Fighting Against Climate Change: Rational or Delusional?

Bishop Desmond Tutu, in a recent Guardian essay, asserted: “There are many ways that all of us can fight against climate change: by not wasting energy, for instance.” Bishop Tutu then went on to “recognize” that “these individual measures will not make a big enough difference in the available time.” The solution to the problem of “climate change,” Bishop Tutu, continued, is for people to

break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies. We can demand that the advertisements of energy companies carry health warnings. We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry. We can organise car-free days and build broader societal awareness. We can ask our religious communities to speak out.

In other words, what worked against the evil of apartheid in South Africa can also work in fighting “against climate change.”

The basis for Tutu’s argument is the fact that:This week [i.e., the week beginning April 5, 2014] in Berlin, scientists and public representatives have been weighing up radical options for curbing emissions contained in the third report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. The bottom line is that we have 15 years to take the necessary steps. The horse may not have bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door.

But do we have the 15 years referred to by Tutu? If it were clear that we had 15 years to “turn things around,” Tutu’s proposal might make sense. But even that is doubtful, for the day before publishing Tutu’s essay, the Guardian published an article by Nafeez Ahmad which pointed out that many ecologists regard many of the IPCC’s recommended solutions as “deeply flawed.” Tutu had based his suggestion of boycotts, etc., on information that he had regarding the IPCC report, and apparently assumed that those recommendations would be widely accepted — including by ecologists. In giving so much credence to IPCC recommendations, Tutu has ended up with “egg on his face” — perhaps without knowing it, however!

Perhaps the good bishop should stick with religion! He is not helping matters by making suggestions that may serve to delay those sorts of actions that would have significance.

Much the same goes for Anna Lappé, who recently declared: “Don’t Panic, Go Organic,” the subtitle of her article being “The IPCC Report Should be a Wakeup Call for Climate-Smart Food.” Her speciality, by the way, is not religion but, rather, food! (In 2010 she published a book-length discussion of this matter, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It. The fact that Bill McKibben wrote the Introduction for this book suggests either that he is getting desperate for things to write about or believes that Lappé has the answer to the problem of global warming!)

The problem that I have with both Tutu’s and Lappé’s articles is the explicit assumption in Tutu’s article that we have 15 years to do something significant, and the implicit assumption in Lappé’s article that we have at least that much time. It’s obvious that neither of these two fine people have read Guy McPherson’sClimate-Change Summary and Update,” updated just a few days ago. McPherson is not a climate scientist — rather, he is a Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology and; Evolutionary Biology — and in my mind that makes him highly qualified to write about the implications of global warming. His professional background gives him good reason to be highly pessimistic regarding the human future (a fact that comes through clearly in his recently-published Going Dark, 2013).

What gives me, specifically, pessimism is that:

  • The global mean temperature has increased about 0.8° C since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

  • The consensus with climate scientists is that if and when the global mean increases by 2° C, “runaway” change will likely begin. That change will involve not only an accelerating increase in the global mean, but (a) more storms, (b) more monstrous, severe storms, and (c) increased variability in weather conditions — a fact that may be especially critical for successful food production. I should add that some climate scientists, James Hansen being a notable example, believe that runaway will quite possibly begin even before the increase in global mean temperature is 2° C.

  • The “climate commitment” value is believed to be between 1° C and 1.5° C. What that means is that if humans would cease pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, global warming would still continue to a point somewhere within the range given above.

These facts and projections lead me to the inexorable conclusion that runaway is inevitable at some point in the near future — that is, that an acceleration in change is likely to occur in the near future, given the fact that global warming is a process that “feeds upon itself” (as one would expect, given that the earth is a system (the reason James Lovelock has given earth the name “Gaia”). What is obvious to scientists such as McPherson is that it is now too late to halt further global warming–so that, in turn, it is simply foolish to talk about “fighting” global warming.

What I see as likely is that:

  1. Runaway change will begin within a few decades, with most of the world’s population being wiped out by the various “dimensions” of global warming (e.g., heat, flooding, drought, and their implications for starvation, disease, and violence — including suicides).

  1. Those individuals who have had a way of life that either is now basically self-sufficient or could be easily changed to become virtually self-sufficient have a chance to survive, especially if they are aware of what global warming is likely to entail, and plan changes in their way of life accordingly. What I have in mind here is people who live in eco-communities now, the Amish, etc.

  1. Individuals who now are a part of the Existing Order, but recognize that it is headed for a cliff, want to jump off the bus before it reaches the cliff, and therefore either begin to homestead, join an existing eco-community, or form one with like-minded others will have a chance to survive.

It’s possible, of course, that global warming will render our species extinct within a matter of decades. But given that we cannot know this for sure now, if one is not in category 2 above, one should strive to become a member of category 3. Otherwise, one is putting one’s life — and the lives of one’s friends and family — in one’s hands, and one may very well perish.

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.