Climate change: thinking about the past and the future

Two weeks on from the IPCC special report on 1.5C – which calls for unprecedented transformation in how we live, especially those of us in rich countries – I’ve been thinking about the past and the future.

The past.

With the default scenario, hundreds of millions of people are at risk of early death because climate change drives extreme poverty. The equivalent of knowing there will be, what? The Holocaust? The Rwandan genocide? Those are intentional acts – and much smaller (though massive proportions of the targeted populations). What’s the term for causing hundreds of millions of early deaths and billions to suffer unintentionally but also with foreknowledge? (Some people are trying to make ecocide a crime.)

The British historical imagination is dominated by WW2. So caveated, our situation is what, Churchill in the 1930s warning of the Gathering Storm? Or knowing that Stalin’s reforms will kill millions? Or knowing that Mao’s Cultural Revolution will kill millions? Again, all those past examples are smaller in absolute terms.

Or, the moments when there could have been a nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis. If Stanislav Pertrov has followed his standing orders when the warning lights flashed in 1983. But then the actions of a small number of people could avert disaster.

We have the first Industrial Revolution with a deadline. The first technological transformation that has to replace the incumbent energy infrastructure (all the past revolutions added on top).

Some coverage has said we need to orientate our productive capacity as we did in WW2, or with the Marshall Plan. I was also thinking of 1920s Corporatist Italy, where companies had to put national goals ahead of shareholders through a form of state-managed capitalism.


The future.

It will never be ‘too late’ because we don’t face a cliff-edge. We face a downward slope; anything that slows us going downhill is useful. Every tonne of emissions reduced helps. Stopping trying to mitigate, or giving in to despair, will make things worse than putting some effort.

But there is momentum in the climate system and there are thresholds which more positive feedback kicks in.

Some degree of societal disruption is inevitable. Some sort of societal collapse is possible, even likely.

In the last few years European politics has buckled with 280,000 refugees trying to come across the Med. Multiply that number by 100, by 1000. Imagine what that will do to our politics. Today’s populism will be tomorrow’s centre ground. Hence 1920s Italy. Think the film Children of Men.

Futurist Andres Sandberg says that most species get 1-10m years before they go extinct. We’ve only had 100k. If every person was a grain of sand then today’s there’s been a rucksack-full and today we have a handful (at ~8b). The future generations would be an Egyptian Pyramid. There is much, much more humanity to come.

They rely on us.

They rely on us to come through the next 100 years with possibilities left for their lives. For options on how they choose to flourish in their own way.

People in the world today rely on us.

“The task of the imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis, placing the actual under the light and the pressure of the possible,” says Roberto Unger.

Those of us who are experiencing the future crisis in our imagination today, we have a responsibility.

“In some sense, we should regard ourselves as being burdened: we have the burden of helping this world. We cannot forget this responsibility to others.

“But if we take our burden as a delight, we can actually liberate this world.

“The way to begin is with ourselves. From being open and honest with ourselves, we can also learn to be open with others. So we can work with the rest of the world, on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves.”

Chogyam Trungpa In Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

Our moment in history is unprecedented.

The task of our generation is to give people now and in the future choices in how they live a large life.

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