With few exceptions, the world’s economic and political leaders are not long-term thinkers. The CEOs seldom look beyond the next business quarter, the politicians beyond the next election.
If they do occasionally peer into the future, it is usually to anticipate the increase of their profits and power. They assume that the reign of global capitalism, with all the poverty, inequality and environmental harm it perpetrates, will prevail for centuries to come. Or at least for as long as they live to prosper from it.
This false sense of security is based on the myth that Earth’s capacity to sustain life is inexhaustible – that we can continue to plunder, pollute, and overpopulate the planet with impunity. It’s a terribly dangerous delusion that persists among both corporate and business leaders despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Ecologists and other scientists have been warning repeatedly for the past 60 years or more that global warming, left unchecked, will devastate “civilization” as we know it, and even constrain our planet’s capacity to sustain sentient life. But their urgent pleas for preventive and protective measures have been virtually ignored. Apart from a few feeble token efforts, the glib promises made at successive “climate summits” to take climate change seriously have gone largely unfulfilled.
This refusal by our business and political leaders to heed the dire warnings of scientists should have motivated billions of voters to demand the launch of a concerted “save-humankind” campaign. The urgent need for such a crusade should have been the most important issue tackled in recent national elections in the United States and Canada. Instead, except for a few progressive candidates, it was barely mentioned.
Why? The explanation is simple. It’s because, for most people –- despite the scientists’ exhortations — global warming remains a far-in-the-future menace, one that doesn’t necessitate immediate defensive or protective measures. The rise in global temperature has been so gradual that – until recently – it has induced indifference rather than panic.
One of the major defects of evolution is that it gave humans short-term-wired brains. We tend to focus on problems (social, financial, work-related) that confront us soon, not at some time in the future. It’s an instinctive reflex that served us well in the past, as hunters and gatherers, but it imperils us now as we remain idle while global warming intensifies incrementally to a crisis level.
Granted, the preliminary effects of this impending global catastrophe are becoming more apparent as extreme weather events – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, forest fires – rise in frequency and ferocity. But even these increasingly obvious effects of global warming won’t precipitate the all-out preventative campaign that has been so urgently needed for so long.
Even the most recent dire warning from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” must be made over the next 12 years — will not be seriously heeded by most corporations or governments. Especially not when the UN agency calls for CO2 emissions to be reduced by 45% before 2030!
As we face the portentous prospect of a destructively overheated planet, human beings can be roughly divided into “believers” and “deniers.”
First, let’s consider the believers:
Many thousands have been galvanized by the already evident warning signs. They have flocked to join Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental organizations. They stage protests against corporations that pillage and pollute, and against governments that permit – even facilitate – such corporate vandalism.
The high-tech champions
They agree with the activists, but believe that the worst impacts of global warming can be mitigated by the application of innovative technology. Some of these proposed high-tech initiatives include the construction of protective domes over major cities; the dispersal or absorption of CO2 emissions before they accumulate further; and the placement in orbit of huge mirrors that would provide all the solar energy needed to make fossil fuels obsolete. They seem oblivious, however, to the lack of time left to implement such complex “solutions.”
They believe that global warming is happening, but also still believe that it’s safe to wait at least another 20 or 30 years before serious efforts have to be made to cope with it. This delay, they feel, will give them the time they need to deal with their more pressing personal concerns.
They deeply believe in global warming, too, but also believe it’s past the tipping point when it might have been checked. They are resigned to the eventual demolition of their current way of life, so have decided to just relax and enjoy the good times they have left.
They also fear it’s too late to curb global warming, but, unlike the eat-drink-and-be-merriers, they are determined to survive the inevitable collapse of civilization. So they are busy preparing elaborate underground “shelters” stocked with the essential food and materials needed to weather Nature’s onslaught.
They are the billions of people who have been co-opted to serve the economic and political planet-wreckers. In order to keep running a suicidal global economy rife with poverty, inequality, and a terminally ill environment, our corporate rulers and their political lackeys need compliant workers. And these minions, in turn, depend on their demented profit-fixated employers for the wages and employment benefits they need for what remains of their livelihood.
Workers in the private sector may not like helping their bosses maintain an environmentally ruinous economic system. And those in the public sector may not like helping their governments help the corporate marauders. But all these workers – and their unions – are hostages to a warped and deadly “free-enterprise” system. Any inclination they may have to join the dissident activists is repressed.
The corporate CEOs, managers, stockholders, bankers, and big investors
They are the major beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism, and thus resist any threat to the wealth and power it confers on them. Many have actually convinced themselves – like U.S. President Donald Trump — that global warming is a myth or that, even if it isn’t, it will never escalate to the apocalyptic extent that scientists predict. Whether they also believe they can indefinitely pursue constant economic growth on a resource-limited planet is moot, because they have no choice, anyway. To switch to a no-growth or even limited-growth economy would be tantamount to abandoning their neoliberal ideology, and even scrapping capitalism itself. For them, unthinkable.
They have been duped by the right-wing media and think-tanks. They swallow the corporate claim that global warming is not being caused by human activity, but rather by a naturally recurring climatic process that waxes and wanes, but never balloons to dangerous levels. Converts to this propaganda feel they can safely scoff at the ecologists and other scientists, and keep living as blithely and blindly as ever.
