What the IPCC report should have told us

The problem with the recent IPCC report is that it is still talking about ‘average’ changes over the earth, discussing what might happen decades from now as a result of increased rate of change. Even if the message is labeled “code red” or urgent, it is still understating what is already happening. We continue to flog a dead horse; the ‘dead horse’ being the fact that scientists are still trying to convince people that climate change is happening and our situation is getting worse.  People should already accept that this is true.  It isn’t the average changes that will happen over the rest of this century that are threatening us.  The earth’s climate has already destabilized to the point where abrupt, extreme weather events are already happening. It isn’t my poor diet that will kill me, it’s the heart attack.

It isn’t the average temperature changes or rainfall events that threaten us, it is the abrupt changes, the extremes in weather events that will destroy our homes and communities. The IPCC report is full of graphical evidence that humans have changed earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere in ways that will bring about more warming, higher average temperatures, and greater precipitation in some regions and less in others. But this means little to people who have already lost everything to a storm, flood or wildfire. Perhaps the report was meant for policy makers, those who may actually be able to do something…if only we can convince them to do so.

In the face of such dire consequences what is the US government doing to address the threat of climate change? Yesterday we heard news of the first ‘bipartisan’ piece of legislation to pass the Senate in well over a decade. The legislation calls for more than a trillion dollars invested over ten years in hard infrastructure; roads, bridges, and dams along with expansion of broad band access to the internet. I suppose we should be thankful that a small group of Democrats and Republicans can actually work together on anything. It should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t, that Americans mainly use roads and bridges for transportation, and the transportation sector still runs almost entirely on petroleum. If we were going to get serious about climate change, i.e. reducing consumption of fossil fuels (such as petroleum), wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in renewable energy infrastructure as opposed to petroleum infrastructure? Yes, there was money allocated to EV recharging stations (although no mention that they would be powered by solar or wind). There was some money allocated for battery research, which is already ongoing in other countries. The announcement felt more like we were embarking on infrastructure repairs we’ve neglected for decades, and investing in research for which we’ve already fallen behind. Basically we are building ‘bridges to nowhere’ and roads that will ‘take us over a cliff’, because we choose not to do much of anything to actually address reductions in fossil energy use. We are not doing anything to become more resilient in the face of climate change. Every road or bridge we repair can be destroyed by storms or heat waves tomorrow.

The actions of our government clearly support the current carbon emitting, fossil energy dependent, economic system that caused the climate to change. It is clear that our government intends to keep ‘business-as-usual’ going as long as possible rather than actually make any change that could help us. Don’t make changes if they threaten our economic system! Wealthy nations are dependent upon the global transfer of goods and services for our economic livelihood. Even emerging economic powers such as China refuse to reduce coal combustion if it threatens economic growth. Our basic position is we will address climate change as long as we can keep economic growth going. It’s the new Green thinking. Every proposed piece of legislation that reduces carbon emissions by reducing fossil energy consumption is discarded because it is not in the best interest of making profits or collecting taxes. A reduction in carbon emissions will require a reduction in energy consumption. If we consume less energy we make and use less stuff, which will precipitate a reduction in economic activity. There is no way of changing the outcome of this calculation.  The reality is it isn’t profitable to stop using fossil energy.  It will hurt our economy and it will also hurt those who depend upon it.

Less economic activity also means less taxes collected and fewer funds for government programs, such as social security, medicare, public schools, police departments, and the military. It means fewer jobs, fewer stores.  It means few municipalities can afford to repair bridges and roads, build new infrastructure, or implement sustainability goals. The absence of public services means no funds available to help families who have lost their jobs or their home. It means no public hospitals or public health insurance. It means no help recovering from a disaster. It means no government subsidies for agriculture and energy, increasing the cost of producing these goods. Without sufficient revenue  governments fail, and it means no one will assist us, protect us, or guide us when we need help, leaving us at the mercy of private companies whose goal is make as much profit as the market will bear.

What the IPCC report didn’t say was that the only way humanity can address climate change is stop burning fossil fuels as rapidly as possible even if it means the collapse of our global economy.  It doesn’t tell us that we must slow our current economic engines even more drastically than we did during the shutdown to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to the report we must reach the peak of carbon emissions in four years and this doesn’t include any emissions that result from passing tipping points. The report talks about technological advances to extract carbon from the atmosphere (which aren’t yet available at scale). What the IPCC report didn’t tell us was that it’s already too late to save our current fossil fueled system, and that we need to prepare for the extreme reduction in energy that living on renewable energy will entail. It didn’t tell us to prepare for worsening weather extremes or to try to salvage what we can before it’s gone.

We could have addressed climate change decades ago and made the transition to a smaller, less consuming, renewable economy, but we didn’t. We could have used our time more wisely if we started 50 years ago when we were first warned of the danger, when we had half the population of today, and when more people were living much more frugally. Unfortunately we didn’t and now it’s too late. We have reached the era of consequences. Every nation will have to deal with the consequences of climate change; the abrupt, disastrous weather events. Every nation, community, and person will need to live with limited resources; the wealthy will have a bit more advantage but eventually even they will suffer the consequences.

