Climate Crisis Deepens, When Will We Get It?

Georgia-Pacific Mill, Toledo, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

This past June 23, I awoke with a thought I often have on this date. This was the day in 1988 that Jim Hansen went up to Capitol Hill to announce that human-caused global warming had arrived.

“The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,” the then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies told the U.S. Senate Energy  Committee. It made national headlines, only to be met with a deluge of disinformation from the fossil fuel industry, whose scientists decades before accurately projected the global temperature increase from burning fossil fuels, and which was funding climate change research as early as 1954. Thirty-six years after Hansen made that statement, the world seems little closer to getting it, thanks in huge part to that fossil industry campaign, by far the greatest corporate crime in history.

The June 23rd anniversary coincided with a heat wave that over the days from June 16-24 roasted 5 billion people in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe. Much of the U.S. was sweltering under heat advisories. Climate Central reported that the global heatwave was on average 3 times more likely to happen because of climate change, and across wide regions up to 5 times more likely. In Mexico and the Southwest U.S., a heatwave that happened in prior weeks was 35 times more likely to happen due to global heating, World Weather Attribution reported. On June 21 Mexico tied its hottest day on record at 125.6°F, while over the course of this year 70% of days in that nation have been extraordinarily hot. Saudi Arabia reported 1,300 heat deaths during this years Hajj pilgrimage, it was reported June 23.

Meanwhile the unusually hot waters of the Atlantic have spurred Beryl, the first hurricane of the year and projected to be the third earliest major hurricane on the books. It is the furthest east any hurricane has formed in June, fueled by the warmest June waters in that region. This animation tells the story. Beryl could be a precursor for what is likely to be a vicious tropical storm season.

‘Someone needs to remind me what part of the hurricane season we are in as this is very unusual,” tweeted Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel. “I guess these historic warm ocean temperatures are changing the game.”

Heating wasn’t the only extreme in recent days. Across the world drenching rainfalls were producing inundations from Switzerland and Italy to South China and the Indian subcontinent. In the U.S. upper Midwest floods drowned lands and communities in states including Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. Nearly half of that state was affected, while waters eroded the banks and flowed around the Rapidan Dam, threatening to take it out.  Southern Brazil was still recovering from record May flooding and slowly receding waters. Of the half million driven from their homes, 389,000 were still displaced.

It’s a warning signal, but we’ve been seeing warning signals now for five, 10 years,” said Andrew Harper, a U.N. Refugee Agency climate advisor who visited the area. “At what point do you basically have to slap somebody in the face and say: Wake up…(?)”

While world rolls to 1.5° fossil fuels hit record

Harper’s question is one for the world, where fossil fuel use hit record levels in 2023, growing 1.5% over the previous year to release 40 billion tonnes of CO2 for the first time. The share of global primary energy coming from coal, oil and gas was 81.5% barely budging from 2022’s 82%, despite 13% growth in wind and solar energy. That is the story. Certainly wind and solar have been expanding at rapid rates, but are still only a sliver of world primary energy usage, and not enough to keep up with overall growth in world energy demand, particularly in India and China.

Even as fossil fuel use set a record, so did the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, rising at a record rate of 4.7 parts per million from March 2023 to March 2024. The heat-trapping gas does increase faster during an El Niño ocean warming event such as has occurred over the past year. But even as El Niño fades the rate of increase remains high.

“This recent surge shows how far we still need to go to stabilize the climate system,” said Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 Program at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Stabilization will require that CO2 levels start to fall. Instead, CO2 is rising faster than ever.”

Yet a third disturbing record was set in 2023. Global temperatures increased to 1.35°C over the preindustrial baseline of 1850-1900, and by a record margin of 0.27°C. That continued a string of the world’s hottest years on record, 10 in the last 10 years.

“After seeing the 2023 climate analysis, I have to pause and say that the findings are astounding,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chief Scientist Dr. Sarah Kapnick. “Not only was 2023 the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year climate record — it was the warmest by far . . . We will continue to see records broken and extreme events grow until emissions go to zero”

The world is rapidly rolling toward the 1.5°C temperature increase threshold set by the 2015 Paris Climate Summit as the limit to avert the worst climate disruptions. Hansen nowadays is saying we have already effectively breached it, and are seeing an acceleration of global heating. You can read his work here. Those assertions have stirred debate in the climate science community. But we are already moving perilously close. As a February the world had already breached the 1.5°C mark 12 months in a row for the first time on record. Recent months have seen a continuation of record temperatures. Heating has been driven by the El Niño, and some cooling is expected.

In any event, sometime in the coming decade, the world is expected to plow through the 1.5°C barrier and stay there. Carbon Brief projects that likely occurring by 2030, and as soon as 2028, with a 95% chance by 2036. So it is probably time to ditch language such as “so many years to avert catastrophe,” and realize that as a world we are going to cross lines. Instead we need to understand this as a continuum, that each tenth of a degree we avoid is human lives saved and species spared from extinction.

When will an addicted world swear off?

The world sometimes seems like an alcoholic or drug addict. We know our problem. We know it’s going to take us down. Already it is eroding our basic health. We make endless promises to swear off, get off our addictions. But we never really do, and the problem just gets worse. Will we have to hit bottom before we get it? To be forced to do what we should have done years ago? And then how far gone will we be? Will we have triggered climate tipping points that swamp all efforts to deal with the problem?

