Pieter Bruegel the Elder Two monkeys 1562
And there we go again. Another IPCC report, and they all keep getting more alarming than the previous one. And then nothing substantial happens. Until the next report is issued and makes everybody’s headlines for a day, or two. Rinse, spin and repeat. “Now we really have to do something!”. “World leaders have a moral obligation to act!”.
Oh boy. To start with that last bit, world leaders don’t act because of moral obligations. They act to stay in, or get in, power. And they all know that to achieve that goal they must keep their people happy, even if dictators do this differently from ‘democratically elected’ leaders.
The first tool they have for this is control of the media, control of the narratives that define -or seem to- their societies. If a society is in bad shape, they will control the media to show that it is doing fine. if it’s actually doing fine, they will make sure all the praise for this is theirs and theirs alone.
So what makes their people happy? One thing far ahead of anything else is material comfort. If leaders can’t convince people that they’re comfortable, their power is in danger. Once enough people are miserable or hungry, a process is set in motion that threatens to push leaders aside in favor of someone who promises to make things better. There’s never a shortage of those.
Leaders, politicians, think short-term. They may see further into the future than the next election, but that is not useful information. If they enact measures aimed at 10 years from today or more, they risk being voted out in 2 years, or 4. It’s not even their fault, it’s how the system works. It is different for dictators, but not even that much.
The general notion is clear. But that means we can’t rely on our leaders to act against the climate change the IPCC keeps warning of. because is has a -much- longer time window than the next elections -or the next coup in dictator terms. Even if every IPCC report depicts a shorter window than the last one, it’s still not inside those 4-year election cycles (numbers vary slightly, 4 is typical).
A typical ‘response’ to the climate threat are the COP meetings and agreements. I have fulminated plenty against COP21, the Paris accord, even named it CON21. Because that was signed by those very leaders tied down in their election cycles. Completely useless. That most of the other signees were business leaders who represent oil companies, airlines and Big Tech with huge server parks seals the reality of the deal.
These are not the people who will solve the problems. They have too much interest in not doing so. The CEO’s have their profits to think about, the politicians their elections. They should be kept out of the decision-making process. But they’re the only ones who are in it.
I still think the issue was never better epitomized than in the December 2016 piece in the Guardian by Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney entitled “How To Make A Profit From Defeating Climate Change” , about which I said at the time:
These fine gents probably actually believe that this is perfectly in line with our knowledge of, say, human history, of evolution, of the laws of physics, and of -mass- psychology. All of which undoubtedly indicate to them that we can and will defeat the problems we have created -and still are-, literally with the same tools and ideas -money and profit- that we use to create them with. Nothing ever made more sense.
That these problems originated in the same relentless quest for profit that they now claim will help us get rid of them, is likely a step too far for them; must have been a class they missed. “We destroyed it for profit” apparently does not in their eyes contradict “we’ll fix it for profit too”. Not one bit. It does, though. It’s indeed the very core of what is going wrong.
Profit, or money in general, is all these people live for, it’s their altar. That’s why they are successful in this world. It’s also why the world is doomed. Is there any chance I could persuade you to dwell on that for a few seconds? That, say, Bloomberg and Carney, and all they represent, are the problem dressed up as the solution?
This week’s IPCC report says the efforts to keep warming at acceptable levels (1.5ºC) will cost many trillions of dollars every year. But a billionaire publisher and a central bank head want to make a profit?! Hey, perhaps they can, as long as you and I pay… But they won’t solve a thing. if only because not doing that will be too profitable. Still, while they’re at it, maybe they can do us a favor.
You see, what is hardly ever mentioned, let alone acknowledged, is that we have more than one major existential problem, and they exist in such a form of symbiosis that solving only one doesn’t make much difference.
We have a changing climate, we have accelerating species extinction, we have plastics in our fish, and we have a global economy that’s about to topple over. The common thread in all these is an overkill in energy use and therefore an overkill in waste. Thermodynamics, 2nd law. Waste kills. By raising temperatures, finishing off wildlife, plugging rivers and oceans with plastics, making increasing amounts of people economically miserable.
But as I wrote a while ago, our economies exist to produce waste, it’s not just a by-product -anymore-. If we stop making things we don’t need, and things that do harm to our world and our lives, our economies will collapse. We must continue on our path or see our lifetstyles plummet. They will anyway, we’re just delaying the inevitable, but we’re stuck.
And politicians are utterly useless and utterly unfit in situations like this. But ask yourself: are you any better? If you were told that in order to ‘save the planet’, you’d have to cut your energy use in half, which would take away many of your comforts and luxuries, would you do it?
A better question yet is, if you would agree to do that, and then see that your neighbor does not, would you still cut your driving and flying and electricity? That’s hard enough on an individual level, but how about if one nation does, while another refuses? Or when nations that have much lower per capita energy consumption tell the West: you go first?
What do you think the odds are that we’ll find a global solution, approach, before the 2030 cutoff date the IPCC provides in its latest report? While the likes of Bloomberg and Carney still talk about climate change as a profit opportunity? I know what I think.
The report says we need to drastically ‘reform’ our economies and lifestyles. Cutting our energy use in the West in half won’t be enough, if only because billions of people demand more energy at their disposal. Will you cut into your lifestyle, will your children, when they see their neighbors increasing their energy use, when they see entire nations increase theirs?
We don’t have ‘leaders’ that can stop species extinction or a warming planet or an economic collapse, because they either are clueless or they will be voted out of power if they tell the truth. Extend and pretend is a term that’s used to describe economic policies a lot, but it actually paints an accurate picture of everything we do.
“Free”, surplus, energy can come in the shape of sugar in a petri dish full of bacteria, or of stored carbon on planet earth. In both cases, the outcome is as predictable as can be. Can we, with our billions of cars and billions of miles flown every year, and billions of phones and computers, return to the energy use of only 100 years ago? Don’t think so.
On the contrary, we’re constantly increasing our energy consumption. Just like the bacteria do in the petri dish. Until they no longer can, until reality, physics, thermodynamics, sets a limit. One of my favorite themes is that we are the most tragic species ever because we can see ourselves doing things that we know are harmful to us, but we can’t stop ourselves from continuing.
The best we can hope for is that tomorrow morning everything will be the same again as where we started today. But no, that’s not sufficient, either, many of the things we’ve unleashed have 20+ year runtimes, and they’re already baked into the cake of our futures. We can’t start afresh every morning, no Groundhog Day for us. Every morning the alarm goes off things have gotten worse. And we can’t stop that.