This year we have already witnessed a number of catastrophic 1,000 year weather events. We have seen heavy rain events that destroyed villages hundreds of years old in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. People had never seen water levels so high. A city in China was struck by a 1,000 year rain event when it received a year’s worth of rain in less than three days. We see record breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest, not just a degree or two higher but five to ten degrees Celsius higher. We see severe heat waves exacerbating wildfires in Greece, Siberia, the Western US, and Canada. Across the world, the news is filled with stories of record breaking droughts, wildfires, and flash flooding. We are still struggling with an out of control global pandemic.

When your world has been destroyed what can you do? It’s too late for adaptation, because what you had is gone. It’s too late for emergency preparation, because the emergency has already happened. If there is no one to help you, if the criminals threaten you, what can you do? You leave. You take what you can carry and begin to walk towards someplace else, hoping there will be something ahead. This is the story of humanity. We’ve walked away many, many times when the lakes dried up, the soil turned to dust, or when the animals we hunted disappeared. Humans have always become migratory when resources or population pressure forced us to move on. We moved on until we found a place with food, water, and shelter. We stay in one place only as long as we can survive.  Once we must move there is no way to stop the migration of humans searching for resources, because staying will mean starvation and death.

There is likely no form of large government control that will remain in power after the collapse of our current economic system. Large, complex economies and the systems of government that maintain them are highly dependent on a constant flow of money and resources from which it can extract what it needs to survive, protecting its power. Fossil energy brought humanity the greatest power to exploit resources in history. We’ve created a vast, interconnected global economy and grown our population to more than 8 billion people. We built vast networks connecting cities across the globe, changed life within the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, and started the sixth great extinction event. Our science and technology created the weapons with which we’ve dominated life, in the process polluting ecosystems with toxins that now threaten all life on earth. In the absence of fossil energy the era of human control over the earth is coming to an end.  In the absence of fossil energy humans will once again need to live within the natural carbon budget, depending on soil fertility to grow food, prairies to feed herds of herbivores, forests to harvest wood, bodies of water to travel and fish. It may take thousands of years for these systems to recover from climate change, but in the absence of fossil energy far fewer humans natural systems will eventually recover.  Those who might survive this self-created thinning of the human herd will be those who can still use the resources at hand to make the things needed to survive.

The end of our civilization will not happen overnight, because the shear size of our global economy gives it a great deal of momentum, and there are billions of humans determined to keep it going.  It will likely take decades, but doubtfully the 400 to 500 years that it took the Roman Empire to fall. I wonder how long it took Romans to recognize their empire had failed and to move on?  I am fairly sure there will be small groups of people surviving in places where natural ecosystems are less damaged or in places beginning to renew (likely from the assistance of humans who know how to do this).  It will be perhaps several thousand years before its possible to know if the human species survives the sixth great extinction. If we don’t survive it may be thousands or even millions of years before another intelligent species uncovers evidence of our ruins. This is what the IPCC report should have told you.

12 Replies to “What the IPCC report should have told us”

  1. “What the IPCC report didn’t say was that the only way humanity can address climate change is allow the collapse our global economy…” That’s a stark assessment, Jody, but I agree with it and I imagine most of the scientists who draft the IPCC report do too or at least recognize it’s likely to be the case. They can’t write that in the report though because it has to be signed off line by line by all UN member states, very few of whom trust their rivals to give up the financial and military advantages of a fossil-fuel-powered extraction economy at exactly the same time as they themselves do. Leaving us strapped in rollercoaster cars to business-as-usual oblivion. Unless, that is, we as neighbouring people, communities and countries could put our differences on hold for a bit and stop seeing each other as rivals…

    1. Chris,
      I’ve softened the statement somewhat to make it a bit less stark, but still carry the message. I’ve also done a bit of editing, as always the first few drafts are longer than needed.
      It seems a bit strange to me that I’ve reached this point of view yet in some ways feel less conflicted than before when I still harbored the hope that humanity could rise to the challenge. Perhaps admitting we’ve failed has some value for our mental health, because even in failure we move on.

  2. This is what the report must say:
    We must collectively work to reduce our ecological footprint. We, the citizens of the more affluent nations must be educated and then forced (raised prices) to limit our consumption and wasting habits. Then, we, the citizens of all countries must be guided (by religious leaders’ & UN announcements) to limit our reproduction rates. Note that I have used the word “must” four times! Please feel free to provide feedback on my other comments in the following article:

    1. All of these “must do’s” would have worked if we had started down that path many decades ago….but we didn’t. Now nature is taking it’s course and we will live (or die) with the consequences.
      It does not hurt that some have followed the path you suggest, becoming educated, limiting reproduction, limiting our consumption, reducing our carbon footprint…perhaps such people will be the survivors. Unfortunately everything in America today is an argument, sometimes violent, between two sides holding onto their ideologies. Republicans have developed an overwhelming amount of anti-intellectualism that makes ‘educating’ them all but impossible. I don’t see any possibility of educating (changing) the minds of a large number of Americans who are determined to burn fossil fuels and who will never agree to any imposed limits. Telling people “we must do this” will have no effect.

