The Coming Age of Climate Despair

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by umair haque

Everyone, meet 2023’s latest villain: the doomer. What you might call doomer-shaming now fills the pages of august newspapers, from the Guardian to the Washington Post. Bad Doomer! They cry. Don’t you know it’s not…that bad!

I think this deserves a certain scrutiny. Because our systems have a certain tendency: they tend to downplay risks, in the name of “balance,” while promoting a kind of feel-good optimism. It’s happened time and time again over the last few years, yielding more and more disastrous results. The pandemic, which they tell us is “over.” The rise of fascism, which was presented as a heroic story of intellectuals and brave rebels taking on The System. Is this what’s happening with….climate change?

The doomer-shaming argument — call it the optimists’ argument, if you like — goes like this. It advances three central claims. “We have the technology to solve climate change, we just aren’t applying it fast enough.” So: one, we have the ‘technology’, two, ‘we’ aren’t ‘applying it’, and three, hidden in all this, a claim of ‘not fast enough’, meaning we just need to scale up our current efforts.

But is any of this true? Does this argument carry any water?

Let’s examine the claims one by one.

‘We have the technology to stop climate change.’ Do we? What doom-shamers mean when they say this is the following: they use it as shorthand for certain regions in rich countries having shifted to renewable energy. So wind and solar and so forth are growing. That’s a good thing, but does it equate to ‘we have the tech to stop climate change’?

Our civilization doesn’t know how to make any of its basics without fossil fuels. None of them. Not food. Not cement. Not steel, not glass, not industrial chemicals, not plastics. There are substitutes beginning to arrive for some — a tiny few — of these huge, globe-spanning industries. Like bioplastics, or green steel. But they are at the scale of a town or a city. They are nowhere near capable of supplying a civilization. Not even remotely close.

Think of the simple example of food. Modern industrial agriculture depends on fossil fuels to produce fertilizer. What exactly do doom-shamers mean, then, when they say ‘we have the tech to stop climate change’? We emphatically don’t have a replacement for industrial agriculture — green agriculture is a field which certain nations are trying to pioneer, like the Netherlands, but to imagine that it’s going to be able to feed a civilization very soon…when it can’t even feed itself on such a supply yet…is unrealistic in the extreme.

So: ‘we have the tech to stop climate change’? Do we? Let’s delve even deeper into the logic. This means: regions in rich nations have switched to renewable energy. And so America’s carbon emissions have stabilized, albeit at very high levels, while Europe’s have fallen. But this is a false economy. Looking at it from just the perspective of emissions, sure — looks like great news. But to the economist in me, things are less rosy.

What are America and Europe? The world’s largest consumers. What do they consume? Imports. From where? Poor nations, like China, India, Bangladesh, etcetera. What’s involved in manufacturing all those things the rich West voraciously consumes, from electronics to household goods, in the poor East and South? That’s right, emissions.

If we were to look more honestly at the emissions of the rich West, we’d use a lens called something like “consumption weighted emissions.” That means: if I consume, buy, say, a meal and a broom and a gadget today, just because that stuff isn’t made within my borders, doesn’t mean we can get away with saying “we didn’t emit.” It would look at the total emissions down the production stream of a given good, and assign them to the consumer, at least in part.

That’s because it makes little to no sense to say that it’s “just” the poor East and South that’s “emitting” carbon, when it’s doing so to satisfy the rich West’s demand. To put that another way, if a rich Westerner buys a good made in China, it’s not the Chinese worker who’s going to use it — he’s just made it for the rich West, who enjoys a cheaper price, because of course, there’s no carbon price attached to it. So this is a game of emissions-shifting, really. If we looked at the world this way, we’d see that in fact, America and Europe still emit significant amounts of carbon, on a consumption-weighted basis.

I raise all that because it’s crucial to understand how the world actually works. The world isn’t just a video game — there’s some ‘tech’, drop it on a fictional city. In the real world, we have institutions, systems, politics, and economics at play. ‘We have the tech to solve climate change’ meaning rich countries have managed to slow or stabilize their emissions here and there — it doesn’t apply to the world nearly yet, precisely because even as rich countries do that, which is good, they’re still basically responsibly for emitting vast amounts of carbon that are assigned to poor ones, because their demand is what quite literally creates those emissions.

So does this mean the world just has to ‘apply the tech’? Well, how would we do that? There’s India, firing up gigantic new coal power plants. Why is it doing that? Well, partly to satisfy Western demand, and partly to try and satisfy its own populace. Why isn’t it — after all, the sun shines pretty intensely there — building out solar and wind? The answer to that’s pretty simple: it has no reason to yet.

