in 2015, set a goal of reducing global gas emissions enough by 2050 so as to avoid reaching a world temperature of a 1.5 Celsius increase This would mean reducing emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and virtually 100 per cent by the target date.

And what is happening? Global gas emissions have increased every year for the last 20 years, with a record set in 2018 (to which the U.S. contributed a record 3.4 per cent), and at this rate, unless miracles occur, we’ll reach 1.5 Celsius by 2030, 2 Celsius shortly thereafter.

Here are two hard truths. In order to reach the Paris Accord goals, according to the Intergovernmental Panel, the world would need to see “rapid and far-reaching” changes in energy systems (immediate end of fossil fuels), land use (agricultural land replanted with trees), city layouts and transportation (to reduce car use), buildings (all retrofitted to renewable energy), vast reduction or elimination of road and air travel, and worldwide checks on human material consumption. In other words, the end of capital civilization as we know it and its replacement by low-energy, pre-industrial, self-sufficient local and regional economies—within a decade.

And two, even those miracles would probably be too late. The ten hottest years on earth, since quasi-global records began to be kept in 1850, have been between 2005 and 2019, and the hottest by far have been the last five years. (July was the hottest month since record-keeping began.) Hot temperatures cause melting ice, at the poles, in Greenland, and at glaciers worldwide, thus reducing reflection of sunlight back into the atmosphere and increasing the amount that warms the surface. Melting permafrost layers release massive amounts of methane gas, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, increasing temperatures worldwide.

The tragedy is that we have already increased temperatures so much, and created conditions so that they will inevitably increase further, that there is nothing that science—or any United Nations mandate of any kind—can do that will reduce temperatures in ten years. Period.

Last year an English scientist named Jem Bendell wrote a paper that shocked many of his fellow scholars by coming out and saying what everyone knew the data pointed to but no one wanted to admit. He had devoted decades to “sustainable development,” he said, but had to conclude that “ the whole field of sustainable development research…is based on the view that we can halt climate change and avert catastrophe. By returning to the science, I discovered that view is no longer tenable,” and there was very little prospect that any kind of social change would save the world from an imminent environmental disaster and “the likelihood of near term societal collapse.”

It is still not a generally accepted scientific position, and its implications are so far-reaching that a great many people prefer simply to ignore it; his fellow scientists criticize it as excessively gloomy, which of course it is. But it is hardly surprising that in the last few years there have grown up several organizations that have confronted that truth head-on. For example, something called the Near Term Human Extinction Support Group started a Facebook group in 2013 and has since added a Near Term Human Extinction Evidence Group, both flourishing with new material every day to comfort or discomfort their adherents.

It’s not necessary to side with the NTHers, but I would advise you not to fall into the delusions that will be offered in the next few days by the Summitists.

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Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of twelve books over fifty years and lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

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