The only good thing to say about Covid is that it caused carbon emissions to drop. Not enough to save humanity from catastrophic climate change, but significantly. At the height of the global lockdown, carbon emissions fell 17 percent – when the whole world basically stopped driving and flying. According to Eric Holthaus’ new book, “The Future Earth,” by 2035 the United States must have a carbon neutral economy or face utter disaster. That, folks, pretty much means the end of capitalism as we know it.
Indeed, that’s what “The Future Earth” advocates. A planet of vegan eco-socialists – sounds good to me, though I think the ExxonMobil ceo might stand in the way. With such opposition and other, more ordinary lukewarm opponents in mind, Holthaus himself carefully avoids terms like socialism or eco-socialism, but that’s what his proposal amounts to. And even that won’t save us from the warming we’ve already locked in.
“Reducing emissions to zero is the best way to slow down climate change…what if after already greatly reducing our global emissions, the climate tipping points we previously set in motion are triggered anyway?” So even if we transform our economies, stop burning any fossil fuels, put the brakes on the disaster of animal agriculture (it consumes “half the world’s arable land and uses 80 percent of the world’s fresh water supply”) and so forth, by mid-century parts of the inhabited earth could still occasionally reach 170 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, coastal cities will be submerged, island nations will drown, megastorms and category 6 hurricanes will still tear up our countries, droughts will displace tens of millions of people and wild-fires will empty places like California and much of Australia. That this is our best scenario even when we go all out and totally redo our societies tells you a lot about how much damage we’ve already inflicted on the planet. And this list of what’s coming regardless of our best efforts looks like a walk in the park if we don’t cut emissions to zero by mid-century, when the effects of runaway climate change will be unimaginably awful. We don’t have time – we must de-carbonize at once.
“Climate change is not a war,” Holthaus writes. “It’ is genocide. It is domination. It is extinction. It is the most recent manifestation of how powerful men throughout history have sought to steal from the less powerful and dismiss them as merely inconvenient.” More specifically the problem is growth. Capitalism depends on endless growth. So does cancer. In fact, cancer is an apt metaphor for capitalism. Of course plutocrats, confronted with this comparison, opt for chemotherapy, which is what Holthaus calls techno fixes like geo-engineering. But he argues convincingly that given the very real dangers, those should be a last, not a first, resort. Indeed, if Newt Gingrich supports geo-engineering, and he does, you can be pretty sure it’s a bad idea. “We need to become a society with a cultural focus on repair and maintenance,” Holthaus writes, “rather than innovation and efficiency.” The lunacy of planned obsolescence should be tossed into the insane asylum and left there.
“The Future Earth” sketches what must be done between now and 2050. It is a tall order. It includes: “carbon-free electricity generation through a blend of wind, solar, geothermal and hydro-power…phasing out petroleum-powered engines from all cars, trucks, trains, ships and aircraft…finding alternatives to fossil-fuel based chemical fertilizers…and finding new processes for cement production.” But all of this is doable – if we don’t have leaders like Trump, Bojo and Bolsonaro. Holthaus quotes folksinger Utah Phillips: “The earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” One address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Along with our so-called leaders, planet killers include fossil fuel corporate executives and investors. So: corporations, banks, Wall Street, political elites, basically the people an older generation of leftists called the ruling class.
Holthaus’ plan to limit the damage is wonderful; the problem is prizing the oligarchs’ fingers off the levers of power. They will not go willingly. They do not care if they render the earth uninhabitable for the next generation. They don’t care what happens after they die. They never did and never will. And if the catastrophe comes in their lifetimes, they delude themselves with the notion that they have a plan. They mistakenly believe they can flee climate change to their gated estates in New Zealand (billionaire Peter Thiel) or to a new abode on Mars (billionaire Elon Musk). Disabusing them of these fantasies is probably a waste of time, but still it’s worth noting that if climate change goes unchecked, typhoons and wild fires will ravage New Zealand. Even if terraformed, Mars will remain less hospitable to human life than a climate-scorched earth.
The only way to change our rulers is to make their current business model unprofitable. That means court cases for millions or billions of dollars in damages. It means legislation that zeros out subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It means the Green New Deal and Holthaus’ idea for an environmental global Marshall Plan. In other words, it means a fight, a huge fight against the ruling class, because that class has no intention of yielding power – environmental apocalypse or no. They would rather life on earth perish, with them in charge than survive, with them losing power.
“If what you’ve been doing for hundreds of years has brought you to the brink of extinction, maybe it’s time to try something new,” Holthaus writes. Most of his readers will agree. It’s that sliver, the one percent who hold power, who disagree and see no reason to alter business as usual. Their current attempts to suppress or ignore the truth about climate change condemns hundreds of millions of people to forced migration, homelessness and premature death. But truth will out. And truth can galvanize millions of ordinary people into taking matters into their own hands, ignoring their rulers and stopping more global warming once and for all.