Are we “Losing Earth”?

Or: have we lost it already?

Nathaniel Rich’s article about “Losing Earth” through climate change – and subsequent questions.

After a strong and snowy winter in the Alps, this summer really was tough, at least for vegetation, soil, glaciers etc. But also for many people. Not so much for myself, because personally, I like it warm. But as adventure blog reports, »NASA resarchers said that July 2018 was the third hottest month ever recorded, ranking just behind July of 2016 and 2017. On top of that, Death Valley — a notoriously hot place — saw the hottest month for any place on Earth ever.«
Actually, that’s nothing new so far. It’s getting warmer in here, as everyone knows (or almost), and everyone seems to talk about how tough this summer has been and, due to the overwhelming heat, many seem to be happy it’s over – at least for now.
However, climate change, global warming and the greenhouse effect are, in fact, nothing new at all, since knowledge about these phenomena dates back more than a hundred years.
When I begun my study path in geoecology in 2006 (or earth system sciences, as our dean of studies Prof. Matschullat stressed to call it), climate change was already a big, if not teh biggest and most important issue. Thus, I felt compelled (and in fact was compelled) to learn more about it, so in my second semester I started visiting courses in ecology and atmospheric chemistry, as well as biology. Moreover, I read the book of PIK scientists Rahmstorf and Schellnhuber (both part of IPCC) on climate change, which opened my eyes to the huge extent and severity of this global dynamic. Apart from that, I became member of an environmentalist group at my university in Freiberg. The issue had really grabbed my attention. When I switched my study path to geography, I started specializing in meteorology and climatology. There, however, my interests changed, and the issue slid out of my focus for some years.


An assignment for the editorial board of Bergsteiger magazine last year made me think and write about climate change again, with a special focus on snow cover and ski tourism in the Alps, which I also published an article about (in German) in die tageszeitung. Now, as is not an uncommon reaction to this year’s dry and hot summer, the fatal extent of climate change painfully returned to my mind – and to my eyes. I witnessed landscapes in Germany turning yellowish-brown and trees throwing off their leaves in August instead of October, and I realized the incredibly rapid retreat of glaciers in the Alps with my own eyes. There were wildfires in Germany so villagers became afraid of campers, National Parks got closed, just like in the US. I read and heard intense reactions and debates in the media and the public talk about a “hot age” to come. Finally, the topic seemed to have reached people in its full extent. Perhaps finally now, I thought, everyone, including policy-makers and the industry, would really start doing something about the problem.
However, I am also realizing again now, as I already did when I started dealing with the topic (because it was foreseeable already back then) that humanity would not prevent the catastrophe, and that, in this regard, human existence somehow had failed.

But why such a strong and pessimistic opinion?

First of all, we as a community of human beings, have failed to face the results of our own misdoings over the past 150 years and to change it on a large scale and with effective outcomes. And we continue to do so even now, when everyone seems to realize the extent of the catastrophe and is talking about it.
The crux about global warming is that everyone can grasp it. The greenhouse effect was perfectly understood at the turn of the last century. The principle is simple: radiation from the sun (after being transformed into long-wave infra-red radiation by its reflection on Earth’s surface) is absorbed by so-called greenhouse gases such as water vapor or gases based on carbon, most prominently carbon-dioxide. An increasing amount of carbon-dioxide in our atmosphere thus increases its temperature. By pumping excessive amounts of carbon from inside the earth to the outside – into our atmosphere – humans have obviously altered the planet’s energy balance. That is now what is called anthropogenic greenhouse effect. Nevertheless, in the last years that I have been aware of the topic, nothing, no substantial measures, were agreed upon on an international level that could really avoid further global warming.

