We were warned for decades about the death march we are on because of global warming. And yet, the global ruling class continues to frog-march us towards extinction.
By Chris Hedges
The past week has seen record-breaking heat waves across Europe. Wildfires have ripped through Spain, Portugal and France. London’s fire brigade experienced its busiest day since World War II. The U.K. saw its hottest day on record of 104.54 Fahrenheit (40.3C).
In China, more than a dozen cities issued the “highest possible heat warning” this weekend with over 900 million people in China enduring a scorching heat wave along with severe flooding and landslides across large swathes of southern China. Dozens of people have died. Millions of Chinese have been displaced. Economic losses run into the billions of yuan.
Droughts, which have destroyed crops, killed livestock and forced many to flee their homes, are creating a potential famine in the Horn of Africa. More than 100 million people in the United States are under heat alerts in more than two dozen states from temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s and low 100s. Wildfires have destroyed thousands of acres in California. More than 73 percent of New Mexico is suffering from an “extreme” or “severe” drought. Thousands of people had to flee from a fast-moving brush fire near Yosemite National Park on Saturday and 2,000 homes and businesses lost power.
[Related: New Mexico’s Megafires Mark Turning Point]
It is not as if we were not warned. It is not as if we lacked scientific evidence. It is not as if we could not see the steady ecological degeneration and species extinction. And yet, we did not act. The result will be mass death with victims dwarfing the murderous rampages of fascism, Stalinism and Mao Zedong’s China combined.
The desperate response is to burn more coal, especially with the soaring cost of natural gas and oil, and extend the life of nuclear power plants to sustain the economy and produce cool air. It is a self-defeating response. President Joe Biden has approved more new oil drilling permits than former President Donald Trump. Once the power outages begin, as in India, the heat waves will exact a grim toll.
“Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires,” U.N Secretary General António Guterres told ministers from 40 countries meeting to discuss the climate crisis on July 18. “No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction.”
“We have a choice,” he added. “Collective action or collective suicide.”
The Anthropocene Age – the age of humans, which has caused extinctions of plant and animal species and the pollution of the soil, air and oceans – is accelerating. Sea levels are rising three times faster than predicted. The arctic ice is vanishing at rates that were unforeseen. Even if we stop carbon emissions today – we have already reached 419 parts per million – carbon dioxide concentrations will continue to climb to as high as 550 ppm because of heat trapped in the oceans. Global temperatures, even in the most optimistic of scenarios, will rise for at least another century. This assumes we confront this crisis. The earth is becoming inhospitable to most life.
Retreating to Compounds
The average global temperature has risen by about 1.1 Celsius (1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. We are approaching a tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius when the biosphere will become so degraded nothing can save us.
The ruling class for decades denied the reality of the climate crisis or acknowledged the crisis and did nothing. We sleepwalked into catastrophe. Record heat waves. Monster droughts. Shifts in rainfall patterns. Declining crop yields. The melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers resulting in sea level rise. Flooding. Wildfires. Pandemics. The breakdown of supply chains. Mass migrations. Expanding deserts. The acidification of the oceans that extinguishes sea life, the food source for billions of people. Feedback loops will see one environmental catastrophe worsen another environmental catastrophe. The breakdown will be nonlinear. These are the harbingers of the future.
Social cohesion and the rule of law will disintegrate. This is taking place in many parts of the global south. A ruthless security and surveillance apparatus, along with heavily militarized police, will turn industrial nations into climate fortresses to keep out refugees and prevent uprisings by an increasingly desperate public. The ruling oligarchs will retreat to protected compounds where they will have access to services and amenities, including food, water and medical care, denied to the rest of us.
Voting, lobbying, petitioning, donating to environmental lobby groups, divestment campaigns and protesting to force the global ruling class to address the climate catastrophe proved no more effective than scrofula victims’ superstitious appeals to Henry VIII to cure them with a royal touch. In 1900 the burning of fossil fuel – mostly coal – produced about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. That number had risen threefold by 1950. Today the level is 20 times higher than the 1900 figure. During the last 60 years the increase in CO2 was an estimated 100 times faster than what the earth experienced during the transition from the last ice age.