The religious fundamentalists
They could also be listed among the believers, because they don’t deny that shattering climate change is real. But they do deny the need for – or even the justification for – any preventive measures. They see global warming as part of God’s preparation for Armageddon and the Bible’s promise of the Second Coming. They denounce efforts to forestall God’s plan for the “End Times” as futile, even sacrilegious.
Three formidable barriers
The diversity of the views about global warming held by the various groups listed above deters the mobilization of a concerted and united global rescue effort. And, even if such a massive save-humankind-from-extinction campaign could belatedly be launched, there would still be three towering barricades to surmount.
1) The entrenchment of capitalism
Global warming is mainly the result of uncontrolled economic growth, the depletion of non-renewable resources, the ongoing extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the CO2 toxins emitted from these baneful forms of energy. Their combined effect is an inexorable increase in the planet’s atmospheric temperature.
Since all these climate-changing causes stem from the same source – the prevailing neoliberal capitalist economic system – it stands to reason that global warming cannot be curbed as long as capitalism remains intact. Capitalism and a life-sustaining climate are clearly incompatible.
2) The subjugation of governments
There was a time, long ago, when governments closely monitored and controlled the activities of corporations. Business firms were confined to operating in a specific industry, and under strict regulations and conditions. They were not allowed to own newspapers, magazines, or, later, radio networks. They were barred from getting involved in politics or education. Violations could result in their charters being revoked.
How times have changed! So powerful and influential have the corporations now become — financially, politically, and globally – that their relation to governments has effectively been reversed. Instead of governments controlling them, they now control most governments, even largely setting their agendas and priorities.
Apart from some countries in Europe, no government today dares to enact laws or adopt policies that would significantly threaten the accumulation of corporate profits. And that certainly includes the profits derived from the activities that increase global warming.
Climatologists and other scientists began sounding the alarm about runaway economic growth and global warming more than half a century ago. Had the world’s political leaders heeded them then and promptly implemented the required precautionary measures, the subsequent environmental crisis could have been averted. Instead, fearful even then of a corporate backlash, they settled for a series of token and soon forgotten promises.
This prolonged political dereliction has left activists with scant time to mobilize their crusade to save the planet – and life on the planet – from the now rapidly nearing approach of Armageddon. Especially with such adamant corporate opposition and without the help of collaborative governments.
This shortage of time is by far the most obstructive barrier that confronts the environmental activists. Still dispersed and divided as most of them remain, and as ineffectual as their efforts have been so far, is it conceivable at this late stage that such a belated world-wide rescue attempt could be mounted, and that it could succeed?
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel says that global temperatures have to be held “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably to no more than 1.5 degrees C. And this has to be done in just 12 years, or the climate change “ball game” is over.
The stark reality
Realistically, what are the odds on forcing corporations to abandon capitalism and permanent economic growth? On substituting clean energy sources for the consumption of fossil fuels? On relying on governments to take the lead out and instead take the lead in a last-ditch struggle to forestall the Sixth Extinction?
For answers, let’s take a look at the current environmental records of Canada and the United States.
The Justin Trudeau-led federal government has maintained a reliance on the extraction of bitumen — the dirtiest of tar sands oils — even to the point of spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars to purchase a large private pipeline – while neglecting the development of clean energy alternatives. Not only does its minimal tax on carbon emissions fall well below the level agreed upon at the last international climate summit, but half the provincial premiers (so far) have scrapped it. Ontario Premier Doug Ford went even further to kill that province’s entire climate-change-curbing program.
In the United States, where political global warming skeptics abound, President Donald Trump has eviscerated and defunded the Environmental Protection Agency and ditched the rules and restraints limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. Writing in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert predicts that these and other anti-environmental decisions will, “over the next few decades, allow millions of tons of additional carbon emissions.”
Commenting on the fierce forest fires that recently destroyed thousands of acres in California, she added that “what’s most scary about this scorching summer is how little concerned Americans seem to be. Climate change barely registered as an issue in the mid-term elections. As a country, we remain committed to denial and delay, even as the world, in an even more literal sense, goes up in flames.”
How many of the thousands of scientists whose repeated warnings about global warming have fallen on deaf ears still remain optimistic about the future? If this question were put to them in a yes-or-no poll, and if they all answered candidly, my guess is that no more than one in four of them would respond with a sincere “yes.”
It goes without saying that I would have preferred to end this lengthy blog on a less pessimistic note that wasn’t based on wishful thinking. But there’s a fine line between realism and Pollyannaism, between self-assurance and self-delusion; and, like it or not, it’s time to decide which side of that line we’re really on.
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I expect that most of those who may read this bleak prognostication will vehemently disagree with me. They will understandably denounce me as a defeatist, and even as an inadvertent enabler of the global warming deniers. I sincerely applaud these critics. I envy them their persistent optimism. And I sincerely wish them well in their exemplary commitment to save the world from the impending environmental cataclysm.
At my advanced age, I won’t be alive to see the outcome of this historic conflict, but my children and grandchildren will be, and for them I fervently wish that the plucky “Davids” somehow do manage, against all the odds, to vanquish the powerful corporate and political “Goliaths.”