Climate change, fossil fuels and the end of the world as we know it

by Stan Hirst

All my life I have harboured the notion that things could and would get better. The concept was drilled into me from the outset. “Work hard at school”, they said. “Get good grades, go to university, get a good job”, they said. And so I did, and it worked! Sure, there were some bumps and potholes in the road as I went along, but that’s the way the world worked. The good would always outpace the bad in the end, we were told. “God helps those who help themselves” was an oft-quoted expression in my youth and cited, I thought, in the Good Book. Only recently I discovered that it was in fact invented by an 18th century political scientist.

I have not been alone in my perceptions. Human development has indeed been guided by the feeling that things could be, and probably will be, better. The world always seemed to be rich compared to its human population. There were new lands to conquer, new concepts to build on, new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of history, amongst which were a few of my predecessors, were spurred on by the belief that there was a better place somewhere else. Civilized institutions arose from the idea that restraints on individual selfishness would eventually produce a better world for everyone.

But it seems I’ve had it wrong all along. The world is not getting better, in fact it’s in real trouble.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been studying global climate for almost a quarter of a century, says that climate change is having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide emitted into the global atmosphere by vehicles, thermal power plants and industry. Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and many terrestrial and aquatic species are migrating toward the poles or even going extinct. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting and its decay is releasing methane that will cause further warming.

We good folks who have lead the good life on this Earth are about to get our come-uppance. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change” says the IPCC. The world’s oceans are rising at a rate that will soon threaten coastal communities. In some parts of the world the land on which coastal cities have been built is subsiding at rates greater than sea level rise.

Climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, erode food security and prolong existing poverty in poor countries and communities. Parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out, and political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa linked to conflicts over land, water or other resources are being reported. The IPCC have cited the risks of death or injury on a wide scale, impacts on public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations. I didn’t really need to read the IPCC reports to glean all this info, I could simply have perused the news and weather reports from any number of national and international newspapers.

Not scary enough? The IPCC states that, while the impacts of global warming may be moderated by factors like economic and technological change, disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. Moreover, the problem will grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

How will the fossil fuel industry react to this situation? Not well. A European brokerage company has estimated the loss of revenue which would result if the fossil fuel industry (mostly oil, gas and coal) were to take decisive action over the next two decades and essentially remove carboniferous fuels from the global energy system to be $US28 trillion. That’s 28 with 12 zeroes behind it. That’s also equivalent to one-third of the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Is the fossil fuel industry therefore likely to take up this challenge of moving away from carbon-based fuels? I would think the probability is about the same as me winning next year’s Boston Marathon.

The world’s population was just over 2 billion when I was a wee lad. Now its over 7 billion and will be over 8 billion by the time my grandkids are out there fighting for economic survival and admission to university. Nearly a billion people in the world, including many children the same age as my grandchildren, are always hungry and severely malnourished. With increasing droughts, water shortages and political conflagrations, what are the chances of them ever getting out of such a situation? Virtually nil.

Most of us elders grew up among the reverberations of the 1960s. At that time, there was a sense that the world could be a better place and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. We felt this way because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience told it that the line on the graph always pointed up.

But what happens now? We’re begun to feel that maybe there is no “long term”, nothing much positive to look forward to. Instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise, we have a perception that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, and prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water.

Edge.org, an online intellectual salon, annually assembles a group of contributors who represent the cutting edge of global culture and poses a question designed “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge”. In 2009 they posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” In response Brian Eno, artist, composer and recording producer, and old enough to qualify as an elder, offered the view that human society would fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on long timescales and require structures of social trust, would not cohere, there wouldn’t be enough time. Long term projects would be abandoned – the payoffs would be too remote. Global projects would be abandoned – there wouldn’t be enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce would be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility would be seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism will rule. Might will make right.

That reminds me, I must pen a few letters of apology to my grandkids before I leave.

[Originally posed on May 1, 2014]

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4 comments

  • I’m reminded of Paul Ehrlich’s remark about the late Julian Simon with whom he had numerous verbal battles on future sustainability “He is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far as he passes the 10th floor”

  • I watched the Ottawa Webinar on “Big Ideas for Sustainable Prosperity” this week and was surprised by the positive outlook of several of the speakers. I did hear the mantra underlying many of the talks that “technology will save us”, but I also heard several arguments for why it would be economically beneficial to move away from fossil fuels, even in Canada. I now sense a growing movement in that direction. The question is whether we’ll move fast enough to avoid the worst of these scary predictions or just buy a little time.

  • If you haven’t already you should read the book Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer. He wrote this book 6 years ago. Unfortunately his predictions are already starting to come true. Let’s hope we can avoid the worst of his scenarios

  • Don’t be too optimistic, Stan… 🙂

    On Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 8:34 PM, Suzuki Elders

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