As Climate Chaos Accelerates, Governments Avert Their Eyes

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In December, the New York Times reported that “Earth is finishing up its warmest year in the past 174 years and very likely the past 125,000.” (Though it’s not the Times’s style, that latter figure should have had a couple of exclamation points after it!) Furthermore, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s chief scientist, “Not only was 2023 the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year climate record — it was the warmest by far.” In fact, each of the six decades since 1960 saw a higher global average temperature than the 10 years that preceded it. In addition, every decade-to-decade increase has been larger than the previous one. In other words, the Earth’s not just steadily warming; it’s heating up at an ever-faster pace.

And you don’t have to wait for the distant future to see the impact of such accelerated heating.  Just look at current global data. Comparing 2023 to 2022, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported a worldwide rise of 60% in the number of deaths from landslides, 278% from wildfires, and 340% from storms. Worse yet, those of our fellow humans suffering the most from the impact of human-induced climate change aren’t the ones causing it. More than half of the deaths reported by OCHA occurred in low- to lower-middle-income countries, and 45% of those killed lived in countries that produce less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Imagine that for (in)justice!

Putting an end to global warming should be an overwhelming moral imperative for every nation on this planet. But climate-change stories, extreme as they may be, almost never lead the news, nor does dealing with the phenomenon seem to be at the top of any leader’s list of national priorities. How about last month’s COP28 global climate summit in Dubai? It produced an agreement that committed the world’s nations to doing… well, essentially nothing.

With the news cycle stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of sudden, compelling crises and unending wars, world powers seem almost willfully blind to the possibility that the global environment (and with it, civilization itself) is spinning out of control — and not in some distant future but right now.


Long Emergencies

With the recent COP28 agreement, the rich nations have at least finally acknowledged that fossil fuels are indeed a problem. Still, they continue to reject a planned, systematic phase-out of oil, natural gas, and coal on an ambitiously expedited timetable (as laid out in proposals for a global Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty).

Governments, it seems, always have on hand some other dire emergency that supposedly justifies setting climate change aside. Perhaps the closest the rich countries have ever come to seriously tackling the subject of greenhouse gas emissions, which might be thought of as a long emergency, was in the various  U.S.European, and global Green New Deals of 2018-2019. But those inadequate proposals were soon eclipsed by the Covid-19 pandemic and a still-surging rise of far-right extremists who consider global warming a completely off-the-charts subject. Then, in 2022–2023, just as interest in climate was rising again thanks to scary new reports from the world’s climate-science community, the Russian invasion of Ukraine elbowed global warming out of our field of vision, while a stunning war-related spike in fossil-fuel prices killed off any immediate interest in reducing carbon emissions.

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Then, last fall, the genocide in Gaza began. In November, TomDispatch’s Tom Engelhardt wrote that “while the nightmare in the Middle East is being covered daily in a dramatic fashion across the mainstream media, the burning of the planet is, at best, a distinctly secondary, or tertiary, or… well, you can fill in the possible numbers from there… reality.” He certainly wasn’t suggesting, nor am I, that the Palestinians are getting too much attention. On the contrary, they need even more of it, but the climate crisis simply can’t be lost in the shuffle.

A Side-Trip to India: No Eye-Catching Crisis in Sight? Just Conjure One Up

Such failures of attention are, of course, hardly confined to the United States. Similar shortsightedness can be seen right now in India, where my family and I are spending January with relatives in Mumbai. Here, too, politicians are making a ruckus about immediate, in-your-face issues — some real, others concocted — while ignoring the more slowly developing but far more consequential threat of climatic breakdown.  

In recent years, India has endured a string of cataclysmic droughts, floods, heat waves, and other disasters, along with a chronic but climate-related plague of urban air pollution. In this Mumbai dry season, we’re living in the midst of a dense off-white “fog,” inhaling a toxic brew of dust, motor-vehicle exhaust, factory emissions, and clouds of fine particulate matter created by the construction and demolition of buildings. Overhead, the cloudless daytime sky is a dull, depthless white. Blue patches rarely appear and not a star is visible at night.

Such in-your-face bad air quality is impossible to ignore, but the Indian public is also alarmed by the odorless, invisible carbon-dioxide emissions that underlie the increasing pace of climate chaos on the subcontinent. There is, in fact, a massive constituency-in-waiting here for climate action. A 2022 poll indicated that 81% of voters were worried about human-induced climate change. Fully 50% were “very worried,” and a similar share said that they had been personally harmed by greenhouse warming.

As in the U.S., 2024 is an election year here. So given the above polling numbers, you’d think that boosting climate mitigation and adaptation would be a great way to garner votes. But climate efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP party continue to be, at best, sporadic and desultory. Instead, they’re pursuing what they see as a far more reliable way of revving up their voter base ahead of the election: announce the inauguration of a new Hindu temple.

How in the world would that work, you ask? Well, we’re not talking about just any temple. This one, currently under construction, sits on a site once occupied by a famed mosque, the former Babri Masjid in the northern city of Ayodhya. That hallowed, five-century-old Muslim place of worship was demolished in 1992 by BJP-backed fanatics. Religious fervor over the demolition sparked violence across the country, leaving more than 2,000 people dead.

For three decades, the destruction of the mosque and its planned replacement with a temple dedicated to the god Ram have been a toxic current running just beneath the surface of Indian politics, occasionally erupting in conflict. So, to gin up their Hindu-supremacist base and ensure victory in this spring’s elections, BJP leaders rushed to organize a ceremony consecrating the temple on January 22nd — months before construction will even be completed.

