Making the Climate Hotter 

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Robert Hunziker’s essay on temperature and the Antarctic collects stunning scientific documentation for the climate crisis. The scientists have been conservative, offering only incontrovertible conclusions from the evidence, but Mother Nature, the bitch, has her own ideas about tempo, and the reality is more dire than the scientists’s earlier projections. To avoid the worst catastrophes, the thugs we dignify as nation states must, first, act in this decade, the 2020s, the one we have already pissed away several years of, to ‘slash emissions’ of CO2. Secondly, we must ‘convert energy systems to renewables.’ There is an urgency here that has never faced progressives before. Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg only (!) had to move faster, more decisively, than their imperialist warlord enemies. There was no clock ticking independently of all the social forces. We are like sailors, stokers, and mechanics on a sinking ship, disputing with the captain and his high and mighty officers on the best way to save the ship. A stalemate will be fatal to both parties, as the water is filling the hold and the ship is already listing. We have just this decade to find a solution. Putting our ship metaphor aside, the solution Brother Hunziker offers is to create an energy system that does not put still more carbon-dioxide in the air. And maybe we can relax a bit here, for here we are in familiar territory. While Donald Trump has been focusing on his pressing legal matters, our far-seeing president has a program to create new energy systems. He is not alone. Others also favor building electric cars, solar panels, windmill generators, battery stations, a new grid based on local generation of power, sail-assisted cargo ships, bicycle

paths, high-speed trains, heat pumps, improved insulation for homes and office buildings, battery-powered airliners (though I see a future in rubber bands)–but I will stop here, as the reader may have noticed a certain commonality to these ideas. They all involve making things, and not on a small scale, but on a scale that recapitulates the history of industrial production. And we may note a current of optimism. There is no loss, privation, suffering, grief, just steady work to a goal.

In the real world, building new generators of electricity and a new distribution system, at the same time we still have power for our refrigerators, computers, oil burners, and hospitals. Picture a windmill generator on a hill or mountaintop, where the winds are strongest. A road must be built to the site, earth moved, trees cut down, and pavement laid down. Steel will hold the generator and blades in the air, concrete will make the stable footing, and copper cables will for the innards of the generator and the wires to transmit power. Cement, steel, and aluminum are all energy-rich. Replacing gas-fueled cars with electric cars might take more than a decade, and we may note that the obsolete, evil gas-powered cars are still in production, their numbers not capped. Where will the power for these electric cars come from in the coming decade, while (diesel) trucks are still carrying the new wind-powered generators up to their new homes with concrete footings and wires leading to the new grid, also being built? Mostly from fossil fuels. People will still be using petroleum to heat while waiting for the installer to put in their heat pump. There will have to be a charging station for the new electric fleet. A gas pump will serve a dozen cars an hour, but charging a battery pack is not a matter of a few minutes.

In this transition story, the bad old world continues to generate the usual amount

of greenhouse as we go about our normal, also insane, activities while the new world is produced by conventional industrial means. Rather than reducing greenhouse gas production, this frenzy of production will greatly increase it if normal life continues, and catastrophe will come sooner as we build better. It will strike our children, not grandkids. We may experience some of it ourselves.

To reduce greenhouse gas production, we cannot simply conjure up a fantasy world of renewable energy. Making that world by industrial means in the coming decade, even if possible, would sink any chance of a good outcome, even if while all this beneficial building was going on, old habits of warfare and competition and profit-making could be magically eradicated.

We cannot build a green world while continuing to live in our old manner. The only way to reduce CO2 production is to consume less, right now, not at a remote time. Yet reducing consumption is never discussed, except as an amusing, eccentric behavior or a tiny minority who no longer eat beef, travel by airliners or heat their unused bedrooms and who write letters and stay home when loved ones marry, have babies, finish medical school, or die. They, if there are such people, don’t travel on vacations; they wear their clothes out, walk to the grocery and post office, and plant cabbages and potatoes where there was once a lawn. Is it possible to think of such a way of living?

Actually it is possible. Elements of such spartan living exist in Cuba. For the worst, most despicable, selfish, cruel motives, the American government has for sixty years blockaded and terrorized that small country, forcing it to forego the graces and embellishments of life, sometimes even necessities, to survive. A wealthy country with a democratic government could manage better, still following many of the Cuban models,

without the unnecessary pain and deprivation. It could even reduce its greenhouse gas production sharply while offering, instead of luxuries for some and idiotic distractions for the many, the happiness of cooperative work and altruistic motives. Is such a transformation possible in theory? Yes. In practice, in our society, no. A society with executions, frequent deaths in childbirth, widespread gun ownership, solitary confinement in prisons, and widespread contempt for sexual minorities, even children, does not have the capacity for humane, prudent reorganization. It is an unlikely leader in anything but war.

But we should at least think clearly while the ship is sinking. If it’s too late to avert the worst horrors of climate change, we could put them off, perhaps for a generation or two. Such a modest goal would still be worth striving for.

Olsen is a retired railroad worker.