  3. Compliments on your long and eloquent piece, Jody. You write as a main and key point that merits ongoing stressing that “the actions of our government clearly support the carbon emitting, fossil energy dependent, economic system that caused the climate to change.” And elaborate on the why of this convincingly and what trying to do otherwise at this point would imply. And relatedly, that key one (among others): What the IPCC report didn’t tell us was that it was already too late to save our current fossil fuelled system (or why this was so). A sad scenario overall (probably for non-human life as well—the latter at least for the period it takes for the now seemingly inevitable civilizational breakdown and what’s causing it to fully play out).

  4. Paraphrasing Dr. Nate Hagens, here is my summary of his Myth # 1: “We are Doomed”, from the video of his May 21, 2021 Earth Day talk, “Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality” —

    Humanity is not in harmony with our biophysical reality, and adjustments are on the way. People are starting to realize that the business-as-usual road ahead is closed. “All possible futures exist as a probability distribution between “bad” and “great” futures…” Unknowingly, notions of future possibilities exist in our heads as our very own probability distributions. But feelings of uncertainty impel us to mentally create and believe in a positive future vision. Individually, the range of our perceived future outcomes may range between “no problem” and “we’re screwed.” Fixed, biased personal viewpoints can subvert interpersonal communications about “the future”. Viewpoints not grounded in biophysical realities sabotage efforts to meet a future rushing towards us. Beware fantasy options such as “net zero emissions” and “economic growth using low carbon energy sources.” “My purpose,” says Hagens, “is to get more people’s distributions to overlap so we can have the best and brightest and most pro-future humans speak the same language and solve some of our issues.” Human emotions spur most of us to believe in “rapture ideologies”, such as colonizing outer space. We need many more creative people to conceptualize alternative paths forward, constrained, of course, by our biophysical reality. However, given our fossil-fuel-based supercharged economies, we’re headed for a smaller more chaotic economy. Concluding on a bright note, Hagens asserts: “the future is not yet certain, but many benign and even wonderful futures are still on the table.”

    1. A very interesting lecture by Dr. Hagens. I’ve listened to half of it and will finish the rest of the 3 hour lecture tomorrow. He certainly covers a broad picture that I’ve read about and agree with for the most part. I’ve reached the point in his lecture where he is talking about soil depletion. His message is straight out of soil science text books. Interestingly, I now know that this message is misleading.
      I completed a MS degree in Soil Science and I heard this message touted often. The reality is we actually can make healthy soil and within three to four years. I know this because I’ve been doing so for almost 20 years. Here is the post I wrote about it and how it relates to carbon sequestration. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-08-01/drawing-down-atmospheric-carbon/
      Some people will learn to live lightly on the earth, helping to restore ecosystem health. None of us know what our future will be. Even if I believe the human population will decline rapidly in the next few decades I still believe some will survive because we become partners with our environment.

  5. For a another take on our predicament, I suggest one read William Rees’ essay, “To Save Ourselves, We’ll Need This Very Different Economy.” In his essay, Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia, first defines the essential elements of our crises and then — presuming we are serious about addressing humanity’s very survival — outlines a prescription for national governments to follow.
    He concludes: “We have a lot of catching up to do. Until then, the world sleepwalks into catastrophe.”

    1. I read the essay and I agree with this approach, but the problem is the amount of time it will take. Many of his ideas (even though excellent) will require more time than I believe we have. Doing something is better than nothing but recognizing time limitations and social difficulties in accomplishing our goals are important.
      Finding a community of like-minded people willing and able to collaborate in this endeavor is not a trivial task.

  6. Consider the other danger of fossil fuels: even before the effect of CO2 on the climate was conclusively known, it was obvious that fossil fuels permanently deplete. William Jevons looked at the issue in some detail in his book, “The Coal Question” (also the source of the Jevons Paradox) published in 1865. Yes, 1865!

    If it is obvious that fossil fuels are non-renewable and will eventually become more and more scarce, how silly of everyone to depend on them to power a civilization and never really try to prepare for the day when they are gone? It boggles the mind.

    I am 73 years old and have been watching our foolishness regarding fossil fuels carefully since the first energy crises of the 1970’s. It finally became clear to me that nothing would be done about our energy vulnerabilities when Reagan was elected over Carter in 1980 and energy policy returned to full bore production of fossil fuels under James Watt, Reagan’s energy secretary.

    And so it goes with the climate changing effects of fossil fuel use. Nothing really effective has been done at all, but that was to be expected after our previous longstanding disregard of the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels.

    This is indeed the time of reckoning with the consequences of our folly. Our modern civilization has never been put on a sustainable energy foundation and this one never will be. Its collapse is a certainty; only the nature and timing is in question.

    My expectation is that collapse will be sooner than most people think. I recommend that everyone prepare as if collapse will be happening next week. Naturally, except for a very few, everyone thinks any talk of collapse is irrationally alarmist. All anyone wants to talk about is promoting economic growth. Plus ça change…

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