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Confronting the unmitigated disaster of climate change through system change

The stakes could not be higher

Economic CrisisEnvironmentSocial Movements

This article was originally published in Canadian Dimension’s now-defunct web blog on July 27, 2011. In an ongoing effort to restore our rich archive and highlight some of our favourite articles from years past, it is republished here in full.


As I write this, a thunderstorm is brewing up outside.

System change, not climate change.

It’s really amazing how these few words so accurately sum up the challenges that face us when it comes to climate change–without question the single largest challenge humanity has ever faced in our short history as a species. As far as slogans go, it’s not as succinct as “no war” or “freedom now,” but on the other hand it represents how far social movements have come in a few short decades–and how far we have to go, as people (citizens, family members, neighbours, community members and leaders), to build the better world that is necessary now, more than ever. Everything about climate change is more complex than any other global challenge social movements have faced before–scientifically and morally.

In the end it really has to be some kind of moral imperative that drives this push to build a better world, if only because ‘moral’ and ‘ethics’ are the words we’ve come up with to describe our sense of doing what’s right or necessary, what will ensure the well-being of our families and communities, and more recently the ecosystems of which we form a part. But of course, the companies that drive carbon-fueled development, those same engines of capitalism which have helped propel our human numbers to untold heights (from two billion in the late 19th to approaching seven billion today!) over what might be called the ‘carbon century’ in the future–these actors have their own stories of what is right and necessary and good. The story of the professed goodness of unchecked capitalist development, however, has never been as difficult to support as it is today. This is, of course, thanks to the ingenuity and perseverance of the great scientists of our time, who helped discover that our carbon-based development explosion is in reality, a vast uncontrolled experiment that has changed our planet, perhaps irrevocably–at least on any timescale that makes sense to human beings. In the process of changing the planet, we’ve endangered ourselves and all the other species that live with us in this precious place.

The best word I can think for this situation is ‘disaster’.

There’s something interesting and tragic about the way that ‘disasters’ and ‘emergencies’ are represented in our culture–our media and our discourse. To most of us, I would suspect that the idea of ‘disaster’ calls up terrible incidences of temporally-isolated human suffering, displacement or death, if we stretch the term to its most extreme, its most meaningful extent. Tsunami as disaster. Hurricane as disaster. Ironically, the traditional perception of weather-related disasters as isolated in time and historically unusual (the saying ‘hundred year flood/storm’ reflects this) has now been overcome by the physics of climate change, in that a hotter planet and specifically hotter air holds more moisture, leading to more intense storm events and precipitation in some places, and increased levels of drought and dryness in others. What we once understood as ‘100 year’ storms now happen every few years.

In its traditional sense–measured by the barometer of human suffering–the label of ‘disaster’ evokes natural incidents beyond human control that devastate human settlements, causing lasting effects. But it is, first, a label–a powerful adjective. When I think of the term, it evokes the uneven and unjust development patterns in capitalism since its ascendance, under imperial/colonial powers to the present day. In the global south (and parts of the north): chronic hunger and malnutrition and thirst as disaster. Infant mortality as disaster. Insufficient reproductive health options for women as disaster. Lack of educational opportunities as disaster. Lack of proper infrastructure for health, clean water and energy as disaster. Lack of sustainable local livelihoods and economies as disaster. Industrial overuse and degradation of water and soil as disaster. All of these factors, where they prevail, link to unjust patterns of global trade, aid and debt, along with the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands: symptoms of a global political and policy movement of the ruling class and corporations sometimes labeled as ‘neoliberalism’. Putting the label ‘disaster’–or ‘violence’, also used similarly in some circles–on these types of trends is a way of calling out the absurdity and injustice of current realities, in a time when preventing such injustice is possible, if only we could work together to make facing and transforming these realities our real collective priorities.