3 Future Models
The last time the earth’s temperature rose 4 degrees Celsius, the polar ice caps did not exist and the seas were hundreds of feet above their current levels.
[You can watch my two-part interview with Roger Hallam, the co-founder of the resistance group Extinction Rebellion, on the climate emergency here and here.]
There are three mathematical models for the future: a massive die-off of perhaps 70 percent of the human population and then an uneasy stabilization; extinction of humans and most other species; an immediate and radical reconfiguration of human society to protect the biosphere. This third scenario is dependent on an immediate halt to the production and consumption of fossil fuels, converting to a plant-based diet to end the animal agriculture industry – almost as large a contributor to greenhouse gasses as the fossil fuel industry – greening the deserts and restoring rainforests.
We knew for decades what harnessing a hundred million years of sunlight stored in the form of coal and petroleum would do to the climate. As early as the 1930s British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar suggested that increased CO2 was warming the planet. In the late 1970s into the 1980s, scientists at companies such as Exxon and Shell determined that the burning of fossil fuels was contributing to rising global temperature.
“[T]here is concern among some scientific groups that once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible and little could be done to correct the situation in the short term,” a 1982 internal briefing for Exxon’s management noted.
NASA’s Dr. James Hansen told the U.S. Senate in 1988 that the buildup of CO2 and other gasses were behind the rise in heat.
But by 1989 Exxon, Shell and other fossil fuel corporations decided the risks to their profits from major curbs in fossil fuel extraction and consumption was unacceptable. They invested in heavy lobbying and funding of faux research and propaganda campaigns to discredit the science on the climate emergency.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”
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I’d like to ask all those now screaming about the profits of the oil and gas companies if they’re going to keep screaming when the renewable energy giants reveal their own profit margins? Or don’t they think that the Davos crowd is pushing a green agenda for the profits? And will any journalist bother reporting on the down side of this green panacea? For example, “in order to see the light of day — manufacture of renewables requires humongous loads of nat-gas, oil, coal, minerals and commodities….For instance, manufacturing of wind turbines requires thousands of tons of nickel and rare earth minerals. …Solar photovoltaic energy requires humongous amounts of silver beyond belief, a process which also consumes … fossil fuels in enormous quantities, including the manufacture of the mining equipment required. Furthermore, as soon as renewables in large quantities are added to any electrical grid, costs go up – not down — as they have to be backstopped by fossil-fueled thermal plants….. Please understand and accept that the more renewables added, the more natural gas that is needed. People do not accept rolling brown-outs let alone black-outs, so fossil fuel backstops are mandatory.”
The idea is supposed to be to eventually replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.
Have mercy, if a corporation doesn’t get the lithium extraction deal it desires, it tosses out the president of a nation?
Was it like a democracy suddenly demanding a king? And, once King Globalization was installed, will he not ever go away?! Students of economics may have this all figured out; but yesterday, AFAIC, John Kiriakou asked Steve Grumbine the question of questions…
I know how things go a little. MMTers’ll say we can do what we want. But some days I just sit and marvel at how Russia and China went along with using SWIFT in the first place. Did they have no other choice?? A lot of the grain is getting out, and yet the hold up with SWIFT [even with the prospect of hunger] without a bunch of wangling could have slowed the process down!! Yes, I realize the choice to use SWIFT came with their buying our bonds (which we thought was so cool), but still? In a way it’s like something out of crackpot blue helmet conspiracy theory. Isn’t it? Or maybe more like the thing called technique Jacques Ellul wrote about?
The root of all evil no joke. And international bondage looks like.
By “New Years Day 2050” [McCoy, CN] what will have to trade for forklifts (to help us do what we want)?
“Hesitation on climate action and any return to the status quo . . . is species suicide, our species.” Yes it is mgr. Beyond surreal.
Of course the fossil fuel industry and ruling class deserve censure for casting doubt on climate science, but what of the ordinary citizens who were fooled by their propaganda, and then decided to take a gamble on the science being wrong? They effectively decided that if climate change was a myth, they could continue as before with no adverse consequences for themselves or future generations, while if it was real, they could still continue as before, with future generations living with the consequences.
