In a World of Troubles, Confronting Our Biggest Danger

Climate heating takes a leap

On multiple fronts, these are not easy times for people who care about the future of the world.

The climate news is filled with reports of record-breaking temperatures. After a series of years since 2015 that were already the hottest on record, 2023 was the hottest ever by a long shot, just 0.02 degrees C shy of the 1.5 degree C limit that was set as an aspirational goal by the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. The record is continuing into this year, even as the El Nino Pacific Ocean warming condition which drives increased heating is fading. First, the world experienced the hottest January on record, 1.66 degrees C over the 1850-1900 baseline and “a stark deviation” from the average of the last 30 years, the World Meteorological Organization reported. Then February was the hottest for its month at 1.77 degrees C over the baseline.

The 12 months from February 2023 to January 2024 actually did breach the 1.5 degree C barrier by 0.02 degrees. The real question is whether this is a one-year breach or the beginning of a trend. The five-year average will tell the story. It is still around 0.3 degrees C below the 1.5 marker.

Meanwhile, sea surface temperatures are literally headed off the charts, as the below graph shows. Ocean heating is the precursor to storms and other weather extremes.

Antarctic sea ice cover at its point of maximum annual accumulation continues to hit record lows, with September 2023 the lowest by far. The previous February saw the record lowest minimum accumulation. The minimum reached this February tied with February 2022 for second lowest minimum.

“Antarctica’s low sea ice extent in 2023 and culminating with this low 2024 minimum is nothing short of shocking,” said leading ice research scientist Ted Scambos. “These consecutive lows have the potential to kick off real changes in ice sheet melting, snowfall on the ice sheet and warming of the surrounding ocean.”

Scientists are now calling it a regime shift, likely caused by those heating waters undermining ice formation. Low sea ice in the southern polar regions has impacts not only on Antarctica, but also on the flow of ocean currents, which affects weather patterns around the world.

Graph of daily Antarctic sea ice extent in 2023 compared to other low-ice years
Recent years have seen the lowest maximum Antarctic sea ice cover on record, with 2023 the lowest by far. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

A new review of climate tipping points studies by over 200 researchers comes to a stark conclusion, ScienceAlert reports: “humanity is heading for disaster, unless significant steps are taken to change that course . . . The research team mentions trillions of US dollars in climate-related damage, billions of people pushed into hardship around the world, and millions of lives lost as a result of a rapidly warming planet.

“The report focuses specifically on tipping points – sudden, large scale shifts in ecological conditions caused by a culmination of smaller environmental changes. Those cataclysmic shifts include the widespread destruction of coral reefs and the collapse of the biggest ice sheets, each of which would in turn lead to even greater widespread disruption.”

The nightmare is cascading tipping points, one triggering another. The below chart illustrates the complex interactions. One of the scariest chains is the disappearance of Arctic sea ice which reduces the white surface so less solar heat is reflected back into space and more to be absorbed in the blue ocean, thus disproportionately heating the polar region. In turn this melts Greenland ice, freshening the water and reducing its salt content. This disrupts North Atlantic currents. The current is propelled by heavier salt-laden water sinking to the depths when it reaches the North Atlantic, opening a space to pull water north. With lighter water the current slows. That reduces heat transport to the north and builds it up in oceans to the south, changing weather patterns to create drought and dieback in the Amazon rainforest while promoting disintegration of Antarctic ice.

The North Atlantic current is already the slowest in at least 1,500 years, and has slowed 15% since the mid-20th century, so all this may already be occurring to some extent. Meanwhile, a new study says the summer Arctic Ocean could become largely ice-free as soon as this decade, moving the earliest projection up a decade.

2. Climate tipping points and their cascading effects | Climate Tipping Points : Insights for Effective Policy Action | OECD iLibrary
Tipping points setting off tipping points. Credit: OECD Library.

Wars and the threat of more

While all of this says the world should be moving toward unprecedented international cooperation to ensure our common survival, it’s going in the exact opposite direction. The great powers of the U.S., Russia and China seem inexorably driven to intensified conflict. In the view of many informed observers, the risk of nuclear war has never been greater. The war in Ukraine grinds on, with hundreds of thousands dead and maimed, while the prospect of introducing NATO troops has been raised by French President Emmanuel Macron. It is hard to see how that happens without hazarding escalation to nuclear warfare.

The event most often cited as the pinnacle of nuclear danger, the 1962 crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba, lasted only 13 days. The current threat extends over an indefinite period. An extended time of tension magnifies the risks of nuclear war by accident or by misreading the intentions of the adversary, as during the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise.

Meanwhile, the genocide in Gaza continues. The heartbreaking reality is captured in these articles in a way nothing else I’ve read does: “History will record that Israel committed a holocaust,” and “On the floors of genocide: sand, shit, decomposing flesh and odd slippers,” by Susan Abulhawa, who visited Gaza in February and early March. She recounts the absolute degradation to which the people of Gaza are being subjected, telling the stories of real human beings. This great tragedy of a state born of genocide commiting a genocide is almost too much to grasp. It is as if seeds planted in Israel’s founding are coming to full bloom, a cycle of evil feeding itself. I cannot express the depth of my gratitude for Jewish voices speaking up and organizing against this horror.

