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.

Economic Growth or Societal Development: a Matter of Survival

For most “moderns” the role of economic growth in assuring human progress appears necessary, whatever problems it may cause. Yet, the evidence has grown to such undeniable levels that continued economic growth, at least as we practice it now, is simply unsustainable on this small planet. Climate scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, and Earth system scientists have accumulated and analyzed a steady stream of data that clearly point to the accelerating destabilization of the entire Earth system.

Emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, produced by a globalized techno-industrial growth economy. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs, corrupt politicians, pundits of denial, and dreamers of wealth and fame fight over who gets more of the pie that is already burning, still in an overheated oven. Nobody is willing to turn down the heat.

No Time for Illusions

Even more important, time is running out. For too long, most of those who even noticed have treated climate change as some future problem to deal with later. It is certainly not something I should have to do anything about now. The ordinary citizen is in no position personally to do anything significant about a global problem that international negotiations struggle to come to terms with.

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Industrial Pollution in Ukraine

As I have said in other posts, every report from the IPCC has shown that predictions of previous reports seriously underestimated the changes they analyzed. The IPCC is an inherently conservative international body. All the governments that support it must approve the content of its reports. Until now, IPCC reports on current understandings of climate change have made certain optimistic assumptions about potential technological developments, such as geo-engineering, which are simply not justified. Things are not as bad as the IPCC would have us believe; they are far worse.

So far, political and business elites have constrained all international, as well as national, discussions of climate action within the assumption that responses can effectively reduce carbon emissions within the context of continued economic growth. So-called leaders have assumed that “technology will save us.” We have plenty of history to look back upon where new technology solved many problems of industry and commerce. That has usually allowed continued economic growth, creating new jobs while destroying old ones. Henry Ford hired many workers to build his cars while the makers of buggy whips went out of business. But that old logic no longer applies.

Cautious Science Reaches Critical Mass

A new special report by the IPCC has begun to face the hard facts of Earth system disruption and necessary human response. An Oct. 7, 2018, New York Times article By Coral Davenport summarized the situation by saying: “The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.”

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Simulated Sea Rise in Miami

Now, even that was an understatement. They might have said, more accurately, “if we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases enough to keep global average temperature to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2040, sea rise inundating coastlines, intensifying droughts and superstorms disrupting agriculture and causing poverty worldwide, may be slowed enough to allow human survival.” The IPCC is, after all, a conservative organization.

Nevertheless, the IPCC took a major step in recognizing the social implications of significantly reducing global carbon emissions. From its Summary for Policy Makers, it is clear that industrial nations need to achieve almost unimaginable economic contraction to minimize the most serious damage and irreversible trends toward complete climate chaos. Industrial nations would have to transform the world economy drastically in the next few years. What national leaders are talking about that?

Politicians Prevent Progress

Of course, U.S. President Trump has mocked climate science and vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreements to reduce carbon emissions. He wants to increase coal production and use. Extreme right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, the likely winner in the Brazilian presidential election, has also said he would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. The IPCC report concludes that what is necessary to mitigate climate chaos appears politically impossible.

To quote the Times article again, in summary: “To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.” The facts require extreme economic contraction and therefore societal transformation, which political demagogues and economic plutocrats proactively deny.

Conventional notions of progress as economic growth are no longer physically viable, yet they persist politically worldwide. Discussions of how to mitigate climate chaos and the devastation, poverty, and death it will surely bring within the next couple of decades, must now shift to focus on societal development by shrinking the technosphere and reallocating resources to human needs rather than capital accumulation by financial elites. That seems impossible within the current political context. But the necessity for survival will soon motivate large numbers of people to mobilize to form a very different kind of society in order to survive.