As for British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar suggesting in the 1930s that increased CO2 was warming the planet, US scientist, inventor, and women’s rights campaigner Eunice Foote did so in the 1850s, in her paper “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” (1856).
It seems we have passed the threshold. Anything done from now on is too little, too late. Period.
My God! That title picture is harrowing. Thanks Chris, one of few voices of reason as usual.
Thank you for another passionate and accurate article on the bleak future for this planet. As much as I agree with the solutions you suggested – halting the use of fossil fuel etc – this is not sufficient. The only answer to the climate emergency is the immediate and permanent destruction of the economic system’, i.e., the ending of the capitalist model. It’s all clearly spelled out in Richard Smith’s book “Green Capitalism – The God that Failed” (published by World Economics Association, 2016). Until we end mass consumption and the production of useless goods and products that are disposable instead of reusable/long-lasting (all essential to capital’s need for endless expansion and profit-making), the planet is doomed. And because I can’t see any sign of the collapse of capitalism and its replacement with a society based on human needs and sustainable use of the earth’s resources, I must admit to having the view that we are all doomed and there is nothing that will prevent it happening. I feel sorry for our children who are going to suffer terribly.
Look up bacterial growth curve on google. Click on images. Several hundred representations of the phenomenon will appear for your inspection.
The represented relationships between population, resources and toxic end products over a time course obtains for any species, and, in fact, for all species taken as a whole on the planet Earth.
The ultimate “rewards” for unrestrained growth will always be the exhaustion of resources and the lethal build up of poisons to the point where growth slows down, ultimately stops and the reverse phenomenon called a “death phase” commences.
Humans and their numbers on this planet of finite resources will describe such a curve like all other living things. The advantage we have over the rest of nature is that, purportedly, we can observe the real world and react to it in ways that might extend our stay here in the form of a reproducing viable species. The key is to LIMIT our consumption of resources and delay the accumulation of toxic end products in our environment (excess heat from global warming may be considered one such in addition to all the chemical toxins and poisons we generate without caution), slow down our growth rate (hence our consumption rate of finite resources) and persist for a longer period of time.
We can either shoot our wad all at once through undisciplined, uncontrolled consumption of Earth’s bounty, and our population will crash from war, disease, starvation, and all the other manifestations of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, or we might have (it could well be too late by now!) limited our demands on resources and unbounded reproduction constrained only by crises after they appear–even when we have had unmistakable warning signs, in addition to our alleged ability to make observations, perceive long-term trends, formulate predictions and take logical actions to preclude disaster.
The sorry fact is, our nature is to be so selfish that we inevitably demand immediate gratification at the expense of long-term consequences and ultimate disaster. Knowing human nature, any realist would predict that the human race will never respond by limiting its options and consequences now, before disaster hits. Besides the tool of rational thought, we also have the tragic flaw of unlimited self deception. Rather than reason things out, we prefer to rationalise the quite predicable road to perdition and, over the long enough term, our own extinction.
So, see you in another life, brother, because this one is doomed by our own tragic flaws that we will never accept. Maybe our remaining descendants can discover another habitable planet with the new Web telescope and target it for resource processing as efficiently as we chewed up and spit out Mother Earth. However, I doubt it.
“The desperate response is to burn more coal, especially with the soaring cost of natural gas and oil, and extend the life of nuclear power plants to sustain the economy and produce cool air. It is a self-defeating response.”
Extending the life of nuclear power plants has minuscule carbon imprint compared with the amount of replaced oil, gas or coal. Needless to say, production of installations for wind and solar power is less negligible. Thus the author added it to the “desperate response” gratuitously. I would add that if I believed apocalyptic vision “a massive die-off of perhaps 70 percent of the human population”, problems with nuclear power are minuscule. Moreover, countries of the global South started to embrace nuclear energy, for example Egypt plans a huge plant, even when it invests in renewables, and there are projects at various stages in Bangladesh, India etc.