Rhonegletscher_1900

The Rhone glacier around 1900

Leaving that aside, and secondly, I also read an equally amazing and shocking New York Times Magazine article entitled “Losing Earth: The Decade we almost stopped Climate Change” by Nathaniel Rich. It is so remarkable and worth reading so much because by focusing on the manner the global warming problem was dealt with in a decade when there was a good chance to prevent it, and the way this was continued, the article hints at the human incapability to handle long-term and large-scale threats to our existence in general, and the role our economy and political system play in that issue.
At first, Rich seems to start with well-known, though nonetheless legitimate alarmism, that is, a description of the hazards and desasters we are going to face in the future:

»The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest

largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.«*

This very pessimistic outlook is only an introduction to his main topic, which is the decade between 1970 and 1980 when, according to Rich, there was a good chance to take the necessary steps to prevent further global warming because a binding international agreement was within realistic reach. He continues by illuminating the history of discovering the greenhouse effect and its role in Earth’s climate.

It was a British mountaineer, John Tyndall, who already back in 1859 discovered that carbon dioxide absorbed heat and that this could influence the atmosphere and the climate. »These findings«, as Rich points out,

»inspired Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the combustion of coal and petroleum could raise global temperatures. This warming would become noticeable in a few centuries, Arrhenius calculated, or sooner if consumption of fossil fuels continued to increase.Consumption increased beyond anything the Swedish chemist could have imagined. Four decades later, a British st

eam engineer named Guy Stewart Callendar discovered that, at the weather stations he observed, the previous five years were the hottest in recorded history. Humankind, he wrote in a paper, had become “able to speed up the processes of Nature.” That was in 1939

Rosimferner, Sulden, 2010-2018

The crust at the lower end of Rosim Glacier near Sulden, South Tyrol, has a thickness of several meters and I was able to observe it decrease significantly within only eight years. Pictures were taken in 2010 (Sep.), 2015 (Sep.) and 2018 (Aug.)

Why was there no action although »nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979«, as Rich stresses? Certainly, the fossil fuel industry played a large role, or maybe just its own game, by influencing and directing public and scientific opinion. Besides that, of course there is a huge and intricate political setting that prevented decision-makers to draw consequences and create veritable reactions, to find substantial solutions to the problem which had been recognized to be a global threat, as Rich shows.

We all contributed to global warming, whatever pretexts we may create to purify our conscience. Just one example: A research study by the universities of Bremen and Innsbruck calculated that »one kilogram of CO2 emitted costs 15 kilograms of glacier ice«. Which means that…

a car ride of five hundred meters equals the melting of one kilogram of glacier ice.

Help me god, if I think of all the (sometimes pointless) kilometers I drove around with cars! Let’s not speak of airplanes. And, of course, not of the industry!
Now, anyway, what’s particulary interesting about Rich’s article is the consequences he draws from his historical analysis. He argues that

»everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.«

Well, I’d say that, in the first place, it’s irresponsible to put new children into this world anyways, and to me this can only seem to be the outcome of a devil-may-care attitude of parents. But yeah, their grand-children’s lifes obviously mean nothing to their contemporary ancestors. However, does this come as a surprise? Maybe not. It might be just human, or it might just be the zeitgeist. »’Après moi, la déluge!’ is the motto of every capitalist and every nation of capitalists«, Marx wrote in The Capital. But what does Rich say? Let him have the word again:

»We worry about the future. But how much, exactly? The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount; the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster. The Yale economist William D. Nordhaus, a member of Jimmy Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in the 1970s that the most appropriate remedy was a global carbon tax. But that required an international agreement, which Nordhaus didn’t think was likely.«

Sounds reasonable and absurd at the same moment. Could it just be that there is a problem about our economical or political system or both?

»Michael Glantz, a political scientist who was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at the time, argued in 1979 that democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem.«

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, that parliamentary democracy has seemingly proved to be particularly inadequate to deal with global environmental dynamics. But is it really politics or is it just »human behavior«? And are corporation’s profits, gross domestic products and national economical interests more important than the sustainability of our planet, of the basis we exist upon? Rich doesn’t stop here and continues:

»The competition for resources means that no single crisis can ever command the public interest for long, yet climate change requires sustained, disciplined efforts over decades. And the German physicist-philosopher Klaus Meyer-Abich argued that any global agreement would inevitably favor the most minimal action. Adaptation, Meyer-Abich concluded, “seems to be the most rational political option.” It is the option that we have pursued, consciously or not, ever since.«

