The latest assessment (the sixth) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a massive (4,000 page) and exhaustively-sourced document laying out that climate changing is happening, is “unequivocally” being driven by human activity (specifically the burning of fossil fuels), is getting worse, and is already to some extent irreversible.
None of this is new, but it helps to have these reports dropped on us with some regularity because it keeps what’s going on in the news, along with stories about extreme weather events like raging forest fires and devastating floods.
(1) We’ve known about this for fifty years now. Powerful interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, have effectively waged a disinformation campaign against the science through their funding of the “merchants of doubt.” That said, I think most people get it and understand what’s really going on. But what can be done?
(2) The root problem is overpopulation. At present the global population is 7.9 billion. I was actually surprised it was already that high, but it’s going up by 200,000 a day. Some environmentalists get upset when you bring up the matter of population, seeing it as a diversion. I think it’s fundamental. As David Attenborough put it, “There is no environmental problem that is not made easier by less people.” Sure if we all lived with the carbon footprint of the average Bangladeshi then we might get by, but that’s not going to happen. And yes, global population will likely peak sometime around mid-century and then go into a sharp decline, but by then we’ll be cooked.
(3) In addition to overpopulation there is the fact that we live in an industrial economy based on mass production and mass consumption of goods. Some people blame capitalism, but I don’t see how a socialist government would be doing any less damage running the same industrial system. The old communist Soviet Union and China under Mao were two of the worst environmental offenders in history. As I’ve said before, the only environmentally sustainable human economy is life in a medieval village. We can’t go back to that even if we wanted to, and we certainly don’t want to.
(4) As for climate change, things are, as David Wallace-Wells put it, even worse than you imagine. And as bad as they are now they are likely to get much worse, and on an even faster schedule, than we expect. The feedback loops are already in place and operating.
(5) The only non-catastrophic way out would involve a global movement based on an egalitarian spirit of shared sacrifice. This would avoid total social and environmental collapse, but life would still get a lot harder. That said, I see no chance of people coming together to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to avert disaster. There’s no putting a happy face on this one. Our situation is worse than we think, and will soon end up being worse than we can imagine.
Postscript: As a final point, I want to address something that I’ve seen being said online in various forums: that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is grounds for hope that we can successfully respond to climate change.
This is deluded. I already wrote up my own report card for COVID, but just to highlight: The only really successful part of the global response to the pandemic was the creation of a vaccine. We may liken that to the work done by the IPCC scientists. They did their job. But the job done by the medical establishment, even in the wealthiest countries, was spotty, the political handling of the epidemic was generally poor, the economic fallout, I believe, will be disastrous, and the social response was depressing in the extreme. Anyone looking at how we coped with COVID for signs of hope on the environmental front is wearing rose-tinted glasses indeed.