Apocalyptic visions have to be coupled with realistic solutions, and that means, solutions that allow the global South to climb out of poverty. Perhaps Bangladesh, India, Africa etc. are not as poor as before, but they definitely need more mobility, industrial goods and even food. Purism of “zero-emission” goals blinds to many types of solution that decrease the CO2 emissions at much lower cost, although not to zero. The easiest example to understand is hybrid cars, with fuel consumption roughly half of regular cars, versus electric cars. The difference in cost between hybrid and regular cars is very small, ten percent perhaps, compared to forty-fifty percent for electric vehicles, and the use of potentially scarce lithium is many times smaller. Thus hybrids could be realistic across South-North divide, pay for the cost difference with fuel savings, and reduce global CO2 emissions related to transportation of people.
In the spirit of hybrid solution, the plan to expand hugely solar and wind generation while balancing its intermittent production with natural gas seems correct, cutting CO2 emission now while the balancing can be done later with a mix of new and old technologies. Yet, it was monumentally sabotaged by the war in Ukraine that the West provoked. For Europe, to switch away from that plan requires monumental resources, not least, for buying LNG with roughly six times prices than ideologically incorrect gas from Russia, refurbishing coal plants, getting coal for them from around the globe, mothballing part of the industry and, last but not least, expanding purchases of arms, cherry on top of the torte worth hundred billion Euros in Germany alone. A wasted trillion Euros brings us further from actual solutions.
Thanks Chris for your reasoned article. Those who deny climate change should just go smoke a cigarette and relax…
Bla, bla, bla. One whistleblower outdoes another one. But no one has offered ideas to deal with what each is so eloquent in describing. What are we going to do? That’s the question we should be dealing with. It is amazing to me that pieces like this that you write, Chris, and that Robert Reich writes, and Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann and Michael Moore and the like aren’t matched by serious conversation about how to get off the death march we are on. Won’t you please open that conversation?
I’ll start by suggesting we deal first with what’s most causal to our malaise that would get addressed if we had some sort of UBI where every civilized person in the world has enough food, shelter, education, and health care to get us out of the death grip we are in of the increasing split between the haves and the have nots at this era of end-stage capitalism we are in. Until we get on a more even keel, where survival isn’t the primary issue for so many people, we are stuck with what we’ve got. The way to get that would be what I’ve suggested before here, that we need power to the people because governments are too imploded to do it. Back to the idea of an ad hoc Wisdom Council you could start, where you pick one person, the two of you pick the third, the three the fourth, till you get a group of the most respected people and everyone would listen to what you would do if you ran the country — and the world. UBI for all would be the first thing I’d put in the Suggestion Box that would be open to all for ideas and conversation about what gets passed to the Wisdom Council. This is doable now. Thanks to our modern technology you could get this going in a matter of days. No?
Yes. All viable, doable things. The biggest obstacle is getting millions, even billions, of people to understand and act in a collective, cooperative way.
Chris has made it quite clear people like you and me should (must) go out in the street with a sign and begin making noise. The buck stops with us.
Perhaps Rev Hedges, like many other contemporary leftist prophets, believes that ever more vivid and demoralizing descriptions of our plight will engender the strength and courage in the masses to fight for change. It’s sort of like preaching crucifixion without resurrection. How far would the Jesus movement have gotten with such a “gospel?”
And, yet, with most of what Chris said being true, the human population of the planet is rapidly approaching 8 billion. And all of us want to partake of the good life of modern man: the heat and cool and shelter as desired, food in abundance, travel as desired, easy (relative) work compared to our history, long life on average, etc..
All of the things taken for granted in the “west” … everyone on earth wants them and why indeed should they not have them? So, you see? It’s not the ruling class; it’s we the public. We want/demand our modern life and we will revolt if it is taken away. See what’s happening in Sri Lanka, in the Dutch farmers’ revolt, in this coming winter’s revolts across gas-less western Europe, to see what the “transition” will look like if the “ruling class” overdoes it.
“This third scenario is dependent on an immediate halt to the production and consumption of fossil fuels, converting to a plant-based diet to end the animal agriculture industry – almost as large a contributor to greenhouse gasses as the fossil fuel industry – greening the deserts and restoring rainforests.”
No mention of the military??
