As of June 22, the Michigan state government lifted all COVID-19 related restrictions. Naturally, many Michiganders concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. It isn’t. True, some parts of the United States have vaccination rates approaching herd immunity, but in stark contrast, the vast majority of the globe’s population is still without access to the vaccine. The surging cases, especially in the most densely populated areas, correlate with further mutations, potentially producing an even more contagious and dangerous variant that could eventually be resistant to the current vaccines. However, this is not what worries me the most.
While deadly, killing over four million people worldwide, 600,000 in the USA alone, COVID-19 is not an existential threat to human civilization. Climate change is. And I fear, as a society, we may not be capable of dealing with the urgent degradation of our living world and the accompanying geopolitical conflicts that will result from resource scarcity and mass migration. Humanity’s overall inadequate and inequitable response to the acute global emergency of an international pandemic, where consequences affect us two weeks later, doesn’t bode well for our response to the urgent existential threat of climate change, where the latency period can extend for fifteen years or more. We have, for decades, ignored all the warnings. It may very well be our civilization’s doom.
I know. I sound like an irate street preacher on a wooden soapbox shouting through a bullhorn, “The end is nigh!” to the rolling eyes of pedestrians walking by. Unfortunately, I am not alone in my grave consternation. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a group of international experts on nuclear technology and climate science, who have for the last 75 years assessed the existential threat to humanity and reported the level of threat as time until midnight on the Doomsday clock. They announced earlier this year that they are setting the clock to 100 seconds before midnight. This is tied with last year, 2020, as the closest the Bulletin has ranked humanity to total catastrophe. This was part of their 2021 statement, “The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.”
In other words, when the imminent existential threats of climate change and nuclear warfare challenge our society’s continued existence, collectively the world’s governments will probably screw up.
And the consequences couldn’t be direr. For decades, scientists have warned government leaders about the devastating consequences of climate change that could occur if we do not significantly reduce our carbon emissions. The burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests for agriculture has resulted in a massive spike in CO2 atmospheric concentration, unprecedented in the last 800,000 thousand years based on ice core data. This sudden change significantly alters our planet at rates unheard of on a geological scale, causing extreme heat, submerged coastlines, mass migration, coral reef death, and reduced life abundance among other effects.
While world leaders have met to create treaties to address the issue of climate change, even the most recent both unambitious and nonbinding Paris Climate Agreement failed to take substantial steps to avoid climate disaster. The goal of the Paris Climate Agreement was to keep the global temperature rise to less than two degrees centigrade above industrial levels. Even this, though, has substantial consequences, particularly for the global south – the nations that have historically polluted almost nothing compared to that of the wealthy nations. Moreover, at current rates of emission, we aren’t even projected to meet these loose standards.
So why don’t we act? While this complicated question cannot elicit a concise response without many gross oversimplifications, I believe the inaction can be mainly attributed to the following three main factors: mass misinformation campaigns spread through uncritical social media consumption; the unperturbed, insatiable growth of capitalistic economies; and the heartless indifference of the secure political-economy elites to the plight of everyone else. There are many tragic parallels in the response to the pandemic.
We live in an information age, where the internet floods us daily with an unprocessable amount of information. Taken uncritically, our perception of reality itself becomes greatly distorted. Social media and mass media conglomerates exist to get more clicks: these businesses profit from the ad revenue they receive from traffic or viewership. Powerful machine algorithms, like the ones that suggest videos on YouTube, are carefully calibrated to get the person to keep watching — regardless of content. This has spawned rampant false narratives with real-world consequences. Worse, targeted ad campaigns can sway the public’s opinion, reducing trust in experts.
This results in ineffective policy, endangering us all, in particular when malicious powerful agents act in greedy self-interest. And this is what is happening now. Because fossil fuel companies stand to lose staggering profits by a transition to renewable sources, they have purposely spread misleading information, denying the existence of climate change. This lends to confusion and holds back public-driven change. We cannot respond to a threat we refuse to acknowledge.
Moreover, we saw during the pandemic a persistent political force that propelled our unjust economy to get back to normal operating procedures immediately, the workers be damned. The initial lockdowns intended to flatten the curve thereby reducing the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system, stalled the economy. Almost immediately, especially after the stock market crash, numerous politicians demanded the economy be reopened no matter the consequences to public health. This hardline opposition illustrates that even a short pause has substantial consequences for our current economy and its main benefactors — wealthy shareholders. And it also illustrates the problem with capitalism from an ecological perspective — it necessitates infinite growth.
However, a finite Earth with limited resources can not support infinite economic growth.
And even with dramatic technological advancement, it still remains doubtful that such a political economy could address climate change effectively. As technology efficiency improves, the capitalistic system tends toward more consumption, effectively nullifying the reduced emissions that came from the improved efficiency. This is known as the direct and indirect rebound effects. For example, as planes became more fuel-efficient, the ticket price decreased, which led to more travelers and more planes burning more fuel. Or indirectly, when people save money driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle, they then spend that money on other CO2 emission-intensive activities, such as more plane trips or more products.
The world’s population is increasing, and this rising number of people, especially in developing economies, are increasing their rates of consumption. The only way we can reduce emission levels, therefore, is to reduce consumption, something wholly incompatible with the immense societal pressure to consume.
Then there is the lack of political will from the economic elites who profit immensely off an inherently unstable and unethical system. We saw this, too, during the COVID pandemic. Summarized nicely, it was said that we are all in the same storm but different boats. The formally unskilled workers, now rebranded as essential workers (minimal to no hazard pay for many), were obligated to continue working in high-risk environments because their work was deemed essential. On the other hand, the wealthy could insulate themselves, doing much of their work online.
And this is the crux of the issue. The few people with the power to reduce the suffering of the powerless are the same people least affected by the dangerous consequences.
CO2 emissions scale drastically with affluence. The ultrawealthy, who have an unrepresentative, large influence in policy, resist many climate initiatives because they substantially profit from a CO2-intensive economy, and are the same people who can insulate themselves from the most disastrous consequences of climate change. If a coastal city floods, they have the money to buy a new home elsewhere, despite the likely increased housing demand. They can outbid others in the case of food or electricity shortages. Or, as exemplified by the severe heat waves the Pacific Northwest felt last month, they can afford to install and use air conditioning.
The major polluters profit the most and face the fewest consequences. And due to the increasingly corrupt campaign financing system, they tend to get their way with direct access to government representatives, reducing the likelihood of effective policy to halt climate change. In the end, everyone else suffers.
Nothing could be more illustrative of this runaway greed and callousness than that displayed by the ruling class during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working-class families suffered the loss of loved ones due to an inadequate government response that was hamstrung by misinformation spread through social media and the political pressures of shareholders to keep the New York Stock Exchange numbers going up. Meanwhile, the same ultra-wealthy who pushed for unsafe policy, siphoned off far more than they could ever possibly need from struggling families.
2020 was marred by an unprecedented level of wealth transfer from the lower to the upper class. Undoubtedly, the expanded unemployment checks and economic impact payments (stimulus checks), provided a lifeline to many working-class families. This, however, is mere pennies compared to the trillions taken by the 1%. And during all of this suffering and desperation, let me remind you that two of these criminally wealthy monsters were engaged in a race to be the first into space which was, essentially, an extra-planetary ego contest, and amounts to the 21st-century version of Emperor Nero strumming his lute as Rome burns in the background.