The outpouring of right-wing religious nationalism triggered by that event has had the side effect of ensuring that global warming will remain out of the political headlines for months, if not longer.  

It’s Not All in Your Mind

An institutional preoccupation with acute “red-meat” issues (to the detriment of addressing long-term emergencies like climate change) reflects all too human predilections that fit well with studies psychologists have done on how our brains react to crises.

Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, for instance, is known for his hypothesis regarding the kinds of threats we humans respond most strongly to, those he’s termed the “four I’s” — “intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous.” Those adjectives, he’s found, catch the kinds of emergencies that stimulate our quickest and most intense responses. In a 2019 interview with NPR, Gilbert elaborated on how, particularly when it comes to climate, such a response system can translate into a failure of political action. To most people, the potential devastation of climate catastrophe still seems all too far in the future. And although climatic hazards like ever more devastating hurricanes and floods come close to being instantaneous, the heating of the atmosphere that underlies their increasing virulence has, until recently, progressed very slowly. Humans have a great ability to adapt psychologically to gradual change, but with global warming, that power doesn’t serve us well. After all, if this year feels more or less like last year, is there really anything to respond to? 

Two other characteristics of climate change, related to two of Gilbert’s I’s, separate it from many other emergencies, both short and long. For one thing, governments tend to respond most decisively to human enemies acting all too intentionally, but climate change, as he told NPR, “doesn’t seem like it’s a person at all, so we just kind of ho and hum.” Nor does it seem immoral. “As a social creature,” he observes, “we are deeply concerned with morality, the rules by which people treat each other.” Even though the overheating of this planet is indeed being caused by human activity, he points out, climate change “is meteorological. It doesn’t present itself as an affront to our sense of decency” — at least until people around you are being killed by a heat wave.

In addition, in a capitalist economy, the short term is more or less the whole ball game. Corporations are as committed to maximizing stock values for their stockholders, quarter by quarter, as politicians are committed to maximizing themselves for voters. Any politician who dares declare that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is a more urgent matter than cutting the price of gasoline will hear a giant sucking sound as voters and campaign donors vanish into thin air.

Clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon is executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund and author of Facing the Climate Emergency. In that book, she argues that curbing climate chaos will require Americans to shift collectively into “emergency mode.” That state, she observes, is “markedly different from ‘normal’ functioning [and] characterized by an extreme focus of attention and resources on working productively to solve the emergency.” In “normal mode,” as Salamon points out, with no urgent threat in sight, response time isn’t critical. In emergency mode, where there’s a dire threat to life, health, property, or the environment, a quick, effective response is essential — and dealing with the threat must take priority over all other matters.

When it comes to fast, far-reaching action, emergency mode, she adds, shouldn’t just be for short-term problems. In fact, according to Salamon, what climate action truly requires is shifting into what she calls “long emergency mode,” in which tight focus on a single problem is no longer tolerable. Climate change is now caught in traffic with too many other immediate emergencies, none of which can be set aside for years or decades, but none of which threaten the very existence of life as we’ve known it on this planet.

Given that, Salamon urges that climate-emergency mode radiate through our society as quickly as possible, which won’t happen if politicians, corporations, and even some climate-movement figures continue soft-pedaling the message. It won’t happen if the public continues to get the impression that future technological breakthroughs and the magic of markets will ensure the inevitability of the reduction and then elimination of carbon emissions with little disruption of everyday life.

No Time for Happy Talk

Spurring a grassroots takedown of the corporate and political resistance to genuine climate action requires articulating a vision of a better world that awaits us beyond the fossil-fuel era, but more than that is needed. It must become far clearer that our growing global emergency is deeply linked to an ongoing business-as-usual attitude and that a staggering amount of work and sacrifice is actually required. In contrast, happy talk like the current mischaracterization of the COP28 agreement as an “unprecedented” climate “breakthrough” will prompt people to strike ecological catastrophe off their list of urgent concerns.

To be complacent about climate is not just to be shockingly oblivious but to endorse future human suffering on an almost inconceivable scale.  At COP28, the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, spoke in stark terms about the moral imperatives of stopping the horror in Gaza now and preventing almost unimaginable future horrors triggered by ecological breakdown. In doing so, he offered a vision of a climate-change-devastated future that should stun us all:

“Are these events disconnected, is my question, or are we seeing here a mirror of what is going to happen in the future? The genocides and the barbaric acts unleashed against the Palestinian people is what awaits those who are fleeing the south because of the climate crisis… Most victims of climate change, [who] will be counted in their billions, will be in those countries that do not emit CO2 or emit very little. Without the transfer of wealth from the north to the south, the climate victims will increasingly have less drinking water in their homes and they will have to migrate north… The exodus will be of billions… There will be pushback against the exodus, with violence, with barbaric acts committed. This is what is happening in Gaza. This is a rehearsal for the future.”

President Petro was describing just a few of the likely catastrophic interactions and feedbacks that, amid other crises, climate change will bring to this planet in what’s coming to be known as the “global polycrisis.” If governments continue to focus on “solving” only the most immediate, seemingly most tractable emergencies (often making matters worse in the process), we’re in trouble deep. The time has passed for societies to grapple only with the individual crises in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s time to shift into polycrisis mode. All of us will then have to deal with the sprawling web of connections among this planet’s emergencies, immediate and long-term, especially the future devastating overheating of our world, as one big problem that must be solved — or else.

Stan Cox, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next PandemicThe Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, and the current In Real Time climate series at City Lights Books. Find him on Twitter at @CoxStan.

Originally published in TomDispatch.com

Copyright 2024 Stan Cox

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