At the moment the ‘real priorities’ of our states are heavily influenced and steered by those with the ‘real power’ in our capitalist economic systems, those who the amazing Dr. James Hansen calls the ‘business as usual’ crowd, in his unsettling and meticulous book, Storms of my Grandchildren. This book, along with Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, is required reading for the movement that embraces system change, not climate change (as are, I might add, Maude Barlow’s Blue Covenant and Vandana Shiva’s Soil not Oil. I would throw David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy and works by Richard Heinberg or Thomas Homer-Dixon in there as well for good measure–of course this isn’t an exhaustive list!).

Business as usual, of course, is powered by carbon (including, notably, agricultural production as usual). Oil has been a great boon to humanity, with an energy return of up to 30 to one where it has been abundant and easy to reach. This ‘low-hanging fruit’, as Linda McQuaig has described it, however, is now in the rear-view mirror. With the peak and decline of easily refined petroleum now very likely in progress globally, humanity has to fall back on less potent carbon energy supplies to sate its thorough addiction to easy energy on the scale of civilizations.

But now, thanks to advances in science, we live with the mind-wrenching knowledge that humanity can’t afford easy, carbon energy anymore.

For ten thousand years, humankind has evolved in a period of stable sea levels, and stable average global temperatures. Carbon dioxide gas, I’ll remind you (though I urge you to learn this first hand from Hansen and McKibben), is called a ‘greenhouse gas’ because it traps heat in our planet that otherwise would radiate back into space–light that’s come from the sun, through our atmosphere, reflected off the earth’s surface and attempts to leave again. Various brands of climate change deniers like to assert that human-made carbon emissions really don’t have this effect, but the science is concrete and incontrovertible (notwithstanding tea-partying Republicans with well paid-for media megaphones).

Further, the carbon we’ve put into our atmosphere since the 19th century–when carbon-fueled capitalist development exploded in earnest–is still there. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were at 275 parts per million (ppm) for that stable 10,000 years during which we evolved as a species. In the past century, we’ve pushed that number up to nearly 390, climbing at at least two ppm per year according to recent data. The number of 350ppm is the one James Hansen and others settled on as a target, beyond which the human-made climate forcing will speed the disaster, and thus McKibben’s leadership in founding and energizing 350.org. As with all of the details and trends scientists have tracked when it comes to climate change, we’re discovering that the matter of how long carbon stays in the atmosphere once we’ve put it there by making easy carbon energy is worse than we thought. It stays up there for at least a few centuries, providing the foundation of the central premise behind ‘climate justice’: since the richest, carbon-fuelled industrial countries are responsible for the bulk of carbon that remains in the atmosphere today and which drives climate change, the most developed countries ought to be first in line to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions. This fact comprises part of the moral complexity of climate change, but not all of it.

The more mind-bending levels of moral complexity, when it comes to climate change, regard the potential future of the planet itself, and future human generations.

Like Hansen, I feel this acutely, because my children are the approximate age of his grandchildren. Hansen is a compelling man: arguably the world’s leading climate scientist, he has felt increasingly compelled to go beyond his amazing contributions as a scientist and actively spread the message about the need for humanity to shift course to attempt to avoid climate change. The reasons for his conviction are, of course, grounded in advances in climate science and in the evidence that continues to unfold and confront us every day. By continuing business as usual, Hansen argues, humanity will easily sail past the safe threshold of 350ppm. Indeed, business as usual would put us above 700ppm this century alone.

Some climate change deniers/contrarians of various brands like to pipe up on this and point out that during a geological period known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (about 55 million years ago–scientists know this through studying samples of ancient atmosphere trapped in ice cores and evidence of these atmospheres in mineral deposits), atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were at or above 1,000ppm. During this special climate event, the earth’s average temperature increased five degrees Celsius over a period of 10,000 years, within a larger geological shift that saw the average temperature increasing by less than a degree Celsius every million years over a 10 million year period. Hansen points out that humanity’s climate forcing, in contrast, ten thousand times more powerful than the natural climate forcings evident through studies of paleoclimate records. Thus, he describes humanity as being in the ‘driver’s seat’ when it comes to climate change. The magnitude of our climate forcing is something that earth’s precious and diverse species will not be able to cope with and adapt to, if business as usual proceeds. ‘Cap and trade’ plans are a business as usual approach–they allow increases in carbon emissions, where the world needs decreases. All international efforts to date have failed to secure a collaborative approach to meaningful carbon emissions reduction, that is, reductions that bring ppm levels of carbon dioxide to below 350.