His conclusion took my breath at first, but seems pretty reasonable. Mitigation never was a realistic option. To adapt has been the choice that was never really a choice. But before, however, his argument is only half the truth, because he ignores that the competition for resources, something utterly inherent to capitalism, is a crucial factor preventing attention to be put on solving the climate problem. In an economic system based on competition which can only be suspended by cooperation through toughly elaborated treaties and which, moreover, requires superior institutions that guarantee compliance with those treaties, it should not at all be a surprise that it is impossible to solve a world-wide crisis like it is represented by global warming. Rich goes on, however, to finally find that

»these theories share a common principle: that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.«

Hence, according to Rich, it is in fact human beings, and neither politics nor the economic order, that is to blame.

»If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.«

Conclusion
What the problem of climate change shows us is that we haven’t even lost but, in fact, never had control over nature, in exactly the same manner we never had control over the social relation that determines our lives and our ways of interacting with each other: the capital relation, which has always appeared to us as a natural dynamic and that completely slid out of our hands. Both determine us – we don’t control them. Climate change is a counterpart of our inability to even achieve control over our ways of social interaction, because what dominates us socially, does so without most of us being able to grasp this domination. Climate change is nature avenging our attempt to escape its forces. It is a sad confirmation of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s prediction that »any attempt to break the compulsion of nature by breaking nature only succumbs more deeply to that compulsion«, as well as Walter Benjamin’s dictum under the impression of Paul Klee’s painting »Angelus Novus« that progress is a storm that drives us into desaster like a train without a driver.

»But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.«

Mankind has ridden on this train straight into catastrophe. Thus, you could ask, do they deserve to survive at all? Rich, instead, makes it a question, or a scenario, of generational upheaval:

»At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help.«

I would like to share his optimism, but I can’t. It has always been either optimism or ignorance which kept us from practicing real change, enforcing real action. I would say that time for illusions is over – action is on now. Or demise.

»Keeping the planet to two degrees of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees, would require transformative action. It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.«

And here we might have something as an explanation why climate change has become such a big issue recently. We have to see and feel and suffer consequences first. But: have suffered enough already? And: will we revolt? Will a new generation overcome the old, like in the song “New Blood” by one of my favourite bands, Night Fever?

Look at what we’ve got today, no more talk about the good old days
This is our time this is our place, the old fucks have been replaced
We don’t need a time machine, we are a part of the new scene
We are the new kids so go get fucked man, this here now is the new blood

Turning back to the question in the title and point of departure for my illustrations, personally I would reply as follows:
It’s too late now. There is no hope. Everything is fucked. We are doomed. Earth is lost. The best thing we can do on the long term is to leave this god-damn and god-forsaken planet before we will have completely destroyed it and try to establish a new, liberated, egalitarian society of free human beings at a place far from here and at last to fulfill the hope of Marx that we once would be able to hand over to our children not a place worse than this one, not even an equally good world, but: a better world.
However, we will never get there in and with capitalism.
Still you could ask: why care at all? And I do ask. I didn’t drive a Formula One car, didn’t even watch this CO2 intensive spectacle. Okay, I’m flying with airplanes each year. But I just consume what I’m offered and I can’t change the world alone. So why care?
Why say instead: “Let’s not wait for the world to change, it’s our turn now!”? Why not rather say “après moi, la déluge!”? Let the devil care?
Because something that is totally human rather than all of Rich’s essentializing assumptions about what is human and what isn’t, would be two things:
First, to recur to our instinctual will to survive.
Second, to take the stance of humanism which signifies to try everything we can to avoid total self-destruction and to keep this world a place worth living, whatever small the chances for that option might be.
There might be a third possibility, too, according to Rich: hope and optimism, he concludes, were basically human reactions even to desastrous situation as is ours today. But as was mentioned above, time for illusion is over now. Action is on.
No one can change the world alone. We can only do it together. What is needed now, is nothing less than a revolution. Let’s not wait for it. We must not wait for it, since there’s no more time wait.
But we will wait. And we will wait in vain. And we will watch our planet’s bitter decline, and our existence turn into chaos. Human existence: failed.
* Emphasis mine

Rhone glacier

The Rhone glacier 2018. (The place where it was)

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