The Climate Medusa

Old power plant along the Kanawah River, West Virginia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Humans thirst for certainty as they do for water. They want to know what to expect for tomorrow. They keep talking to each other to assure understanding, friendship, cooperation, and political, military, and commercial relations.

Wars, bad governments, gross inequalities, and natural upheavals unsettle civilization and personal and national certainty about the present and the future.

The Peloponnesian War

The fifth century BCE Peloponnesian War, for example, disrupted the “golden” age of Athens when everything seemed to be going its way: spreading its democratic culture and advancing science and the good and the beautiful.

However, the rising primacy of Athens rubbed Sparta the wrong way. Here was the Greek superpower outdistanced by Athens. Sparta did not take that kindly. Invincible Sparta did not try to learn why Athens was doing so well, why certainty had gained so much ground in Athens. Like a troubled tyrant, Sparta declared war on Athens and its allies, about half of Greece.

The war from 431 to 404 BCE brought a plague to Athens, a pandemic that killed thousands, including its great leader Perikles. But the real plague was the increasing divisions and uncertainty gaining ground throughout Greece in the twenty-seven years war.

The psychological effects and the traumatic consequences of this fratricidal contest were enormous. They gave Sophokles, Euripides and Aristophanes plenty of food for thought. They decried the hostilities and, in anguish, sought inspiration from the distant Hellenic mythological past of gods and heroes. They tried in vain to understand why the Greeks were at war rather than in affection and peace.

In the Suppliant Women, Euripides asked why the Greeks were killing each other with spears. Life itself became woe, he said.

Aristophanes’ hilarious plays were powerful criticisms of declining Athens. He was against the insanity of war as well as the treachery of  shoddy politicians and lampooned them mercilessly.

Evils of war

War corrupts. And civil war kills more than soldiers. It kills virtues of citizenship and civilization. Brothers join opposite camps. They may even kill each other. Uncertainty and fear sow the future with mistrust and greed.

The fear and uncertainty of the twenty-first century are not accidental. They are the progenies of the chaos of the twentieth century. This was an era of vast wars, genocides, ecocides, nuclear weapons, and the prospect of extinction.

Climate chaos from Pandora’s box

As if this toxic legacy was not bad enough, humans in the form of fossil fuel companies opened the Pandora’s box of climate chaos. This anthropogenic typhoon is circling the planet spreading harm indiscriminately. Now it sends heavy rains, and vast floods, now is spreads pandemics of drought, now it accelerates forest fires to the heat and destructiveness of infernos.

This terror is affecting all regions of the planet, UN climatologists said in their latest report of August 9, 2021. In fact, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warned the report was “code red for humanity.”

On September 21, 2021, Xi Jinping, President of China, rushed to assure the UN that China would no longer fund coal-fired plants abroad. During the same day, September 21, 2021, President Joe Biden addressed the UN but did not promise anything in particular, save for “relentless diplomacy, not Cold War,” and increasing the annual funds the US would be spending for the transition of poor countries to non-carbon energy technologies.  A few days before, Biden said we don’t have more than ten years to stop the climate catastrophe moving our way. The climate chaos, he said, knows no party or ideology. We know what we must do, if only we have the courage to do it.

Biden probably had fossil fuel companies and Republicans in mind. They are lock, stock, and barrel subsidiaries to Trump and fossil fuel corporations. They deny global warming and spew doubt and lies continuously. They are preparing Trump to take over in 2024 by any and all means possible, including civil war. They would rather destroy American democracy and the country itself as well as wreck the planet than seeing Biden reelected and losing the easy profits from petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

From uncertainty to science-based policies

These internal wars exacerbate fear and uncertainty among Americans. Many see the climate devastation and want to move away from the path of storms and heat waves and forest fires, but where should they go?

Others deplore the apathy of state and federal governments, so they are buying guns to protect themselves. A friend said to me, soon neighbors will fight each other for diminishing resources.

I am not a prophet and neither have any leads from the priestess of Apollo at Delphi.

Yet it’s clear that science-based decisions are trustworthy. Science has been warning us for decades about the Medusa of climate change. Medusa was a monster who turned anyone looking at her into stone. Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, cut off the head of Medusa.

Is Biden courageous enough to cut off the head of the climate Medusa? I don’t know. But Biden is right. We know how to untie the Gordian knot of fossil fuel companies.

Phase out their climate chaos fuels before 2030. And employ the nation’s resources, including the armed forces and the skills of scientists and engineers, to build the infrastructure of a solar and wind energy future for transportation and the generation and production of electricity.

Order the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture to ban pesticides, the genetic engineering of crops and animals, and start regulating animal farms.

These federal agencies ought to promote the science of agroecology as a measure of rebuilding American agriculture and healthy small family farms.

Moreover, order the US Department of Justice to use the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to break up large farms into small family farms.

Such policies promise a better future: addressing seriously climate chaos, slow it down, and averting a catastrophe. Second, these steps would encourage the American people to join their government in rebuilding a country confident of its mission and purpose.

That confidence would facilitate international cooperation in putting the climate Medusa back into Pandora’s box.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.