Only One Way To Come To Grips With Climate Crisis

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Above photo:

The situation we face

First, let’s please just acknowledge there is a crisis.

I’m afraid any reasonably educated, rational, and unbiased adult (or younger) can understand what the climate science has been telling us now for two decades:  the Earth is warming, slowly but surely (so far by about 1 degree Celsius since 1800), due to humans’ putting carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere, mainly through burning fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) and the byproducts of large-scale and animal-based agriculture.  A good primer on this is Danny Chivers’ No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change.

Second – and it only takes a bit of sociological thinking here – we see that this is already having massive negative effects on people’s well-being:  floods, droughts, superstorms, rising sea-levels, loss of biodiversity (species extinction), polluted cities, rivers, and oceans.  This means poor health, early deaths, homes lost, famine, social disruptions, and conflicts (think wars, civil wars, overthrows of governments, and the like).

Third, the governments and the economic elites of the world do not have this steadily worsening crisis under control.  The Paris Agreement signed by 196 nations of the world in December 2015, offers no chance of containing global warming under the thresholds that science suggests must not be passed (above two degrees Celsius we can expect extremely dangerous disruption in all the living and social systems of the planet).  We have already reached 1.4 degrees Celsius of inevitable warming (the extra .4 degree is guaranteed because there is a lag between the gases getting into the atmosphere and the warming that they cause).  The Agreement is weak because it is not legally binding (each government made a “pledge” of what it would do in terms of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, and there is no enforcement mechanism for failing to comply) and the pledges, even if all met, would still raise global temperatures in this century by around 3 degrees Celsius.  A further devastating disappointment is the stinginess of the wealthy nations of the global North (historically responsible for most of the CO2 already in the atmosphere) in financing the renewable energy revolution that the under-resourced countries of the global South require (their emissions are growing, and China is the world leader now).

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel corporations, some of which are the biggest in the history of the world, and one of whose former chairmen, Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, is now U.S. secretary of state in the climate-denying Trump administration, have no plans to reduce their profits by keeping their assets in the ground.  This spells catastrophe if they are not checked;  what leading U.S. climate scientist James Hansen has called “Game over” for the planet.  In 2012, U.S. climate activist Bill McKibben of the organization (350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being what scientists have established as the “safe” limit for containing climate change – we are now at 405 and rising) calculated and others have since confirmed that the world’s carbon “budget” for staying under two degrees was about 565 gigatons of emissions, while the proven reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (some having nationalized their oil and gas as in the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela, among others) were around 2,795 gigatons at that time.  In other words, these corporations have a business model that entails burning more than five times the amount of fossil fuels that the Earth can handle.  Since we currently emit over 30 gigatons per year (this is the number that must be reduced to zero before 2050) one can see that we have less than 20 years of “business-as-usual” before we pass into uncharted climate territory.  In fact, if one wants to hold to the more stringent, safer limit of 1.5 degrees, and wants to have a better than 80 percent chance of staying under that, we have more like nine years left till the planet is in danger of passing the tipping points that lead to runaway climate chaos.



So, given the inexorable and terrifying math of global warming, the incapacity of world governments to curtail it, and the determination of some of the richest economic entities on earth to bring it onto us, what are we to do?

The only way out

As a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change (understood as calling for far less inequality and far more democratic participation than at present) such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, Occupy, and the Arab Spring, my firm and considered conclusion is that the only chance that humanity has to come to grips with the most dangerous existential crisis of our century is for people to somehow form the biggest, broadest, most effective global social movement the world has ever seen.  Our purpose should be to force governments and corporations to do what must be done.  There is no other way that this is going to happen.

This movement already exists, though it is far from strong enough to have a chance of success at the moment.  It is called the global climate justice movement and it is a very loose and diverse set of local organizations, national coalitions, and global networks of ordinary Earth citizens from every corner of the world.  And it is growing in power (the most promising articles of the Paris Agreement were largely the product of climate activists’ decade-long pressure at the climate summits).

The next step must be to find ways to turn this movement power into political power, and to do so in an era when people lack confidence in all existing parties.  It seems likely that we are talking about some new kind of party that comes out of the social movements that will bring it to power and then is held accountable by them as it turns the ship around.

Daunting?  Yes.  Improbable?  Probably.  But do it we must, nevertheless, and quickly, if we are to come to grips with the crisis.  As an observer and participant in this movement for the past eight years, I am hopeful and inspired, particularly by the youth, indigenous and other people of color, women, and the countless, courageous defenders of the planet and humanity whom I encounter and see wherever I go.  As one of the slogans of the movement puts it, we need “System Change, not Climate Change.”

