The consequences, including a mass extinction event on the scale of the one that snuffed out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, are horrifying.
Yet the response…well, not exactly overwhelming, shall we say?
The COP, the latest international summit to address climate change, at the tail end of last year, was not as criminally negligent as it could have been, but nor could it be described as the definitive moment when the world squared up to the issue of global warming, and how to avert disaster.
They agreed that a rise of 1.5º should be the limit, that 2º should absolutely be the limit. And then they did some sums about 26 per cent of this and 40 per cent of that, shook hands, and went home.
It was, to be sure, the best summit ever. But that’s because all the others were so fraudulent and pointless. And still it’s not enough to compensate for all the time lost through relentless lobbying from the oil and gas industry, and the wilful indifference of governments who want business-as-usual because they don’t think they can win elections on any other ticket.
Not when the likes of the Koch brothers, the famous climate change deniers and petrochemical billionaires, have spare change to the tune of $900million to spend on this year’s US elections alone. Where will yer crowd-funding get ya in the face of that, eh?
The hard truth, and we all kind of know this, is that capitalism, a system launched into human history through the ignition of fossil fuels, is not compatible with climate control.
Capitalism, even one run on energy-efficient light bulbs and reusable screen wipes, doesn’t work unless we are increasingly consuming stuff, buying more things, eating more things, wasting more things.
And we just can’t keep on like this, because we’re destroying our planet, and we’re also running out of… stuff to make stuff with. In fact, we should have stopped all this ages ago.
We should have been having Big Conversations about it in the 1970s and by now be living in an advanced post-hydrocarbon economy, where the relentless pursuit of growth has been superseded by sustainability and equality, the hallmarks of an environmentally just society.
But we didn’t, and we’re not, because this crazy consumption serves a purpose, in that it has pretty much put us to sleep since the end of World War II, around the time we slipped from Holocene to Anthropocene.
Politically to sleep, that is.
The major Western powers found that introducing the working and lower middle classes to the world of fridges and TVs, and with them consumer debt, not to mention mortgages, kept us quiet and in hock to payment plans, and away from troublesome stuff like collective action and trades unions.
So what is to be done, as someone once said? It’s not an easy one to answer, as we’ve never been here before. It is time to relinquish notions of reforming capitalism to make it, ahem, nicer, and think in brave, new terms.
For a start, we mustn’t dismiss the environment as the prerogative of new age travellers and earnest teachers with vegan tendencies. The green movement is far too important to be left, frankly, to the Greens, or to international summits held in sparkling capital cities; we all need to pitch in.
Climate change will affect us all, and the poorest will be hit hardest; they’ll be the ones migrating to higher ground, struggling to survive in a world of ever scarcer food and water.
In the cruellest of ironies, the poorer southern countries, the ones the European and American empires pillaged to make their consumer revolution, will also be the ones to pay the ecological debt, in the currency of drought, disease, famine and rising seas.
Writing in the Guardian last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the reduction of carbon emissions—our carbon footprint—as not the environmental challenge of our times, but the human rights challenge of our times. He compared it to the struggle against apartheid, where boycott, civil disobedience, economic disinvestment and repression through international law were numbered in the armoury.
We must do everything we can, all the time. Reduce waste, reuse, recycle; but also make waves, educate, campaign, argue, weave it into every political thing we do. But even as we get into gear, we need to find alternative visions and future histories to help us move forward. There is a better world, but we can’t create it if we can’t first imagine it.
If that sounds hopelessly vague and like something you might knit, consider the Radical Independence and Yes campaigns of 2014, here in Scotland. Prior to RIC and Yes, an independent Scotland was an abstract concept, rather colourless and uninspiring.
That, or tiresomely chest-beating, a lot of Braveheart seasoned with Culloden and some conspiracy theories.
But as the months progressed, the vision of an independent Scotland grew arms and legs, we were falling over ourselves to add more, and more, to an emerging picture of a modern, diverse, sustainable, equal society, this newly-minted Nordic entity peopled by workers, artists, thinkers and activists, that felt so tangible and so possible, we came within touching distance of it.
Our future on Earth, in the Anthropocene, needs just such a collective, creative push. There are solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems of climate change, we can adapt, survive, even flourish. But only if we believe it.