Why not? The ‘climate finance gap.’ That’s a term you should know. It means that we need $5 trillion a year to fight climate change. So far? We’re at $650 billion. That’s 13% of what’s necessary. In other words, we have almost 90% of the way to go. And because that 90% is missing in action, poor countries have little alternative but to draw on the cheapest short-term sources of energy there are, which is why China and India are far away from giving up on coal.

The real world, remember? What good is ‘tech’ if nobody can…afford it? Let’s say that in the next century life-extension therapies become available. Shall we just say that ‘the quest to fight human aging is over’? But what if only billionaires can afford them, and everyone is still out there…succumbing to the ravages of age. Technology is never a panacea. It exists in the messy, complicated, often dismal world of human political economy.

And that world’s primary interest, in this day and age, is profit. Here’s another startling statistic that I’ve cited before. Guess how big fossil fuel subsidies are globally? They’re about $6 trillion.

How much are we investing in fighting climate change again, as a world? LOL, $650 billion. In other words, we’re subsidizing fossil fuels ten times as much as we’re investing in fighting climate change. Ten times! Everyone should know that number, but almost nobody does, because if I say it — whoops, am I a doomer? Shame on me!! I kid. There’s a real point here.

‘Just apply the tech!!’ is much easier said than done. Let’s go back to an old example: one of humanity’s great accomplishments, eradicating smallpox and polio. That required a worldwide effort. And people got involved, at the grass roots. It was seen as something beautiful and historic and world-changing, which it was. But it wasn’t as simple as ‘just apply the tech!’ — it never is.

And with climate change, we’re talking about profound levels of social change. Traumatic, shocking, incendiary ones. How do you tell someone used to life’s creature comforts that they suddenly have to be more aware of the resources they consume? Without alienating them? So that they can learn statistics like the one above — fossil subsidies are 10X climate investment — instead of…

Concluding what Americans have — Americans rank climate change 17 out of 21 priorities, aka, almost dead last. ‘Apply the tech!’ is a nice slogan. But it has next to no bearing in the real world. In that one? We can lose knowledge, in great, historic stumbles. Once there was Greece, then were the Dark Ages. The ‘tech’ — philosophy, art, literature, right down to math — was forgotten in the mists of ignorance, hate, violence, and poverty. The real world is far, far messier and more complicated than doom-shamers want to admit, and that’s a problem — for all of us. Because of course they’re the ones who are out there saying the problem’s simple.

But it’s not. The problem of solving climate change? It’s really, really hard. It is the hardest problem humanity has ever had. We have systems built to maximize profit, and externalize costs, which span a globe. Atop them, we have vast inequality, and the feeling of despair, powerlessness, and pessimism in the average person — 80% of people in America, China, and Europe think their kids will be worse off. Systems like that resist the very changes that need to made in them and by them. They offer up everything from inertia to denial to outright disinformation and propaganda. And that can be seen in…

What happened, politically over the last decade? What will history chuckle at, about this age? Think about: this summer, the planet’s burning. The ocean’s as hot as a hot tub. And it was less than a decade ago that around the world, societies rejected a thing called a “Green New Deal.” Just ‘apply the tech’! Shout the doom-shamers. But people have already rejected that. The problem is much deeper than the shamers think: the real world isn’t an authoritarian fantasy. What are we to do if people themselves reject Green New Deals…the same decade…the planet starts to burn?

History, like I said, will chuckle at that. Because it illustrates just how hard this problem really is. Today, there’s climate change really beginning to affect people in hard ways — not just abstract, airy-fairy ones. Inflation’s hurting their wallets, as is a lack of insurance, a rise in risk generally. Systems are beginning to fail — water, food, finance. The air’s becoming unbreathable in places that never expected it, like, say, Manhattan or Washington DC. So what are people doing? How are they responding? Is there a massive turn to green politics? LOL, no. The world’s turning fascist, faster than ever.

So. Climate change is a hard problem. The hardest one humanity has ever faced. It’s emphatically not just a technological problem. It’s an everything problem. Social. Cultural. Economic. Political. Financial. Why are fossil subsidies 10X climate investment? Because our economies are built that way — in turn because people themselves rejected green politics, and still do, for their own cultural reasons. These factors are tangled up on one another, and making progress on one alone is emphatically not enough. Sure, America and Europe have done well with emissions lately — but only at the cost of India and China doubling down on fossil fuels, precisely to satisfy the insatiable appetites of the rich West. As a world, that is why emissions continue to rise.

