By John Gibbons.
Science warns us that humanity is on a collision course with physics. Failure to radically decarbonise the global energy system and to ease human impacts on the biosphere is, we have been warned, likely to lead to catastrophic climate change in the coming decades. You’ve heard this before, but it’s still exceedingly difficult to imagine a future so radically different to the present and the immediate past.
That’s where ‘The Collapse of Western Civilisation – a View From The Future ‘comes in. Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s extended essay allows them to engage in literary and historical hindsight by setting the story at the end of the tumultuous 21st century and casting a historian’s eye back at the unfolding tragedy of what they call the Penumbral Period (1988-2093).
“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame”.
There was copious scientific evidence available by the first decade of the century to signal that the current system was unsustainable, unstable and certain to lead to disaster. We knew, yet we did not act. The generation with access to more information than any other in human history chose not to act to save itself. Why?
Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilisation, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.
Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats.
Western civilisation, the authors suggest, had become “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism”. Despite all the research undertaken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the knowledge that accrued from this vast scientific enterprise did little or nothing to dent the powerful economic and political forces wedded to hydrocarbon extraction, a network they label the “carbon-combustion complex”.
“Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of ‘think tanks’ that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists”.
The emergence of a powerful new ideology known as market fundamentalism, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990, deepened the crisis. Market fundamentalism took on all the trappings of a quasi-religious cult, its proponents bitterly opposing even the most rudimentary forms of government intervention in the ‘free market’.
The founding fathers of market fundamentalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, actually respected science and saw it as the natural companion to capitalism. However, “when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary”.
Arguing against regulation of any kind had become so ingrained (and profitable) for corporations that even the repeated presentation of scientific evidence failed to shake them from their certainties – with tragic consequences. “It is hard to imagine why anyone in the 20th century would have argued against government protection of the natural environment on which human life depends. Yet such arguments were not just made, they dominated the public sphere”.
The irony here is rich: “The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention”.
It is, the authors contend, “difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism”.
Even more puzzling to future historians will be how scientists, the very people whose job was to understand the threat and to warn society, mostly themselves failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat of climate change.
The establishment of the IPCC was supposed to provide an overarching system-wide perspective. While the collective expertise of the IPCC was vast, it concentrated on physical sciences, often ignoring the all-important social science dimension. “Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings, yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption”.
While the scientists dithered, the world burned. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put in place in 1992, yet between then and 2012, total CO2 emissions skyrocketed by 38% globally.
Our historian from the future observes that the IPCC had projected a doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050 – in fact, it arrived ahead of schedule, in 2042. The projected 2-3ºC surface temperature rise turned out to be 3.9ºC.
“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures – such as water and food rationing and Malthusian ‘one-child’ policies – were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards”.
Much worse was to follow. The brutal Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041 led to global food crop failures, famines, food riots and unprecedented panic. “Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen”.
By the early 2050s, social order was crumbling – first in Africa, but quickly sweeping through Asia and Europe. The US government declared martial law as its breadbasket dried out and famine swept the continent. As the situation became ever more desperate, the ‘Unified Nations Convention on Climate Engineering & Protection (UNCCEP)’ began planning a global climate cooling project.
For its first three years, the project appeared to be succeeding, and temperatures began to edge downwards. However, an unintended consequence of this geo-engineering gamble was the virtual shutdown of the Indian monsoon, leading to famine sweeping across the sub-continent. The experiment was abandoned in 2063, but this led to a ‘termination shock’ as the heating rebounded fiercely – a projected 0.4ºC cooling quickly became +1ºC of additional heating, pushing global temperatures to +5ºC over pre-industrial levels.
By the mid-2060s, a global climate tipping point was passed. There was a sudden and dramatic thaw of permafrost and methane (CH4) release. “Estimated total carbon release of Arctic CH4 during the next decade may have reached over 1,000 gigatonnes, effectively doubling the total atmospheric carbon load. This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect, a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6ºC”.
This methane pulse disrupted ocean temperatures and circulation, and dealt the death blow to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Between 2073 and 2093, rapid Antarctic melt sent global sea levels surging by five metres. Around this time, the Greenland ice sheet began to slide into the north Atlantic, adding another two metres to sea levels.
Globally, some 1.5 billion people were displaced from coastal regions by the 7-8 metre sea level rise. Waves of refugees caused huge disruption in the already distressed communities into which they poured. A second Black Death swept Europe and North America. There was no functioning health system to arrest its spread. Up to half the affected populations died. Some 60-70% of all species on Earth went extinct during this period.
At +11ºC, we would assume the Sagan effect would have led to the obliteration of all life as a series of positive feedbacks led to runaway global warming and the death of the oceans. However, the authors flinch at such an outcome.
A genetically-modified CO2-sucking lichen rides to the rescue. “Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery”. The idea that we might get a second chance after runaway climate change is the only truly improbable aspect of ‘The Collapse of Western Civilisation’. •