Towards a worsening climate emergency


“ All countries must also very rapidly decommission the fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. existing oil wells, old coal plants) they already have in place—even if it’s profitable and even if people depend on it for their livelihoods. Such a decommissioning process is going to be both expensive and disruptive, in both political and economic terms, and in ways that are particularly hard on poor and insecure populations.” The US and Canada must rapidly decommission their fossil fuel industries by 2031. 

Tom Athanasiou “Towards a “just, orderly and equitable” fossil fuel phase out

The fire is bearing down on the town. The authorities have ordered an emergency evacuation; from their big picture perspective everybody has to get out quickly and even then, as the situation rapidly worsens, some might not make it.

But a lot of people in the town, if not most, have not anticipated the emergency even though they have been warned for several days that the fire was approaching; hopeful disinformation about the path of the fire and a refusal to consider the worst case scenario have left many ill prepared. And most aren’t fleeing yet but are still trying to sort through their belongings about what to try and save; more than a few are still considering staying to try and protect their home or business.

Except this emergency analogy doesn’t fit our impending climate catastrophe. Yes, those focused upon the short-term, self-interest picture are not paying attention to the evolving climate reality. Yes, the authorities should be calling for an emergency evacuation. Yes, the town (modernity) can’t be saved but if the people flee safely they can come back and rebuild.

But in truth few of us alive today need to fear death and destruction in the climate emergency. Like David Suzuki said many decades ago, it’s a slow motion catastrophe. And if you live in a rich, technology powerful country, the danger of personal death or even loss of possessions or property is low. The fires, the drought, the extreme storms are all survivable. Global economic collapse or war is a growing possibility but not likely for decades. 

Only in the big picture is climate an emergency: the lack of effective mitigation today, our preoccupation with living in BAU, and, as a result, the continuing rise of GHGs is leading to silently crossing tipping points to feedbacks like the melting Arctic icecap and latent carbon bombs like burning forests. This won’t put our lives at risk in at least the first half of the century but it’s criminal negligence for every future human generation.

Warming from our continuing GHG emissions threatens to cause a cascade of potential feedbacks and a 5C plus rise in temperature to Hothouse Earth. (The new concern about AMOC failure is only one example.) Our intransigence about ending our use of fossil fuels will destroy ‘the town‘ and kill most if not all of the citizens. The authorities should know this big picture and should have wound down fossil fuel production and use starting decades ago; but they didn’t and as climate is recognized as an emergency most if not the majority of people will still be preoccupied with saving their personal belongings and businesses. 

Although the science will be clear and what’s reasonable and responsible in the emergency should be understood by all, the lack of imminent personal danger vs the cost of emergency action necessary – rapidly winding down fossil fuel production and use, powering down and leaving modernity, at least for the immediate term – will keep us from needed emergency action  (even half steps like no new fossil infrastructure) as the emergency worsens.

The authorities haven’t even warned the town about the fire let alone warned: “Stop trying to save your possessions; get out of town as quickly as possible!” We’re in such denial that we haven’t really digested how our production and use of fossil fuels is a key factor in making the fires so dangerous. Premier Smith, Sultan bin Salman and Donald Trump are the authorities and they’re far more concerned with their political survival and being anti woke than in the community’s long term health, welfare or even survival.

Everybody is still in short-term, self-interest, economic-centric mode and just, orderly and equitable is even too big picture. I’d be brightsiding if I said that it looks like we’re beginning to wake up now from society-wide implicatory denial, in 2024, and even considering effective mitigation. But good guys like Athanasiou are still trying and the vision they are crafting might still be a clarion call that will save some for future renewal, after the fire.

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and Countercurrents contributor. 


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