Because climate change is a hard problem. Much, much harder than doom-shamers make it out to be. It isn’t just about applying the tech — and even if it were, we don’t remotely have the technology for fossil-fuel free basics for our civilization, right down to food. The doom-shamers are wrong in this sense, and it’s a very real one — not to mention the next one, which is that even if we did have ‘the tech,’ our systems and institutions are set up to actively thwart it, in the name of profit and power at any cost, which is why we don’t have it. When fossil subsidies are 10x climate investment, is it any wonder we don’t have fossil-free basics yet?

Meanwhile, I think that “doomers” mean something like the above. I know of very, very few people — and there are some, to be sure — who’ll say things like: “the human race should die off! And that’s a good thing!!” — and mean it. It’s OK to even wonder about that, to muse on it, to mull it over — Sartre did. He said: “man is a useless passion.” Doomer?

But he emphatically didn’t mean: hey, it’s OK if billions die — his entire point was the opposite. I don’t see anyone saying that we should “give up” as in do nothing about climate change — except the fanatics and lunatics of the far right. Do you? Do you seriously see anyone thoughtful saying “give up!! Let the apocalypse roar!” Not even remotely — what some are saying is “we’re not doing enough, fast enough, and more needs to be done, now.” That’s the opposite of: “give up!!” This was the message of James Hansen’s latest paper, after all — the one which concluded maybe 8 to 10 degrees of warming is in the pipeline.

So I think that “doomers” mean the above: climate change is a much, much harder problem than we think. And we’re running out of time. We’re making little to no progress. Our paradigms are wrong, and our systems and institutions may well need revolutions before they can change.

Another way to think about that is this. The doom-shamers are an old American thing: the centrist incrementalist. Such figures believe that existing institutions, making piecemeal policy changes, can solve any and every problem. But can they? Or is climate change a problem far beyond that scale and scope — one that requires genuine transformations and new institutions? Like, say, a global carbon tax? Or basic rights, universally recognized, for nature?

Incremental centrism doesn’t get to those solutions. Often, it stands in the way of radical change. And “doomers” are right to point that out. Why is it, after all, that fossil subsidies are 10x climate investment? Because we don’t have a functioning carbon tax (not on you, dear reader, on megacorporations and their emissions). So there’s no good way to get money and resources — fast enough, quick enough, big enough from dirty to clean.

It’s not “doom” to point that out, that’s a critique of the way power works, its inertia, and its tendency to get trapped in problems of its own making — a classic one, in fact. And in this day and age, it’s reality. It’s just a fact that our economies and politics haven’t made one single transformative change to fight climate change yet, not really — from carbon taxes to rights for nature. We should be doing better — so why aren’t we?

Of course, rich regions of the world making more renewable energy is a good thing. But on a global scale? It’s not going to stop rising emissions. And all their fatal consequences. Nor is it any indication that rich nations — who really do control the global economy — are ready to rewrite its rules for anything more than profit, fossil subsidies, and power, at any price. The global economy’s rules are still what they are: poor countries “owe,” rich ones consume, corporations profit, and billionaires grow richer by the year, all of which turns people fanatical, desperate, and self-destructive. Do you see a single leader of a rich nation talking about a Green New Deal for the World? I didn’t think so — when they do, perhaps, there’ll be some appreciation of how hard the problem of climate change real is.

But they don’t for a reason. They know they’d be laughed at scorned even in their own countries. Precisely because as climate costs bite, everyone’s getting poorer — inflation, interest rates, system breakdown. As people get poorer — nobody’s interested in a fair deal for those distant others. They just want life to go on as it was, before the Bad Times. So there’s no politician around the globe calling for a politics of reality right now — except the UN’s Secretary General, and he can do it precisely because he doesn’t have to pander to anyone, or worry about being hectored by lunatics.

However we feel about climate change, one thing’s certain. We mustn’t fight one another. Our side is guilty of this mistake time and again throughout history. But none of us are the enemy. Those of us who recognize there is a climate emergency now are all on the same side. Whatever distinctions follow from that are secondary. The opposition is powerful enough without us defeating ourselves by shooting one another in great circular firing line of a purity contest.

This isn’t about who’s rightest, scoring points. Factionalizing and division only saps us, all of us. Infighting does climate denial’s work for it. It’s about saving what’s left of our civilization, before it’s too late.

The hardest problem in human history. And we’re not doing a very good job of solving it yet. That’s not “doom,” that’s just reality. Look around and tell me things are going well. Sicily. Greece. Canada. On fire. Oceans, boiling. Those orange skies over Manhattan were just weeks ago. Every summer after this gets worse. Emissions still rise. This is just objective reality.

To point that out shouldn’t be something objectionable. When we turn messengers with warnings into “alarmists” — and “doomer” is to climate change what “alarmist” was to fascism — we make a grave error. We imagine it can’t happen here. That’s usually how it does.