Many thoughtful comments by knowledgeable critics of COP27 and even institutional actors who recognize the climate crisis but fail to take serious climate action, reflect one fundamental underlying dilemma. Great ideas mean nothing unless converted into action.
I am often amazed by the superficial clarity of statements of what must be done to avert or minimized climate chaos. Cut carbon emissions by XX% by 20XX, peak carbon emissions by 2030, etc. etc. Everything is easier said than done. As the cartoon says, “Being worst makes you first,” in this case to decarbonize your economy.
Generally, we know where we are and we know where we need to go in abstract terms. Loads of scientific evidence of ‘climate change’ has now validated predictions of the onset of the collapse of relative climate stability and the continuing breakdown of ecosystems. Severe food shortages and extreme malnutrition are increasingly evident in multiple locations.
We do not need to know the precise time/date that each tree will explode in a firestorm to understand well that the number and intensity of such extreme fires is growing exponentially. Nor do we need to know the exact proportion of the exceptional intensity of each new hurricane is attributable to ‘climate change’ to know that the danger is growing more destructive each year. So it is with drought, floods, tornados, and heat waves.
We are at the cusp of the collapse of many elements of the whole Earth System. That will necessarily lead to the imminent collapse of industrial civilization as we have known it—though many still refuse to believe the trending evidence. Collapse is certain, although the timing and exact location of each element of system failure is unpredictable.
Triage: Allocating Scarce Resources to Minimize Destruction
We seek to replace this terminal prospect with something livable. Many good ideas are out there on what a new ecologically sound and an economically equitable and socially just society would look like. We seek—instead of chaos and possible extinction—a new ecological civilization that is an integral part of the whole Earth System—Gaia. And, despite the global dominance of the failing political economy of growth and its propaganda, many know that something livable and beautiful could be its replacement. Many others do not.
The global crisis of climate and ecological collapse cannot afford the profligate self-aggrandizement of the super-rich or the imperial powers bent on international domination. We know that we must transform the globalized industrial-consumer economy into many local/regional communities focused on living in harmony with our habitats while restoring and regenerating the ecosystems upon which we depend for survival. If we can do that, we will have forged a livable place for ourselves in a re-stabilized Earth System that can sustain us and other species that yet survive, well into the future. The extravagances of the super-rich drain the scarce resources needed to transform societies for survival. Triage means shifting resources to where they are needed most.
However, the burning question–which remains unresolved–is “How can we get there from here?” We will never fulfil our utopian dreams of an equitable ecological world until we figure out how to achieve them. Numerous masterful books and articles by Kate Raworth, Jason Hickel, and others have outlined the diverse elements of the new ecological societies we must forge out of the ashes of industrial civilization. But how to transform our institutions and ourselves to arrive at such a felicitous outcome remains under-explored.
We have many overlapping wonderful models of regenerative, circular, doughnut, post-growth ecological societies, but we have not figured out how to mobilize our peoples so that significant social movements can force mega-institutions to de-grow their fossil-fueled operations, so that we can replace them with near-zero emissions ecological economies. After all those COPs, we must realize that neither government nor corporate institutions are willing or even know how to take the very big steps to get moving in the right direction, absent overwhelming social pressure to do so.
That is why I propose that the number one order of business for all climate activists, social scientists, and just concerned citizens must be to learn how to create a global social movement that no military, government, or corporate force can resist. Then, we must do it together. Not just protests in the streets, although they are great attention getters and useful first steps. We must go beyond resistance and rebellion to transform actively our societies, the organizations of which we are members, and ourselves.
Strong Social Networks as Forces for Societal Transformation
We need to rely on intentionally organized social networks for change–strong networks with strong ties to other strong networks across the globe–that can take direct actions to stop major sources of emissions first, then go right down the ladder from worst to next worst, all the while shaping new social formations that can live without industrial consumerism. (We already have many networks such as the Deep Transformation Network, organized by Jeremy Lent—and many others, most of which are organized as protest groups or as online think tanks. Such groups, if organized as strong networks strongly connected to other strong networks, might form the basis for such global collaboration.) The goal must be global social mobilization, without which mega-institutions will not change.
No small task, but is there an alternative? We should not be surprised that the COP process has failed to achieve what Global North nations have not authorize their delegates to agree to. Some, with Naomi Klein, suggest boycotting COP28. However, the formal exercises will continue, boycott or not. At the same time, civil society groups working within the COP framework are establishing strong mutual networks for change, in part by forcing adoption of agreements such as the COP27 agreement on loss and damage funding for low-carbon footprint victim nations of the Global South, and creating the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty (which was not approved by the COP27 delegates). We know what basic strategy we need to initiate: Cut carbon emissions severely, now, by severely reducing the use of fossil fuels. But how to force mega-institutions to do that remains unresolved.
Strikes, boycotts, protest demonstrations, etc., are all good attention getters, but we need a strong global network of strong local and regional social networks that can take direct actions to destroy the terminal industrial-consumer complex, in part by creating their replacement. We must both change the culture and create new ecological communities that live in harmony with their local/regional habitats. But the first order of business must be to drive down emissions to near zero, as fast as possible to make all the rest much more likely to succeed.
I have no doubt that severe population decline will occur in the near future, even if we respond to the climate emergency by rapidly taking down the worst polluters first, etc., as determined by the precise information made available via the new ClimateTrace.org database, to maximize emissions reduction. To achieve such reductions, the energy flows that supply industrial-consumer economies must be curtailed, which will inevitably reduce the availability of many superfluous consumer goods. That is economic triage.
Even with our best possible response we cannot stop the severe weather disruptions already causing major crop failures, with the bonus of the destruction by the diabolical pseudo-Tsar Putin. Climate refugee migration has already begun and resource wars are sure to follow. We must prepare ourselves for great tragedies among great achievements, if we act now. Otherwise, it will be just one great tragedy.
Our primary goal must be to take maximum actions to mitigate the destructive forces that the global political economy of growth has propagated by hubris, greed, and intransigence. By doing that, we can minimize the damage and allow the survivors to forge a place of our own in the remaining viable ecosystems that we will then have a chance to enhance by living like good members of our ecosystems. We have already entered an extreme triage trajectory.