There’s no such thing as the future. Instead, the roads before us stretch in a near-infinity of potential directions. We get to choose the route; in the words of famed cyberethicist Sarah Connor, there’s no fate but what we make.
Of course, some of the futures we could choose are better than others. Perhaps we get lucky, solving hunger and curing cancer, or perhaps we find ourselves ruined by antibiotic resistance or cowering in the crosshairs of autonomous weapons.
There’s one dystopia, however, that stretches across every future timeline: climate breakdown. Thanks to the lag between emissions and impact—the dread physics of our immense ecosystem—we know our climate will get worse for decades before it gets better. The punishment’s in the post: the only question now is how bad things will get.
Climate scientists for years trained themselves to tiptoe around their worst fears, to couch their language for fear of being labelled alarmists. Only now is the public starting to see that climate alarmism is fully justified. The opening sentence of David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth sums up the prognosis: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’
Choose your own misadventure
What happens next depends largely on the next decade or two. A 1.5°C increase on preindustrial temperatures—the preferred target of the Paris climate agreement—will see nearly 5,000,000 km² of permafrost thawed by 2300, half of the world’s population facing a severe heatwave every twenty years, 130 million exposed to severe drought, and an 8% drop in global GDP per capita. But we can expect to burn past this supposedly safe warming limit. Levels today are close to 1.1° already, the US has withdrawn from Paris, and Brazil is threatening to follow suit. The UK Met Office says we may spike above 1.5°C of warming in the next five years.
At 3° of warming, we can expect extended droughts, crop failures, and broad geopolitical breakdown. Modern neoliberalism promised positive-sum gains: some would profit more than others, yes, but we were assured that the curve would only ever go upwards. Whether or not this was ever a realistic prospect, it clearly can’t survive the enormous economic and productivity losses of a +3° world. The implication, then, is clear. Positive-sum dreams will be replaced by zero-sum realities: isolation, nationalism, resource wars. If you win, I lose. Many estimates say three degrees is a likely future: the UN World Meteorological Organisation views 3° as a likely minimum increase if today’s trends continue.
A 5° future, although unlikely, is scarcely imaginable. Sea level rise would virtually wipe out major global cities, such as Osaka, Shanghai, Miami, and Jakarta. Much of the Middle East and South Asia would become uninhabitable; the Hajj pilgrimage, for example, would become a physical impossibility. Swathes of mainland Europe would be turned to desert; Canada and Siberia would become among the planet’s last fertile lands. Simply put, at 5°, human society would devolve into naked fight for survival, with some 100 million climate refugees roaming the earth in search of safety.
Climate crisis as moral crisis
Given what’s at stake, climate is the moral issue of our generation. Perhaps our era. Fail to act, and human suffering will become the dominant theme of the coming decades, as climate crisis exacerbates all the injustices of the world: racism, oppression, poverty, war.
The answers are already well known: we have to decarbonise, urgently. Greenhouse emissions must be halved within a decade, and eliminated or neutralised within a couple more. Corrective action will, however, be enormously difficult. Recent decades have brought significant increases in global standards of living, earned almost entirely through exploitation of fossil fuels. We will cling tight to these comforts; but however addictive the luxuries of the modern world are, they cannot and will not last.
In some abstract, existential way, anyone paying attention knows this already, but to imagine the transition in practice—global instability, personal and collective privation, venomous resistance from vested interests—is to invite heartbreak. Boy, does the abyss stare back. To come to terms with climate crisis, we have to do no less than mourn our familiar ways of life. As Roy Scranton argues, ‘we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.’ Acceptance can only come after we escape the preceding Kübler-Ross steps: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
Individual vs systemic responses
Along the way, we will have to tackle one of climate’s thorniest issues: is individual action the key, or should we instead reconfigure the systems that rule us? This is, in part, a politicised issue. The right tends to prioritise individual agency and responsibility; the left tends to believe that systems have a habit of crushing the individual. It is true that the atomised nature of modern society excels at individualising problems, privatising guilt for us to bear alone, but the systems governing our climate future—global travel, the energy and petrochemical industries, growth capitalism itself—are virtually impervious to head-on attack.
However, individual action versus systemic change is a false dichotomy. We see the iceberg ahead, calving off a doomed glacier; the only sensible response now is to throw every engine into reverse. Although individual tactics—flying and driving less, moving to plant-based diets, switching to renewable domestic energy—may not solve much alone, they can stimulate broader change. In a recent study, academics found the beliefs of US conservatives, who have commonly resisted climate narratives, can be reshaped by ‘social consensus’, the beliefs of friends and families. In other words, individual action is contagious. When enough motivated individuals take visible action, progress snowballs into collective action, in turn putting pressure on the politicians and companies in charge of otherwise impenetrable global systems.
The biggest threat to this progress is fatalism. If we believe ourselves to already be past the point of meaningful salvage, withdrawal becomes the most likely response. Withdrawal strategies include the dire prospect of ecofascism, a far-right authoritarian response based on closing borders and prioritising the interests of one’s ‘own people’, by means of population control if required. Just as isolationist is the prepper movement, a community of hyperrich individuals preemptively planning their post-collapse escape strategies. Whether the intended sanctuaries lurk deep in the wilderness or on Mars, there are always plenty of guns involved.
The necessity of hope
If fatalism is the disease, hope is the vaccine. We urgently need positive visions of the future to counter these seductive dystopias. These positive futures needn’t be immaculate utopias. Utopias have their own problems, after all: political extremism, for example, is often rooted in utopian dreams. Instead, we need meaningful, realistic, flawed, yet compelling visions that inspire people to move through grief and into action.
Hope is a political cliché, of course, and a climate cliché too: Roy Scranton, again, points out that a forced, there-is-still-time uplift is a recurring trope in climate literature. But hope is still justified. The cost of solar technology is tumbling; irresponsible personal consumption is becoming stigmatised (we must now stigmatise irresponsible national and corporate consumption too); the UK just went eighteen days without coal. Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion have forced environmental messages deep into the public conscience. Green New Deals have leapt into political manifestos across the world, although climate arguments that rely on productivity and economic gains are surely afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. Momentum is building, and there are faint signs that we may, at last, be on the brink of the widespread change we so desperately need. Now we must capitalise on the moment, and accelerate: as Bill McKibben points out, when it comes to climate, winning slowly is the same as losing.
Amid the hope, we should be under no illusions: we may still lose the climate battle. We may find that our weak ideologies are too strongly held for real change to take root. Nevertheless, we have a moral obligation to try. In this state of emergency, I find some sad, true determination in the words of Kelly Hayes:
If the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could.
Featured image by Andres F. Uran