It’s important, it’s right, and it’s fun to change the world. Please join with us to make it happen.


  • Peter Baldwin

    Articles like this do a disservice to their intended purpose by underplaying the reality. For example, in the 2nd paragraph John mentions the long list of concerns, but fails to mention the certain failure of industrial agriculture and famine – no crops to eat or to feed to animals. Also, the dimming of the sun by soot/particulates means that we would be 1 to 3C hotter than we are now from the CO2 in the atmosphere in a matter of weeks if industrial activity and aviation, etc. ceased. That means we are essentially alreaady 2.5 to 4.5C over pre-industrial levels, which puts us in range to melt lethal amounts of methane. Getting an electric car and mega wind/solar are a distraction from the decentralized/localized life support infrastructure we need to create the resiliency that will give the most of us the best chances to survive this existential nightmare. If we are not giving people heads up to prepare to be sustainable on their own in cooperation with their neighbors, we are essentially no different than the deniers.

  • mwildfire

    Seems to me this includes much exaggeration. I’ve seen a suggestion that the particulate dimming effect might account for a degree Celsius or more…but only once, little discussion of this, and not anything like 3 degrees. Yes, permafrost melting releasing more methane is a serious danger, and a reason that short-term emissions (like especially methane) might matter more than long-term, because we need to avoid triggering that.
    On the other hand, I think the prescription makes a lot of sense. See David Holmgren’s Collapse on Demand for a discussion of another way to avert catastrophe besides this author’s “enormous global movement.” Preparing for individual, family and community resilience generally will increase your security while at the same time reducing your footprint and undermining the system that’s killing us–enough people doing it, withdrawing support from the corporate monster, can crash the already fragile global economy–and that’s the only thing that reduces emissions.

  • DHFabian

    Stop driving. If you have any options at all — public transportation, etc. — give up your motor vehicle. A great deal of driving is done as a matter of convenience, not wishing to bother with less convenient options. Wait at a bus stop? Oh, the humanity! Americans go to great lengths to either ignore or deny what they are doing as they burn truckloads of fossil fuels every rush hour.

  • DHFabian

    The US already reduced its contribution to climate change by shutting down/shipping out a massive share of our manufacturing jobs since the 1980s. The result is dramatically increased class tensions, especially between the poor and middle class, as economic class became a social divide. Instead of “community building,” the poor have been dangerously scapegoated, denied basic human needs that are hoarded by those further up the ladder.

  • Michael A. Lewis, PhD.

    I do not acknowledge there is a crisis, at least a climate change crisis. The real crisis is from human growth, consumption and pollution.

    Yes, global average surface temperature is rising, slightly, slowly and for the moment. This does not mean “the Earth is warming.” No, it is not caused by human produced CO2. It is a natural process that is influenced, slightly, by human activities.

    Climate variation is not “having massive negative effects on people’s well-being.” No more than human growth, consumption and pollution.

    It is true that “the governments and the economic elites of the world do not have this steadily worsening crisis under control.” Climate variation is not subject to human control, though human growth, consumption and pollution in under human control.

    It’s best to work on those things we can control and learn to accommodate our profligate ways to those things we can’t.

  • Jon

    This is the dialectic at work–long periods of gradual change and then an abrupt rupture. Example, the shell that protected the chick embryo MUST be broken by none other than the chick itself in order for it to survive. We are at that point and MUST break the capitalist mold (mould) of behavior. Arrests and containment of the perpetrators are in order. Green Party is a good non-corporate place to start, but must move further left.
    Mr. Lewis, you are a climate change denier! Have you not seen evidence of the vast reduction of ice mass (not to be confused with surface area alone) at the poles, the desertification of large parts of the world, the more extreme storms?

  • mwildfire

    I would not count that as the US reducing its contribution, not if the goods made in China are consumed here. I believe the accounting in the US is dishonest, likely true in other countries too. They don’t get the numbers by measuring something actual–they do a calculation, which I believe excludes the military and maritime shipping, and they calculate the impact from gas-fired power plants based on industry-linked studies that lowball the emissions from that sector. Then they say, “We’ve reduced emissions by converting from coal to gas.” AND the outsourcing you mention. So the actual measurements on Mauna Loa show steadily rising global numbers, while, maybe, each government tells its people they’re doing well in reducing emissions.