Arno Kopecky’s new book The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis will be published in October.
The new climate change report you’ve been hearing about (or pointedly ignoring) all week is a magnificent statement of the obvious. It accomplished its primary objective: launch climate change to the top of the news cycle. Not that the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needed much fuel to get there – nature’s been providing a lot of free publicity this season, starting with the heat dome that smothered all of western North America in June and ignited the wildfires that have been burning ever since.
Across the ocean, the report’s release coincided with biblical wildfires torching the Mediterranean coast, while Siberia’s forests produced more flame than the rest of the world’s combined and sent smoke to the North Pole for the first time in history. Words such as “unprecedented” and “record-setting” are collapsing from exhaustion, and not just in English; after floods killed more than 150 people in Bavaria last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said “the German language can barely describe the devastation.” None of which caused the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, any hesitation in declaring, hours after the report was released: “It is a utopian notion that we can suddenly end the use of hydrocarbon-based energy.”
In times like these, stating the obvious becomes a necessary, radical act. So three cheers for those hundreds of experts who spent the past three years condensing more than 14,000 scientific papers into three thousand pages in order to state the obvious with radical certainty: The climate crisis has arrived, humans are the cause and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better.
But there’s good news lurking amid all the doom and gloom. I’m not talking about the standard line that we can still avoid the worst, which I’ve been hearing since I was Greta Thunberg’s age. What’s different now is the scale of our engagement. Decarbonization has become the official goal of more than a hundred nation-states, including every member of the European Union, Great Britain, China, the United States and Canada. Renewable energy is finally cost-competitive with fossil fuel and getting cheaper by the hour – last year, Exxon, until recently the wealthiest company on earth, fell off the Dow and was surpassed by a renewable energy company called NextEra, which now stands as the most profitable energy company in the U.S. None of this was imaginable when the previous IPCC report came out just seven years ago. The question is no longer if or even how we will decarbonize, but simply when.
But the fate of civilization hangs on that timeline, and right now a horrifying chasm still separates ambition from reality. (Few countries have a chasm as wide as Canada’s, where the genuine gains of a national carbon tax and coal phaseout have been crushed by a doubling of production in the oil sands over the past decade. Canada, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, also now has the dubious honor of being the sole Group of Seven country whose emissions have increased since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015.) The resulting public cynicism casts a toxic light on the IPCC report; instead of an inspiring product of international collaboration, many progressive citizens will read this as just another testament to human stupidity. We’ve ignored 40 years of warnings already – why should we expect this time to be any different?
That lament is premature. The main takeaway from the IPCC report is not how screwed we are. It’s that there’s never been a more exciting time to be alive.
Think about it. World-historical changes are afoot and the stakes could not be higher. The drama of climate change is so riveting that novelists and filmmakers have, with some notable exceptions, been totally unable to capture what this moment feels like. When they try, they generally skip straight to the IPCC’s worst possible scenario a century hence, defaulting into the postapocalyptic genre that encompasses everything from Mad Max and Avatar to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (no offense, Ms. Atwood, I did enjoy it). On screen, these stories veer into thrillers and action flicks – that is, away from any serious reflection on the actual drama unfolding before our eyes, and into the realm of fantasy and science fiction.
The same is true for the utopian scenarios. Imagine a novel about a 15-year-old girl who skips school each Friday to protest climate change in front of city hall, and one year later she’s a global celebrity lecturing plutocrats at Davos. Would you suspend your disbelief if it hadn’t actually happened?
Or let’s say – just hear me out – that hundreds of the world’s foremost scientists, representing more than a hundred countries, put aside all national grievances to spend years scouring the planet in order to produce a crystal-clear blueprint of exactly how much the industrial revolution has warmed various parts of Earth’s land and seas; suppose they included in this blueprint a series of scenarios that spell out how well or badly things could go in the century ahead according to how quickly civilization decarbonizes; and weirdly, even tragically, they publish their findings in three parts, beginning not with solutions but with a prognosis of how bad things already are. A few months later, the report’s second part – on adaptation – gets released; and only after another year goes by do they publish the third and final section, the one in which these experts discuss possible solutions that could keep the world from warming more than two degrees. Sounds a little like Pandora’s box, with hope trapped until the end, doesn’t it? By then, millions of educated citizens all over the world, including the Republican Party in the U.S., the Conservative Party in Canada (the membership of which recently rejected the phrase “we recognize that climate change is real” from appearing in official party policy) and various right-wing leaders throughout Europe, Russia, Brazil and elsewhere, have all agreed that it does sound suspiciously like a fable. Or rather, a hoax.
In election after election, country after country, the people who don’t believe in or care about climate change compete against people who do. They take turns holding the reins of power, creating policy whiplash as each successive leader undoes the work of their predecessor; often the same country is riven by conflict between believers in federal office and non-believers in regional offices, or vice versa. Every four or five years, the situation flips. Countries turn against one another , only to reunite and emerge more unified then ever. The rising volatility of the climate is matched joule for joule by the volatility in society. Feedback loops – some virtuous, some vicious – trigger tipping pints in all kinds of global systems: electric cars take over the roads, the Amazon basin becomes a Savannah, the Northwest Passage opens to cruise ships. Conspiracy theories enter a new golden age. Solar power becomes cheaper than coal. Salmon and caribou join rhinos and right whales in the rush to extinction, while tigers and humpbacks make a comeback. Entire islands disappear. Greenland profits off mineral deposits long buried under kilometres of ice. The human experiment, all these eons in the making, hurtles toward a reckoning with some fundamental design flaw we only dimly grasp. Whatever happens in the next decade or two will reverberate through millennia. Our descendants may or may not be there to witness it.
That’s not to suggest we all just sit back and watch the news with a bag of popcorn. Spectating isn’t really an option, or at least it won’t be for long. As Gordon Murray, a survivor of the Lytton, B.C. fire, told CBC the day after his harrowing escape: “It’s coming for everybody” – both directly (through fire, flood or drought) and indirectly (through political upheaval). Refusing to engage with that reality, like refusing to vote or get vaccinated, is really a passive way of empowering the status quo. Which, as the IPCC’s authors have just reminded us in granular detail, is a form of collective slow-motion suicide.
Thrilling, scary, overwhelming stuff. But here’s the thing. Climate change is hardly the first calamity to befall our species. Read a little history and you quickly discover that our relationship with apocalypse is as old as humanity itself. We’ve been here many times before.
If you find that to be cold comfort, consider what really sets our current drama apart from all its precedents: This time, no one’s coming to shoot us. No one’s sending us or our children off to war. Instead of vanquishing some crazed dictator, or spreading a new religion, or defending our cities from barbarians – this time the supreme goal is to plug the better angels of our nature (along with a few million gigawatts of renewable energy) into our economies and governments and, perhaps above all, our culture. Yes, that’s a monumental task, comparable in scale and struggle to a world war. But we still have a window of peace in which to carry it out, and that’s as big a gift as I can think of.
The window’s closing, of course. The IPCC’s authors couldn’t be clearer on that. If we squander the opportunities ahead, a different order of violence will erupt – the kind that only mother nature can unleash, that leaves even the Germans speechless. Let’s keep that in mind in the days and weeks and months ahead. The news cycle will move on. The struggle must not.
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