The only problem with husbandry is CAFOs, which are emphatically not husbandry but factories. I am sick of cows being blamed for human stupidity. I would remind Hedges that there were millions of buffalo on the Great Plains before idiot Europeans arrived to kill the buffalo en masse and plow the Plains. They not only did not contribute to climate change, they sequestered huge amounts of carbon through their trampling of grasses, an action that is replicable with rotational grazing.
Yes, no mention of the military, no mention of the grotesque amounts of energy used by some Americans (an upper-class friend told me that Dick Cheney’s monthly electric bill was $20,000 decades ago), the use of fossil fuels for so-called recreation, the use of fossil fuels for building net-energy-losing “renewables,” and every other inconvenient truth. Those who write about climate change need to seriously think about how willing THEY (and all the rest of us) are to give up their energy-swilling way of life and return to something resembling sustainability.
“an immediate halt to the production and consumption of fossil fuels” means essentially an end to the military.
You mentioned declining yields, but the major grain departments around the world continue to RAISE grain yields. The USDA, Conab in Brazil, the FAO at the UN all changed the way the calculate average yields. About a decade ago, they scrapped the standard moving average since it wasn’t rising fast enough, so they went to a scatter point chart going back about 100 years. The mid line continues on up into infinity, so each year, they raise the so called average to a new high water mark, which on paper, assures the world that we have plenty of grain on hand.
Just a few weeks ago, soybeans here in the US were pennies off the record high, despite the USDA forecasting a very comfortable surplus. Corn was also close to an all time high with an equally comfortable surplus. Even now, with hot weather across the US grain belt and the EU, the grain commentary focuses almost exclusively on the Ukraine – Russian export issues. The Kansas wheat crop is a disaster and yet futures prices are falling as funds slam commodities, which just lets the commercials raise profit margins to record highs.
With the crazy world weather, by this time next year, there could be nearly a billion people hungry or worse and yet nobody seems the least bit put out. Something strange is taking place as we run out of food and nobody notices.
We’re not running out of food so much as we’re wasting it. The U.S. alone throws away 60% of it’s food supply every day. The problem is access. The modern world has had the capacity and ability to feed every human on Earth for decades already. Control of the means of production and distribution, as usual, is the issue.
Apparently Germany has decided to reopen coal plants to make up for lost Russian natural gas when they could have decided to keep the two remaining nuclear power plants open. I blame the environment al lobby for believing the myth that somehow wind and solar can somehow replace all of our use of fossil fuels without clean base load nuclear power
Nuclear reactors are way too expensive to build and way, way, way too dangerous. They also use massive amounts of water, and water is becoming increasingly scarce. Definitely not the answer. We must cut back drastically on electricity usage, as well as on fossil fuels. It is the only way.
Mr. Oetting, the German government plans not only to re-open some coal-fired power plants, but also to keep nuclear power plants running longer than planned (and some people are already calling for ones that have been shut down to be re-started). This will not be much use in any current shortage — created by those same politicians and their henchmen. And it is certainly true that renewable sources of energy could and should replace fossil and nuclear fuels — if only serious efforts were made to cut the wasteful consumption. But there is little sign of that!
The energy crises grossly exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict sanctions, coming on the heels of global pandemic disruptions, have rendered environmental concerns politically irrelevant, except as cover for coming misery. The only hope, obviously a desperate one, is that the climate scientists have somehow got it wrong. Might the little-understood regenerative powers of nature, the mysterious and perhaps irrepressible life force, save us despite ourselves? As is true with so many vital things, heart says yes, head says no.
Thank you so much for a terrifyingly truthful article. You tie together the dots and present the horrifying reality. This has been my refrain for the last decade. Greta Thunberg, for one, has been proven spot on correct in every regard. For those who do not like her “tone,” blow it out your ass. This is also why Washington’s creation of Cold War 2 is unconscionable not to mention completely and utterly insane. In what lunatic world could they possibly in charge of anything? They, the rest of the Washington elite and their subservient followers world-wide should be pulled out of the world like a rotting tooth. Hesitation on climate action and any return to the status quo, aka the Biden administration, is species suicide, our species. I guess I don’t sound quite so hysterical now.
You’ve helped invent a new word, “Specicide”, Indeed.