Will a tangible threat finally get the world to act on an abstract one that is even more deadly?
The events in Ukraine over the past two weeks have been horrifying to watch, and impossible to ignore. It has been difficult to concentrate on what is killing the world relatively ‘slowly’ (the climate and ecological crises) when millions of people are fleeing their homes in immediate fear for their lives. Still, the climate emergency does not cease to exist because one maniacal man chooses to pursue his bloody career goals at the expense of innocent people’s lives. To the contrary- war is a prolific producer of CO2 emissions, and this one in particular is financed by Russian fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are the basis of our global economy, and they are running out- they will be gone within decades even if it was not imperative to stop using them because they cause climate breakdown. Future humans will look back on the last 200 years or so as an anomaly – ‘the age of fossil fuels’ – when cheap, easily obtainable energy generated unimaginable growth, wealth, inequality, and destruction of the natural systems that keep us alive. This war shows how utterly dependent our lifestyles (depending on your own wealth) are on a limited resource that can be removed from the world economy at a moment’s notice for political reasons. Our global economic system is built on a house of cards, and adding more cards is not the answer to inherent instability.
On February 28th, clouded in the fog of war, politics, and social media, the latest IPCC report on the losses and damages humanity can expect in the coming decades due to our present CO2 emissions trajectory, was released. It should have made front-page headlines. It did not. The consensus of hundreds of scientists from around the world, approved by government officials, is that:
“Half of the world’s people are “highly vulnerable” to serious impacts from the climate crisis, a billion people in coastal areas face inundation, mass die-offs of species including trees and coral have already begun, and close to a tenth of the world’s farmland is set to become unsuitable for agriculture.”
These impacts will be experienced everywhere, albeit to different degrees. Nowhere will be ‘safe’. Essentially, the authors conclude that we still have a small window of opportunity to avoid the worst impacts of a breakdown in the climate system, but that that window is rapidly closing. This is the last IPCC report to be issued while humanity still has time to do something about it. The next report will be issued seven years from now. Not ten, not twenty, not in the year 2050.
Several prominent climate activists have already recognized this moment as an opportunity for rich countries to transition rapidly to renewable energy. Not surprisingly, oil and gas companies are advocating for the opposite. Any efforts to prolong an end to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels (which should be done immediately) increases the already unimaginable burden on our children and our elderly selves to deal with the cascading tragedies of global climate, ecosystem, and economic breakdown. The longer that we emit CO2 into the atmosphere, the worse the consequences, and the harder it will be to live with them, whether we make it to ‘Net-zero’ by 2050 or not.
Government leaders have a choice to make; a pivotal one that will literally determine the survivability of our collective future and that of much of the living world. A Just Transition immediately away from fossil energy, educate the general public (and politicians and business leaders) about why this is necessary, and strengthen social safety nets so that no one is left behind. Or not, and let our kids face the consequences. The choice is literally that stark.
Ending our global reliance on fossil fuels will require sacrifice today on the part of privileged global northerners. There is no way around that. Period. The transition will require massive changes in how we live our lives, what we expect for ourselves in terms of personal ‘success’, and re-framing of political discourse. We have all recently experienced something similar with the seemingly never-ending Covid-19 pandemic, which has seriously tested people’s willingness and ability to understand that we are all living on this planet together, and that individual choices and ‘freedoms’ are not absolute if they deprive others of life.
But the transition away from fossil fuels will be different in several important ways, and the rapid societal, economic, and political change required has been achieved before. If we frame the climate and ecological crises as the national security threat and civilizational threat that it is, that we are all in this together, that this is an emergency, then anything is possible. Seth Klein has worked through the details in his book A Good War- essentially a handbook for governments on how to rapidly transition from fossil fuel dependence in Emergency Mode.
Most citizens in wealthy countries have difficulty looking past their daily lives, and the thought of not having easy access to oil and gas in the near future, and the relative hardship or inconvenience that would bring, is unappealing. But maybe now, in the context of stopping a madman committing mass murder funded by fossil fuels, our potential sacrifices become relatively minor, easier to explain. If we commit to ending our dependence on fossil fuels now, to save the lives of Ukrainians and who knows who else, we also commit to saving the lives of countless humans, animals, and living systems, now and for millennia. It is now or never.