Resilience Redux: Revisiting Mitigation and Adaptation as Climate Chaos, Ecosystem Collapse, and Extinctions Accelerate

The term “resilience” has become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it projects the idea of humanity being able to do what we must to survive long term by changing human behavior. On the other hand, too many perceive the term to mean only our ability to adapt to conditions of life as they change. If it prevails, the second definition may be the undoing of our species.

When in October 2018, the IPCC finally proclaimed the global necessity to change radically the way humans do business in order to reduce global warming to 1.5◦ C. above pre-industrial levels within the next dozen years, a bit of a media stir ensued. But nobody followed-up with any kind of plan as to how that might be accomplished. Most governments were still absorbed in an international death dance around relative responsibility and power distribution. The media: characteristically out to lunch.

The Official Crisis

The IPCC Special Report (2018) said little about how to reduce carbon emissions beyond asserting various technical “pathways” to limiting global warming to 1.5◦C “with no or limited overshoot.” The media noted report’s assertion that the goal, “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence).” [p.17] Then came the qualifier: “These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …” [p. 17]

2 deg.vs.1.5 deg. global temp. limit_1_FS0UrraLgvnTmbnHOs_ucg

A 2◦ target = societal collapse. A 1.5◦ target = struggle to adapt with continued mitigation. Graphic credit:  https://picswe.net/pics/gcp-2000-f6.html 

One must ask, how does any of this translate into climate action at any real level, from national down to neighborhood? Well, it does not, for one simple reason, and that is the elephant in the middle of the room.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot … but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale…” [p.17]

Unprecedented Transformation Required

Of course there is no precedent for a global transformation of societies capable of reigning in global carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels. If accomplished “in all sectors” of the global industrial-consumer economy, such a transformation would be vastly greater than the industrial revolution. The report rather blandly qualifies the implication for societal transformation: “…but their scale depends on the pursued mitigation portfolio. [p.18].

Well, “the pursued mitigation portfolio” has to be the understatement of the century. In his definitive study of the industrial revolution, published in 1944, Karl Polanyi characterized the industrial revolution — which began the modern process of the human species overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet — as The Great Transformation. He could not have imagined how far that transformation would take us, although he hinted at potential environmental damage that unfettered industrial capitalism might produce.

All you have to do is think for a minute about what a “system transition” that entailed global deep restrictions on carbon emissions from transportation, buildings, land use (industrial agriculture and industrial deforestation), “resource-intensive diets” (meat-eating), and all the other elements of industrial-consumerism, would mean for the “lifestyles” we take for granted.

The New Great Transformation

Humanity cannot accomplish such “deep restrictions” on carbon emissions within the framework of the globalized fossil-fueled economic system in which our societies are currently so deeply embedded. That is why I call the path we are on The New Great Transformation. Depending on our actions we are headed to either total societal collapse or a somewhat softer landing characterized by massive mitigation and societal transformation under very harsh conditions.  Even if we achieve the carbon-emissions restrictions needed to allow us to adapt to the changes already “in the pipeline,” some form of New Great Transformation is inevitable. To become resilient, that is, able to adapt to the emerging chaotic conditions of a world at 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, society itself must undergo a great transformation the likes of which humanity has never experienced.

Despite the long overdue groundbreaking tenor of the IPCC Special Report, with all its technical jargon and unspoken catastrophic implications, the report still frames its assertions within the assumption that societies, as they exist, must take these drastic steps, restricting carbon emissions to mitigate global warming. However, societies as they exist now remain under the control of the globalized political economy that lies at the heart of the problem. That is the elephantine dilemma at the center of the room, to which analysts, politicians, economists, pundits, and the public remain blind. Their blindness is probably due to the fact that they cannot even contemplate the totally transformed society necessary to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

In this context, contemplating adaptation becomes a meaningless gesture unless it is adaptation by mitigation. That is, only by keeping global warming to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will we inhabit a world to which we are capable of adapting. We can achieve that kind of resilience only by a New Great Transformation of society itself. The resulting new societal formations must be locally and regionally sovereign to be capable of continued mitigation of ongoing degradation of ecosystems and climate in the hope of restoring some semblance of a stable world.

