I just read an article in an online journal countercurrents.org called, “How bad can it get?” In it, Robert Hunziker describes a book by Bill McGuire, Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. McGuire, a highly respected scientist, does not mince words in describing what he calls Hothouse Earth (Icon Books, August 2022). “There is no chance of avoiding climate breakdown.” In other words, it can get a whole lot worse than we have yet imagined. Why do so many people think we can fool Mother Nature?
How Bad is Bad?
The thing about the accelerating climate emergency is that it is unprecedented, to use a word that seems to apply to more and more events and situations these days, especially when it comes to weather and politics. We have entered an era when things are no longer as they seemed in our remembered past.
The idea that an extreme faction could take over the Republican Party and pass anti-democratic legislation in numerous states while denying the obvious scientific evidence of Earth-System destabilization, is unprecedented—well not entirely. Remember, ever since the New Deal the party represented interests of the most powerful business elites in keeping its ruling class ideology of maintaining a strict societal hierarchy with economic elites calling the shots. A radical transformation of the long-standing climate and biosphere conditions fall entirely outside the party platform—despite the obvious evidence. The new reality, however, affects everyone deeply.
The idea that the relatively stable climate of the last 11,000 years, so conducive to human population growth and economic expansion, is changing radically and moving into entirely uncharted waters, is also unprecedented. That kind of change is so inherently in conflict with the dominant culture of industrial consumerism that it threatens our survival.
So, how bad is bad? We can’t be exactly sure, but we can be sure that the coming bad is so bad that it will be extremely dangerous. Bad is very likely to be very bad, and very bad in unprecedented ways. The thing about politics and climate when they go off the rails, is that the exact direction of badness is very hard to predict for either one. However, ecological-climate-societal disintegration is, in any case, Very Bad.
What Existential Threat?
We do know some things for sure. When what were once stable seasonal weather patterns become unpredictable, many crops will fail. Food insecurity will soar and migration will result, as well as armed conflict over food, water, and other resources needed for survival. Armed conflict? Of course. So many people have already armed themselves here and abroad, that we can expect the existential threat of extreme conditions to produce armed conflict.
We also know that general disruptions to society will result from rising sea levels, severe drought, and extreme weather events. We already have lots of evidence of Antarctic ice sheets collapsing and melting into the sea much faster than projected just a couple of years ago. The so-called ‘doomsday arctic ice shelf’–the Thwaites Glacier–may produce sea-level rise up to ten feet. Imagine Miami and New York under those conditions. Such recent revelations are not so surprising when we consider that most projections of climate disruptions by the IPCC over the years have underestimated the changes and had to be adjusted upward in later reports. The estimates of severity have always been underestimates.
So, the very accelerations of collapse of various Earth sub-systems that were not anticipated by scientists in public reports (their findings were routinely ‘moderated’ by political authorities) are rapidly growing into immediate existential threats. Bad things are much worse than you thought, and have been for too long.
Anyone who makes explicit prediction when a complex system is breaking down, is overconfident. That is because complex systems are too complex to be predictable in more than just the basic trends as they unfold. Some changes are gross and appear quite simple. As the ice melts, the sea rises, simply because water runs downhill and glaciers melt when they fall into the sea. But as Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrated in speculating about life in and around New York City in 2140 after significant sea rise, the complexities of Earth-System transformation are less than entirely predictable.
It is increasingly clear that our cultural framing of reality that worked so well for so many hundreds of years is largely irrelevant now, even dysfunctional. The paradigm of modern industrialism is an increasingly bad fit for the evolving conditions of the Anthropocene.
Unfortunately, culture is not easy to change. People, especially those in power, resist changing a system from which they benefit so abundantly, and they work hard to influence others. Nevertheless, research on survivors and victims of various kinds of disasters clearly demonstrates that survival depends on shifting from one’s paradigm of ordinary reality to a new paradigm that fits the non-ordinary reality of the emergency. The idea that we are ni a ‘climate emergency‘ is not hyperbole. We desperately need to change our understanding of reality in order to survive the climate/ecological emergency that confronts us. As a society, the U.S. has not yet even contemplated such a radical shift in our consciousness. Yet, that is exactly what is required for our survival. Unfortunately, it will probably take an extreme large-scale catastrophic event to shake us out of our cultural slumber.