The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Looking to the future, can we ask when The Wild Ride will end and The After will begin? I think it will end on the occasion when the climate crisis reaches a peak of destructive immensity beyond anyone’s ability to reasonably doubt it. The important words in that last sentence are ‘beyond anyone’s ability’. Let us call this event The Climate Reckoning. It will be an end to complacency, an end to willed ignorance, an end to denial. And then it will be a mobilization: we will get down to the work of surviving what remains of the climate crisis and emerging from it somehow better than before, if we can. Meanwhile, in the time between today and the Reckoning, there will be billions of preventable deaths, billions of preventable species extinctions, billions of preventable ecosystem collapses.

Some might say this reckoning has already begun. We have widespread recycling and composting programs in major cities. The fraction of the global electricity supply produced by renewables (solar, wind, and hydro) grew from ~2,500 terrawatt hours in the year 2000, to more than 6,000 TWh in 2018. There are numerous popular movements to lobby governments and influence civil society toward acknowledging and acting on the climate crisis: Extinction Rebellion, for example. Green Party candidates regularly get elected in Europe and in Canada. And in the midst of the Wild Ride there have been many international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notably the Paris Accord (2016), the Copenhagen Accord (2006), the Rio+20 conference (2012).

But consider the following events which also took place between the years 2000 and 2020:

• Wild fires in Brazil, sub-saharan Africa especially Angola, Cameron, and Congo, as well as California USA, Alberta Canada, and Australia.

• Hurricane Katrina.

The collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the Greenland ice sheet.

• In mid 2010, a United Nations summit in Aichi, Japan, identified twenty global biodiversity targets. By mid 2020, none of those targets had been met.

Events like these demonstrate that the climate reckoning is not happening. Powerful voices in our society and culture, including politicians, industry leaders, religious leaders, and celebrities, continue to speak and act as if these were all random and natural events. Tragic and sorrowful events, to be sure. But unconnected to any wider pattern. Definitely unconnected to the way we produce energy and consumer goods, or the way we dispose of our waste. And therefore prompting no need to change anything about the way we live.

The managers and executives of the industries that are destroying our planet are perfectly and completely aware of what they are doing. But as long as it’s profitable for them to do it, and as long as they can insulate themselves from the consequences, they will keep doing it. For example: at a meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, secretly recorded by one of the participants, oil company executives discussed the need to change, not themselves or their industry, but instead to change people’s minds and attitudes toward oil and gas. “Climate change,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “is the prism through which everything is being viewed… We have to be comfortable talking about it, talking about how we are part of the solution through natural gas. And again, hitting people with emotions, hitting them where they’re— where their heart is. The activists are doing this when they talk about banning fracking in Colorado. They don’t show explosions. They don’t show rigs. They show women and children. We have got to begin playing at that same emotional level or we will not win these battles.” (Source.) So long as attitudes like this remain prominent among the powerful, the climate reckoning will not occur.

Furthermore, we have seen how those well-publicised global environmental conferences produced no results. This is by design, not by accident. The text of the Paris Accord and the Copenhagen Accord commits the signatory nations to nothing, because all of its targets were non-binding and there are no prescribed sanctions for countries that miss them. In 2017, the United States withdrew from the Paris Accord anyway. Emissions of greenhouse gases continued to rise, even while the COVID-19 pandemic reduced GHG emissions from cars and aircraft. Civic recycling programs, while popular and helpful, have not stemmed the tide of waste. In some sense civic recycling programs have served as a distraction: they allow people to believe they are doing their part as individuals, while the nation as a whole does nothing.

Consider, as a specific example, the wildfires which struck the eastern coast of Australia from late 2019 to early 2020. A season of record-high daytime temperatures, regularly above 40 degrees C, and the worst drought in decades, created the perfect conditions for the largest and most destructive bushfires in all of Australia’s history, far outstripping the better-publicised wildfires which damaged the Amazon basin, California, and Cameron, earlier in the year. From October of 2019 up to January 2020, every Australian state had large uncontrolled bushfires. By the first days of 2020, more than 5.9 million hectares of bush has been destroyed, entire towns completely destroyed, tens of thousands of people displaced, nineteen people killed, and 28 people were missing. The military was called in to help with evacuations and firefighting work. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of evacuees in New South Wales, the area hardest hit, fled to the coast and huddled together overnight on beaches or in small boats, trapped between the fires and the ocean, waiting for larger ships to come and rescue them. An estimated half a billion animals and plants were killed, and over the surrounding oceans the heatwave raised water temperatures enough to kill most marine wildlife. Ash and dust from the fires fell as far away as New Zealand, more than two thousand kilometers away.

Without exaggeration, though it may seem absurd to say it: the wildfires of that season were the most destructive environmental catastrophe in the history of Australia since its colonization by Europeans. But may I draw attention to two more facts about them that are relevant to my argument. The first is that the wildfires had been predicted twelve years previously, by the authors of an environmental impact study commissioned by the Australian government. The same researchers provided an update in 2011 which warned: “Even an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would have significant implications for the distribution of rainfall in Australia, the frequency and intensity of flood and drought, the intensity of cyclones and the intensity and frequency of conditions for catastrophic bushfires.” The second and more salient fact for my argument is that even while the fires were burning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly denied the severity of the fires and denied their connection to climate change. “We have faced these disasters before,” he said, waving the fires away as though they were normal and unimportant. Two days later, after receiving some angry heckling from citizens for his comments, he acknowledged the necessity to review “all contributing factors” including climate change. But in the days that followed, he continued to deny direct links between the wildfires and climate change, and repeated his government’s support for the fossil fuel industry and his opposition to any emissions-reduction plan. Twenty-four people were charged with arson in relation to the bushfire crisis. But at the same time, an online disinformation campaign exaggerated the role of arson in the crisis, in order to muddy people’s understanding of the relationship between the bushfires and the climate crisis.

The general point: even when a major climate disaster strikes an affluent, well-educated, developed and modern nation populated mostly by White people— the kind of nation one would expect to get the most media attention and to do the most amount of work to protect at least themselves if no one else— still there is no Climate Reckoning. The crisis carries on.

From March of 2020 and through to the autumn, most everyone hid in their homes, as if they no longer wanted to look at the world, as if they were tired of it, and also afraid of it. We told ourselves we are quarantining to slow the spread of a new pandemic disease called Covid-19. And, of course, we are. But are we also hiding from reality itself?

Has reality become too painful to face?

(A more fully footnoted version of this text is part of my forthcoming book, “Ecology And Reality”.)

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