We don’t know. But it is clear there is only one way to begin stabilizing the climate, massive and rapid reductions in fossil fuel use. Of course, an end to deforestation and a reform of agriculture are also necessary. Yet without significant cuts in burning coal, oil and gas, climate extremes will only intensify. It is also clear that human society is far from making this change. It would involve major restructurings of industry and transportation, and a change in assumptions about consumption and lifestyles. The level of economic disruption that it would cause would necessitate something like a guaranteed basic income. That would involve enormous redistribution of the wealth that has accumulated at the top via a just taxation system.

At the same time, the Global North that is still the historic source of most climate-altering pollution would have to support development in the Global South based on nonpolluting energy sources. Overall, a change to different economic criteria of progress not based on gross economic throughput, but instead on meeting the needs of people and nature, would have to be instituted.

It’s a tall order, and we are nowhere close. What will get us there short of economic, social and environmental collapse? Will it be a series of catalyzing events? Storms ravaging major coastal cities? The deaths of tens of thousands in heatwaves associated with power blackouts? Multiple breadbasket failures that cause famines and radical food price increases? What will set off the alarm that tells our addicted world we need to change our ways fast or suffer deadly consequences? How close to the bottom do we need to get?

Constructing a better story

I honestly don’t know. But I would like to construct a story in which we do get it. In which the weight of increasing climate extremes finally causes a shift in public awareness that penetrates the smog of disinformation, and scares people at all levels reaching to the pinnacles of media, business and politics. In which climate has finally become an issue that drives millions into the streets. Where direct action not just shuts down corporate offices, but whole downtowns. Where climate chaos has become so searing that leadership groups realize their own credibility is draining to zero, that people simply no longer believe in a system careening toward catastrophe.

I think in the end, when and if the break comes, it will be about belief and credibility. When people can no longer see anything coming but disaster upon disaster in a way they understand affects their own lives, from the heat and storms they must endure to the cost and scarcity of food at the grocery store. When we realize en masse it’s not going to be okay, and we damned well better do something about it. I see this coming in the context of a generational shift, when younger generations far more concerned about climate and their future than older generations become a greater portion of voters and begin to move into leadership roles. When the relatively small disruptions staged by younger groups such as Climate Defiance and Stop the Money Pipeline, joined by conscious elders such as those organizing in Third Act, grow to mass proportions. It is going to take disruptive action, and nothing less.

Then we will move to implement the many plans and ideas developed over the years by groups such as Project Drawdown or experts who developed the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap. We have the solutions along with detailed analysis of how to achieve them and how much climate pollution each will reduce. In almost every way, they would produce a better world with healthier people and communities even if climate were not a crisis. Overall, solving the climate crisis will drive us to learn the most important lesson, with ramifications across the board. That is, how to cooperate and build community with each other as people and as nations. It will require a kind of global awakening. Imagining the better world that is possible can pull us much as the seriousness of the crisis pushes us.

In the U.S., we will declare a climate emergency and stage a mobilization for rapid climate pollution cuts based on a National Climate Action Plan, to which John J. Berger summons us in an article published during the overheated month of June.

Berger writes, “Fortunately, there is a historical precedent for just such a comprehensive mobilization of government and citizenry in dire circumstances: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and the World War II years provide examples of the scale and intensity of the response needed today to reverse climate change. However, instead of gearing up to produce jobs for the unemployed or planes and tanks for a war, a concerted nationwide industrial effort is needed now to upgrade our electrical grid and produce millions of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, carbon-capture machines, and zero-emission vehicles. All too sadly, this country and the world are now in a situation even more perilous than either the Great Depression or World War II.”

Berger lines out the path. “To create a common consensual vision around which the national climate movement could mobilize, a broad civil society gathering should be convened to attract the leadership of all environmental and climate action groups and set the stage for the National Climate Action Plan. That gathering would, of course, focus on the roadblocks to implementing such a plan and to a swift, national clean-energy transition — and how those roadblocks could be dismantled”

I have to confess that as I read Berger’s article I felt a bit of frustration. For many years many of us have been calling for this scale of mobilization. It has long been the obvious answer to a climate crisis gone beyond the possibility of incremental solutions. We are already late in the game. I believe facts and circumstances will eventually drive us to a major mobilization far exceeding the scale of current efforts. My gut sense tells me it will come over the next 10 years. I hope it is before the 2030s. Will it be, creator forbid, out of the backlash from a disastrous second Trump presidency? I hope not, but these are terms in which we must now think.

Will any of this in the end be enough? We have no way of knowing. What we do know is that the world will not continue as it is. A certain amount of hell is coming upon us, and we must use it to illuminate the situation in a way that drives mass awareness and response. Awareness is the fundamental necessity. We must do everything we can to build a common understanding of the unprecedented crisis we face, in every venue available to us. If we do not make the most monumental of efforts in political organizing and eventual mobilization for solutions, we face climate disruption that will kill tens of millions, perhaps more, and potentially crash civilization. We must work for solutions at all levels, beginning in the communities where we live.

If we feel despair, the antidote is action. If we understand the world is ill, we can see ourselves as the antibodies. If we know our world is wounded, we can envision how we might heal it and create a better future for all.

It is not the time for doomsaying and retreat from action, but for the greatest thrust of climate organizing we ever have seen. It’s up to us who already get the scale and scope of the climate crisis to make sure the world as a whole gets it. And, as is screamingly obvious, the sooner the better.

This first appeared in The Raven.