Meanwhile, our climate forcings have been so potent that they have risked setting off more powerful ‘amplifying feedback’ climate forcing mechanisms–such as the release of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide though not as long-lived in the atmosphere, from peat bogs, tundra, and seabed methane ‘clathrate’ deposits. Recent years have seen ominous reports of methane bubbling from the seabed, an effect of warming oceans and polar ice melt, which has increased precipitously since 2007, bringing further dismay to scientists and a gleam to the eye of wishful arctic oil entrepreneurs.

The moral and scientific consequence Hansen has the courage to raise from this evidence is the most wrenching fact concerning climate change, and the one that points to the severest aspect of its moral complexity: we risk sending Earth into what he describes as a ‘Venus syndrome’ by continuing business as usual. There is a real risk that our climate forcings, if left unmitigated, and subsequent amplifying feedbacks will send the earth on a Venus-type spiral into becoming a planet that cannot even support life as we know it. Hansen does not use this metaphor lightly–he helped design the Pioneer mission to Venus, which has surface temperatures above 460 degrees Celsius, and a carbon-heavy atmosphere. This is a very real legacy, a risk, that we are passing on to future generations of human beings right now–thus his urgency. Hansen describes this situation as a type of ‘intergenerational injustice.’ I’m reminded of the Mohawk concept of the Seventh Generation Principle, wherein any decisions of consequence to the community must be undertaken as though community members from seven generations in the future were there, at the table, represented.

And of course this is intergenerational injustice–which again, is morally complex. How do we plead the case for intergenerational injustice to a political culture that has scoffed heartily at five-year socialist economic plans? This type of thinking is not in capitalism’s repertoire, and capitalism holds our political systems in thrall.

Capitalism’s metrics of progress–aggregate economic growth, lack of regulations on corporations, increasing wealth despite its disproportionate concentration in fewer and fewer hands–simply don’t include any notion of ecological or social sustainability and balance.

It’s for this reason that ‘business as usual’ is currently scrambling to get the new Keystone XL pipeline approved, the proposed pipeline that will ship Alberta Tar Sands oil–created with effects and ‘externalities’ of massive ecological destruction and abuse of water supplies–to the United States. It’s bad enough that North America has continued to expand its reliance on easy carbon energy through coal burning–something that must be unconditionally phased out, according to Hansen. The tar sands, synthetic oil production from bitumen and shale, represent an unconventional and dirty form of oil production which, if exploited, would essentially seal the deal on the upper level of human climate forcing, speeding the disaster (in Hansen’s words: “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over”). For this reason, McKibben, Hansen and a host of other leading activists (including Canadians Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein and David Suzuki) have called for nonviolent civil disobedience at the white house in August 2011, risking arrest through trespass onto the grounds, to attempt to put pressure on President Obama to not approve the pipeline.

The stakes could not be higher.

With the lack of any meaningful progress whatsoever at the international level, and carbon energy corporations’ intransigence, meaningful leadership has to come from the ground up. There’s more to be written, and so much more to be done–in the communities and cities we live in and love, making them sustainable, sharing information, growing local relationships and economies. Decreasing our energy reliance and building local energy and food infrastructure. Struggling with others on the left for more equitable policies and laws that increase social security, rather than decrease it. Putting unprecedented collective resources into helping poorer countries face these same tasks, and abandoning current economic traps that ensnare poor countries with unfair terms of trade and debt. All of these are part of the challenge of system change. The values and principles, and the moral reasons and arguments we bring to bear in this work, it’s true, are largely outside the logic of the business as usual economic system we find ourselves in today.

Outside my window, the thunderstorm has passed for the moment.

It’s up to us to bring these forces to bear as we try to build a better world.

Adam Davidson-Harden is a social sciences researcher, as well as a writer of essays, plays and music. He has a Ph.D in Education and taught in the department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University from 2005-2008 and in the Queen’s Faculty of Education from 2008-2010.

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