As if all this were not enough, political conflict in the U.S. is at a high pitch, with a civil war air to it. A year ago this month Donald Trump commenced his 2024 presidential campaign with a rally at Waco, Texas, site of the Branch Davidian shootout in 1993, a touchstone for the far right. A choir of people imprisoned for the January 6 Capitol invasion called in to sing the national anthem, and scenes of the event flashed on the screen. Trump vowed retribution on his enemies. Now, with the Super Tuesday results of a few days ago, he is almost certain to be the Republican nominee, while Biden is weakened by his association with Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Whoever wins in 2024, the result is unlikely to be accepted by the other side. Potential outcomes in 2025 verge on the unimaginable. In 1859 and 1860, few could envision the bloody Civil War that was just ahead. Most just could not believe that the nation would descend into such carnage, still the war that by far took the most U.S lives. I am not predicting a repeat of that scenario, but a breakdown of federal authority is quite conceivable.

The clash between Texas and the federal government over the state’s actions to prevent border crossings give an early indication. The Texas Nationalist Movement claims enough signatures to put a secession measure on the Republican ballot, which the party disputed because most were electronically registered. But the victories in the recent elections of 7 legislators committed to putting the measure on the ballot means the issue will go before the legislature. A February YouGov poll showed 31% of Texans support secession, the highest of any state except Alaska, which came in at 36%.

In case you think the sentiment is restricted to red states, California came in second at 29% and New York at 28%. My own state of Washington registered 24%. Overall, 23% in the U.S. support their state seceding, while 51% oppose it, with the remainder unsure. Among Republicans the break is 29% yes, 46% no. Among Democrats it’s 21% yes, 60% no. (Interestingly, 28% would support another state seceding. People who would like to get rid of Texas or California, no doubt.) Asked if the Constitution gives states the right to secede, 26% actually answered yes and only 35% no, the rest unsure, despite the result of the Civil War. What is shocking, indicating that the bonds among U.S. of Americans are not as unbreakable as we might have thought, is the thin majority opposing secession, the large minority supporting it, and the only one-third portion who say it is impossible. Secession was also a minority sentiment in the South before the election of Abraham Lincoln.

We’ve been drifting apart as a country for decades, arguably since the 1960s. In this situation, a fractious presidential election with a disputed result could well set off a cascading effect leading to some form of national division. It is aptly noted that the greatest dividing line in the U.S. is urban-rural, so a neat division of states is less feasible than in 1861. Nonetheless, large metropolitan areas tend to drag their states along. Again, with emotions running so high, what we think is impossible now could be the headlines in the next year or two. If not outright secession, then a refusal by states to obey federal authority on dividing line issues such as immigration and reproductive rights.

The greatest danger is despair

A climate system going into uncharted territory. The threat of World War III openly discussed. An actual genocide underway shocking the conscience of the world. (Though it has to be said we in the Western world are blind to mass deaths also occurring in places such as Sudan and the Congo.) A nation fraught with divisions that threaten to fracture it. As I started this post, these are times to trouble all of us who care for the future of our world. The prospect for bad outcomes seems to outweigh the odds for good ones. We teeter on the edge of chaos. It can be emotionally crushing. I know.

What is clear, and difficult to absorb, is that better possibilities for our world have been foreclosed, and we must now cope with the consequences of bad pathways long pursued, and indeed promoted by the various interests that hold power in our societies. Major industries including fossil fuels, agribusiness and timber insistently forward their climate-polluting profit schemes. The military-industrial complex and its network of think tanks and politicians push conflict and war, a boon to arms industry stock valuations. The Israel lobby forecloses reconciliation with the Palestinians. Various political party and media interests thrive on spurring national divisions, because it boosts votes, donations and ratings. In general, large corporate powers – big pharma, big tech, big banks, etc. – serve their own bottom line interests, whatever the broader impacts.

What has been lost here, or at least deeply obscured, is a sense of the common good, and with it a pursuit of common understandings. It seems there is a malicious intent to deny commonalities in order to further narrow interests. That is the thread running through all our convergent crises. This is why I think that in a world of dangers the greatest is despair, of caring, thoughtful people who place prime value in the common good becoming discouraged and just giving up to retreat into private life, to the limited personal spaces where we think we can do at least a little good. It is the greatest danger because, when narrow interests dominate, the only hope is people who care about the common good and act for it in an organized manner. I can hardly blame people for feeling despair, knowing how this world of troubles affects me in my own life. Facing situations over which one has little or no control, the emotional impact can be overwhelming.

That is why I am urgent to return to a theme I opened last year, building the future in place. To provide a pathway where people can engage around not just what we are against, as vital as that is, but also a hopeful vision of what we are for. The key concept is building a network of community-based institutions that meet basic human needs such as housing, food and energy by creating organized forms such as public banking and worker cooperatives, all driven by new instruments of governance and consensus-building including community assemblies and watershed councils. The idea is to build a new basis of human solidarity and mutual aid in the places and regions we live, in the new institutions themselves and the struggles to create them. To rediscover the sense of the common good in rebuilding community around us, and linking our efforts into broader movements for the common good in our countries and world.

We have to be real that things are likely to get worse before they get better. In the case of climate this is certainly so. And to confront this reality by creating centers of hope that embody a better future in the places we live. Both to deal with the sources of the multiple crises we face, and to build strong communities able to cope with the tough times we know are surely coming. In such times, nothing will be more important than a sense of human solidarity and common kindness. These are survival necessities. We need to continue to do everything we can at all levels to stop climate tipping points and wars, and at the same time build the peaceful, ecologically sustainable future we want and need where we have the most leverage, our home communities. Here is a critical venue where we can build power to confront the interests that are throwing away our future.

It is hard to know if any of this will be enough, and easy to conceive that anything we can do will fall short. These situations are indeed overwhelming and unprecedented in recorded human history. Whatever the case, we must not lose heart. We must not give up. We must try to build a future for ourselves, our children and their future generations. A future centered on community and a sense of the common good. The place to start is where we live. We must build the future in place.

This essay originally appeared on The Raven.