The Best (only viable)Adaptation is Mitigation

A policy of adaptation to climate change as the primary response to climate change would not only be self-defeating. It would tax all human and material capital on the planet in pursuit of an impossible dream. It is fundamentally failure-bound because climate chaos would easily overwhelm it. That is why the Green New Deal is such an important cultural turning point for the American people.

That is also why the failure of politicians to adapt to the new conditions recognized by a citizenry that is awakening to the extremity of the emerging climate reality is so offensive. The politicians are not prepared to face actual constituents who know what is going on and expect them to do something about it. Frankly, they serve the short-term financial interests of the big fossil-fueled corporations that continue to disrupt the Earth System at its very core as if there were no tomorrow. There will be no captain once the ship sinks.

Well, as time goes by, tomorrow becomes today, but the time for major climate action was yesterday. To anyone not bought off or just ignorantly out of the loop, only the most extreme climate action now has a chance to limit climate chaos from spiraling entirely out of control. The Green New Deal is a conceptual starting place. Even it is not enough if implemented, because so much more is involved in transforming a society from fossil-fuel addiction to ecosystem restoration. Yes, recycling more and buying a Prius while going about your industrial-consumerist “lifestyle” just won’t cut it.

Feinstein’s Folly

And that is why the old guard in Congress is so upset with smart political upstarts such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth of the Sunrise Movement. They refuse to mince sunrise.movementwords about the dangers ahead or accept platitudes in place of action. Politicians either dodge them completely by leaving their office by the back door or dismiss them out of hand. They patronize intelligent committed youth, most of whom know far more about the science of climate chaos than Senator Diane Feinstein, for example. She was so offensive when the Sunrise kids went to her seeking climate leadership instead of the same old BS. Well, they got the same old BS.

13-Dianne-Feinstein-2.w700.h700“I’ve been doing this for thirty years…[blah, blah, blah]…” Yes, and that is exactly the problem. For thirty years, the establishment politicians have kicked the can down the treacherous road to climate catastrophe. And now that we are at the brink, they want the rest of us to sit down and shut up because, in Feinstein’s words, “I know what I’m doing.” No, WE know what you are doing and it is too close to zero and too late to tolerate.

The Urgency of Now

Unless humans initiate major interventions now, toward reversing the trajectory of global warming, no amount of adaptation to the catastrophic consequences of global warming will be enough. Although it is hard to determine precisely, the tipping point toward full climate chaos is very close at hand. So many self-amplifying processes produce accelerating ecological destruction and may lead to human extinction unless humans act now to radically restrict our carbon emissions.

As Earth’s climate spirals toward a Jupiter-like atmosphere, intolerable conditions will extinguish most life on planet Earth. No human adaptation would be adequate unless it is a response to the conditions that we have already made less severe by taking extreme climate actions to mitigate the carbon emissions we continue to cause. And they are shocked because they think that the Green New Deal is a radical proposal that we somehow cannot afford. It is not nearly enough, but it points in the only direction we can afford. We must get reasonable politicians who can follow facts to begin leading a mobilization that made the transformation of American society to fight World War II seem like a spring picnic.

The Essentials of Resilience in a World of Growing Chaos

By now, it ought to go without saying that the evidence is in – after all, global warming has been recognized by scientists for decades. The accelerated release of “greenhouse gases” since the dawn of the Industrial Age is now causing accelerated warming of the planet with multiple interacting deleterious effects. We just don’t have time to argue the scientific consensus vs. the propaganda of the growth economists and industrial apologists. It is what it obviously is. Far more important challenges than “climate deniers” lay ahead. Resilience will be the key to meeting those challenges.

