I’ve spent most of my day in a hospital bed getting chemotherapy and trying to tease out the news on MSNBC through a haze of tranquilizers and pain meds, so I beg your forbearance if I go wildly astray here. But I don’t think I have. What I learned from the pundits and the economic specialists through my (and their fog) were 3 true things and 2 false ones.
1) Some pretty smart people saw this Wall Street crisis coming and tried to bring it to other peoples’ attention but were ignored.
2) They were ignored by other people because so many people were doing so well within the existing system that they couldn’t see it realistically and honestly.
3) Now that the floodgates have broken open everyone can see the problem.
4) We have all contributed to the crisis and are all responsible for it.
5) It is time to stop pointing fingers and solve this issue in a bipartisan way.
These thoughts made me wonder: “What would the climate crisis have to look like for us collectively as a people to overcome “the inertia of stage 2 and breakthrough to stage 3 where everyone can see the problem?
Pretty terrible, I’m afraid.
Analyzing the Stages
Points 1, 2, and 3 I believe are largely true. Point 4 is false unless some large caveats are added (A person who took out a sub-prime loan because they wanted to own a home bears less responsibility than the broker who lied to them about the terms of the loan, or the insurer who guaranteed the loan knowing that they didn’t have the resources to pay up if there were large scale defaults, or the free-market ideologue who continually pressed for deregulation because the invisible hand of the market never errs (these are the people who believe that capitalism is not only better than socialism, but that it’s better than democracy too–such people are, theoretical anarchists rejecting government in all forms in favor of a system based entirely on short range, unregulated economic interests, unless of course they can manipulate government to their own short-range benefit, at which moments they are simply hypocrites, liars and crooks)
Point 5 and (point 4) are right wing talking points meant to use “patriotism” or “maturity” as a cover to avoid assigning blame where it is due. Somebody shot our dog, but lets not point fingers at John McCain and the rest of the pro-dog-shooting right-wing ideologues who have been advocating the deregulation of dog-shooting for years now as the solution to all problems. Instead let’s all pitch in, bury the body as quickly as possible, and move on.
Unfortunately, we are faced with another crisis far more serious than the current banking and financial crisis, but which has in common with it all of the points made above, only on a scale orders of magnitude greater. I’m talking about Climaticide, the climate crisis, global warming etc., whatever you choose to call it.
The climate crisis is occurring all around us at this very moment: the temperature of the planet is rising dramatically, in some places, such as the Arctic, by 8 or 9 degree’s Celsius, Hurricanes are growing more intense, droughts are longer and covering a broader range of territory, floods are more common and more intense, agricultural areas are being decimated by changes in drought and rainfall patterns which are hitting some of the world’s most vulnerable peoples, as temperature zones change, plants and animals that cannot move as fast as the shifting ecosystem go extinct (polar bears, picas, innumerable species of insects, frogs and birds), while disease vectors change as creatures such as mosquitoes move into newly hospitable ecosystems. Sea level rise leads to salt water infiltration into coastal fresh water aquifers while very low lying islands disappear destroying ancient cultures and forcing the evacuation of entire peoples.
I can write all that and still be no farther than points 1 and 2 on the original list of how collapse occurs. Many people knew the truth of what I’ve written above, but found it too inconvenient to to do anything about it. “What are you saying, Bear Stearns looks bad?” “Hey, I’m still making money.” “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in trouble?” “No, problem, the Feds have it under control?” “They’re taking the necessary steps.” “Lehman Brothers looking bad.” “Aw, who needs them anyway?” “AIG is going under?” “Now, wait a minute; that’s important.” And now you say the entire banking structure needs a massive bailout?” “Holy Shit! The ships going down! What do we do?” “Don’t panic. We’ll throw out all our deregulation slogans for a while, and get the taxpayers to give us a massive bailout, even if they might be a bit short after all those tax cuts for the rich and the cost of the Iraq War. It’ll be tough but we’ll muddle through.”
So what does step 3 look like for the climate crisis, at that point when we can no longer bullshit ourselves that the problem can be put off for another day? Well it’s a lot uglier than this current financial crisis, because the consequences are so much more severe and so much more implacable. One can imagine numerous scenarios, but I’ll just provide one that might get our attention:
The Climate Crisis of 2030.
It’s 2030 and the world has basically continued with business as usual, emitting more CO2 and CH4 from coal-fired power plants, industrial smokestacks, the tail pipes of a tripled number of motor vehicles, increased deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia as well as in temperate forests. As CO2 has rise, Arctic sea ice has melted away completely in summer (no one has seen a polar bear in the wild for 5 years), providing a albedo and methane feedback that further increase global surface temperature. The Greenland Ice Sheet has melted enough to raise global sea-level by a meter creating 10’s of millions of refugees in Bangladesh and China who have no place to flee to. Parts of Florida are underwater. Increased movement of the West Antarctic ice shelf is adding a few inches more to the sea-level rise. Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia endure almost continual drought. Lima, Peru announces that the entire city of 6 million will have to be evacuated because the mountain-fed glaciers that fed the streams supplying the city with water are gone. Southern Spain now looks like the Sahara. Areas of traditional heavy rainfall endure even worse storms. Once-in-a-100-years storms now occur every 10 years. The Center for Disease Control reports the first outbreaks of malaria in Minnesota. A huge chunk of the border-fence between the US and Mexico has been brought down by a crowd estimated by Mexican and US authorities at nearly half a million people. Casualties in the clashes that ensued left over 5,000 dead and perhaps another 16,000 wounded. Phoenix set a new temperature record of 125F.
Meanwhile, providing the coups de grace, 2 huge hurricanes are making landfall today, one a category 5 has hit Miami dead center. Casualties are relatively small, only a couple of thousand people because of the success of the evacuations, but the downtown area is as flat as Nebraska. The second is a category 6 (more intense hurricanes resulting from higher sea-surface temperatures have led to the creation of this new category) packs winds of 180mph and makes landfall where New Orleans used to be before being destroyed beyond all possibility of reconstruction by Hurricane Faisal in 2015. Experts say that it’s path will carry it far up the Mississippi River with minimal loss of intensity and flooding beyond anything ever witnessed in the area during historical times. Memphis is not expected to survive.
This time by the time we get to Stage 3, it’s going to be too late.
Do you think that might be enough to get us to stage 3, where the problem can no longer be avoided? I think so. The problem is that by this point there isn’t a lot that we can do to undo what has already happened. We will have now passed so many tipping points and set off so many feedbacks that the system is now effectively beyond our control. If we adopt crash programs, far more draconian and far more expensive than they would have been in 2008, we may be able slow down the melting of the ice and the concomitant sea level rise, but then again we may not. It may be that the best we can do is adapt, withdrawing from areas too harsh for human civilization, losing most of our ties to other cultures, as each of the earth’s peoples struggles to survive on its own or in loose and rapidly shifting alliances. It will be a miserable, stunted existence, a new Dark Age, likely to last much longer than the first one.
I don’t think there will be too much hesitancy to assign responsibility in this Terrible New World. Quite the contrary, I should imagine. People will be quick to point their fingers at us, and ask in outrage “What were you thinking?” Most of us will, I suspect, have no answer to make. As to bipartisanship, that will be the ultimate understatement. In this future world those who do not hang together will hang separately, and perhaps literally.
Crossposted at Daily Kos