To avoid confusion, throughout this post I will use climate change and global warming interchangeably. Within the context of discussing the climate crisis we and the world are facing, those terms mean essentially the same thing.
At the end of my earlier post regarding core threats to our democracy (America’s Future – Continued), I closed by identifying Climate Change as the worst existential threat to civilized society that the world is facing. Within that contextual thread of course, that makes climate change the most dangerous crisis facing our American democracy as well.
The international scientific community is virtually united in the view that global warming is real, being driven substantially by human activity, and will bring environmental catastrophe soon. Their modeling predicts the chaos, death, and disruption to human society of a 2 degree celsius increase in global temperatures from: extreme heat; hunger, wildfires, severe weather phenomenon (hurricanes, tornados, typhoons), loss of fresh water, rising and dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, climate conflict, and finally mass uncontrollable migrations by perhaps as many as a billion people; that combination of stresses may trigger a general breakdown of civilized society.
It is true that the best climate scientists simply don’t know precisely how global warming will play out. The feedback loops from warming are so complex that it is impossible to predict specifically what, where, and when catastrophe will strike. Also, it is not at all clear yet how much civilized society may be willing to do to mitigate climate change and its effects. However, there are two thing the scientists seem to all agree on: 1) it is already virtually impossible to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius, which is and has been for the last 25 years the point at which scientists say global warming will become a global catastrophe; and 2) life on earth because of global warming will become much more challenging, dangerous, and chaotic than it is now regardless of what we do; it will only be less bad if we do something than if we do nothing.
Most rational people with access to factual climate information recognize that global warming is a world wide crisis of epoch proportions. And failing to address it as an imminent life or death struggle will stress the entire world order, probably beyond its breaking point. In this developing catastrophe every country will participate, intentionally or not; the threat to life itself will likely be felt first in the poorest countries, though they emit relative little pollution and have virtually no control of the crisis. The real societal changes necessary to combat global warming must occur in wealthier developed countries. That is where the burden of saving the world must rest.
The scope of what must be done to address global warming is immense. But if developed countries do not plan and implement effective strategies to combat it soon, the social impact of climate change will probably lead to much more death and destruction in the 21st century than both world wars of the last century. Nevertheless, the world community really could change the current trajectory toward catastrophe if it would demonstrate the will. With strong international cooperation among wealthy countries, the commitment of historic economic, technical, and scientific resources, and supported by global humanitarian initiatives, the worst outcomes could be prevented or substantially mitigated.
But I remain relatively pessimistic about the international community’s willingness to do what is necessary to prevent a worldwide calamity. That will require a level of consensus, leadership, and cooperation among nations that we have not seen before. And because of its influence on international economics and institutions (WHO, IMF, UN, and others) the United States will be an especially critical player in success or failure.
Unfortunately, at this point, and regardless of the science, too many Americans tend to kid themselves about the crisis we are facing. We have been hearing stories about imminent apocalypse for centuries, they say; worse though, particularly in recent years, a large minority of the electorate has become conditioned by climate change denier politicians to feel like the warnings are just crying wolf. Also Americans tend to believe that It won’t happen to us; our advanced capitalist and technological society can ward off any catastrophe once it is fully identified, they rationalize. The other issue that Americans face, maybe more than most other countries, is that we are the ultimate consumption society and seem unwilling to be inconvenienced by adjusting our behavior to address a situation as nebulous as global warming.
And to make matter worse: American politicians and business leaders care much more about maintaining the political and economic status quo than facing the facts of the climate crisis. When pinned down on global warming they love to plead helplessness because China is the polluter-in-chief; they claim that Americans taking steps to cut emissions first will be an economic disadvantage for the US in the global market. While China’s hands are certainly not clean, American elites’ effort to shift blame for doing nothing is disingenuous.
In absolute terms – tons of annual CO2 emissions – China does pump more CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other. But claiming that economic disadvantage defense sends the wrong message. China has more than 4 times the population of the United States. Based on relative populations and emissions the United States is in fact the world’s worst polluter; on a per capita basis, the US emits twice the greenhouse gases that China does. And per capita is what matters in the international political world where climate change initiatives ultimately must be negotiated. At the same time China as well as the European Union are already implementing carbon tax systems to reduce emissions; the United States is hardly even willing to talk about that yet.
Climate change is different from any previous existential threat the US or world community has ever faced. It will substantially increase the stress on all national governments, but particularly on liberal democracies, especially ours. Democracies will find it more challenging to placate their populations in the near and medium term than autocracies. As the climate crisis unfolds, people in most developed democratic countries will likely become much more nationalistic. They will blame other countries/societies as well as their own politicians for failure to act. They will demand immediate solutions to the resulting life altering tragedies occurring all around them. But no one will agree on what those steps should be or what sacrifices people should be expected to make. Democratic governance by its very nature requires a level of consensus that will be hard to come by; democracies may simply not be able to move quickly enough to satisfy their people.
Autocracies like China on the other hand will likely do relatively well early on. They can move quickly with bold public actions to give their people confidence that the crisis is being addressed. That will likely satisfy the populous, at least in the near term. It’s that image of charismatic strongman leaders taking bold action that frightens me about the danger to our American democracy. I fear the climate crisis will again attract people in the United States toward electing another demagogue (remember “I alone can fix it?”), and lead to further breakdown in the rule of law. Similar scenarios may play out in other liberal democracies.
It is within this backdrop that the United States as the world’s worst polluter and oldest democracy must assume a unique international leadership role in aggressively addressing global warming; if we don’t, the rest of the world is not likely to move quickly enough either. But we were essentially not even at the table until Biden’s assumption of the Presidency. And though President Biden’s Administration seems to be working hard at trying to awaken the nation to the scope of the challenge and marshal the resources, we still have no political consensus on which to build a strategy of our own, much less lead the world community.
First, we need to get our own house in order quickly; but that is not going to be easy. Seriously addressing climate change in the US will require restructuring our entire society to just get to where the Chinese already are today. But remember, to mitigate the coming climate catastrophe the goal must be zero net emissions by or about 2050, not just progress toward reducing emissions. Yet a large vocal minority of our electorate doesn’t seem to even accept that climate change is real, or if it is real, that it is a serious problem we need to address immediately.
Given the political pain of meeting net zero emissions by mid-century, I don’t think the US can be counted on to lead by example or even faithfully follow the lead of other international players like China or the EU. The long term global cooperation and selflessness required to mitigate global warming likely will not likely materialize. Therefore, I don’t think the world will come close to meeting zero net emissions by mid-century. That means that droughts, floods, sea level rise, and extreme heat will become much more common and make sizable portions of the earth virtually uninhabitable in 3 or 4 decades. As that happens uncontrollable mass migration will occur, economic chaos will rule in many countries, violence from non-state actors will become more common, broad civil strife will spread, and some nations will go to war over natural resources, especially water; that will signal the breakdown in stable society in many parts of the world. Governance will be so stressed by the existential threat to life and property that democracies may give way to authoritarian rule as a last resort way to deal with the worldwide crisis.
I would love to close this post on an optimistic note. But sadly, I have little confidence in a healthy scenario being played out in the coming 30 years. I have already predicted that the US will be an autocracy by mid-century, perhaps in large measure because of the political stress from climate change, but also because we will not move quickly enough on any of our other core challenges that I identified in earlier posts. It’s not clear to me what happens beyond mid-century. Though it won’t matter to me, the whole world order will likely be fundamentally different in that timeframe. My guess is that the United States will not survive in its current national form.