The most urgent question today is what must be done now and in the near future to achieve major mitigation of carbon emissions. The second most urgent question is: What can we do to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate disruption already “in the pipeline”? Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand, although adaptation without mitigation is akin to seeking a more comfortable collective suicide. Without rapidly reducing the release of greenhouse gases, conditions will become so extreme that humans and many other species will be unable to adapt and survive. The species-extinction rate is already extreme by evolutionary measure.

Mitigation and Adaptation

So, resilience must be understood as the ability to both mitigate the sources of climate change and adapt to climate disruption in just the right balance. This must be done in the context of improving knowledge of the climate changes that are already occurring. We know that some of the processes are also accelerating because of interactive positive feedback loops. But the methane and CO2 releases from nascent arctic permafrost melting are not yet accounted for in the current IPCC climate change models. We need to know and immediately act upon the most strategically important climate disrupting factors. We must choose those factors with both the greatest impact on climate and the most potential for rapid and radical mitigation.

Fortunately, some mitigation efforts may also have adaptive benefits. For example, a massive program to improve the energy efficiency of buildings will not only reduce energy use and waste. It will also provide better shelter from extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, some attempts at mitigation will both reduce carbon emissions from energy production and stimulate more energy use and waste. It is almost universally assumed that the installation of renewable energy production technologies to replace high-emissions production, such as coal-fired power plants, will simply reduce emissions. However, the extraction, manufacturing, and installation processes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can encourage expanded energy waste because of greater availability of energy at lower cost.

The Politics of Necessity

We live in a minefield of cost-benefit dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of strategic alternatives. Then there is the problem of the political economy. Little if any meaningful and timely climate action at an adequate scale can be expected from the corporate state. Profligate U.S. energy consumption has caused more of the extant climate disruption than any other nation. Yet our “leaders” – both corporate and governmental – treat any commitments to carbon reduction as if it were just another trade-deal negotiation. The fact that China recently surpassed our current level of emissions does not relieve the U.S. of its responsibility for the highest levels of over-consumption and waste. We led the world into this mess and we ought to take the lead in unwinding the fossil-fuel driven growth economy. We can and must lead in the development of an ecological economy with appropriate infrastructure and social structure as well. That will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished by conventional means.

The current social structure is uniquely adapted to the perpetuation of the failing industrial leviathan. What David Korten calls the “Sacred Money and Markets story” sustains a social structure comprised of alienated individuals, fragmented families and communities. That social structure is dominated by a corporate state, which is driven primarily by the interests of the financial-military-corporate-political elite. Comprehensive whole-society-level mobilization and centrally coordinated action could theoretically make the most difference most quickly. One of the greatest contradictions of our current dilemma is that, the power structure steadfastly resists such action. Its capabilities include a significant potential for “command and control” over climate action. However, its interests are in continuing with “business as usual.”
Interestingly, China has a lot of command and control capability because of its one-party dictatorship. Oddly, so does the U.S. – since the two-party state operates as one corporate state. Yet, it will not take significant climate action since its interests lay in exploiting the present situation more than in human well being. Such action is in direct opposition to the short-term financial interests of the power elites to retain the system they control and from which they profit so handily.

The Ultimate Resilience

Throughout history, people have risen up in response to oppressive conditions and attempted to overthrow kings, dictators, and other regimes. But climate change, as Naomi Klein puts it, “changes everything.” Not only are conditions such that any kind of violent rebellion is impossible if not suicidal. But structural change through normal political processes is almost entirely blocked by the two-parties-as-one oligarchy.

Change must come from people organizing themselves at the local level in a number of ways, where access to political decision-making is at least possible. Many groups in communities all over the nation, and across the planet as well, are organizing to take local actions to either resist or replace the control of their lives by the corporatocracy. If they create enough momentum, these actions will evolve into the new economy. The resulting eco-community based life in harmony with our living earth systems will become the ultimate resilience.