The weight of the world: on framing the fight against climate change

Sitting at a family gathering one day, I asked, half-jokingly, which country people thought would be the most suitable place for me to go and rebuild my life, once the authorities have fully released me. I was immediately told to avoid islands, their survival being no longer guaranteed. I wasn’t sure whether this pessimism was about the distance still remaining between me and my freedom, or the imminence of multiple environmental catastrophes.

Speaking to a friend on the phone a few days later, I scoffed at her use of the word “ark” and asked her if she was expecting Noah’s flood. She replied seriously, with traces of panic in her voice, and described her terror at the idea that her children will likely inherit a planet whose features have been permanently transformed because of climate change. 

Our images of climate change usually borrow from the Flood of Noah, or from contemporary variations such as the long night and never-ending winter of Game of Thrones. We imagine moments of truth in which the wrath of the heavens is brought down on us — punishment for our preoccupation with struggles that have nothing to do with the ultimate, existential threat that lies ahead of us. 

These depictions suggest that the solution to climate change lies in awareness. Thousands of scientists and activists have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions, so much so that climate disasters have come to feature in our nightmares and our jokes. But what kind of change has come from all this? 

Let’s imagine that Noah’s people had a similar level of awareness about the coming flood as we do about climate change. Would it have made them more prudent? Or would it have led to more conflict over highlands and shipbuilding timber?

In an existential struggle over resources, people who have accumulated power and wealth before the flood will most likely use them not only to survive, but to consolidate and improve their positions afterwards. The powerless will align with groups that they think will help save them, or seek shelter in extreme religious ideas that promise miracles. They might move towards ideologies that allow them to become saboteurs, protecting the will of the gods by destroying the efforts of a minority to save themselves.  Some will surrender to living a short life, with no thought to the future. Others will make use of the state of fear to monopolize the timber trade, or to trick the masses into thinking they have secret technologies for building invincible dams. 

The most secular commentators still use rhetoric that describes climate change as a force that will annihilate the human species, or end civilization. This flies in the face of what we know: that our survival as a species only requires a few thousand survivors with a sufficient degree of genetic diversity. Civilization is not so fragile; if humans can narrate their histories and imagine different worlds, they have civilization. But these are not hopeful assurances. We might not be on the brink of extinction, but millions of us will live under conditions so damaging that they could end our lives. Most of us will lose much of the quality of our lives, and our ability to secure the welfare of future generations. 

We know that we will not suffer these losses at the same time, or with the same intensity. We know that some of us will even benefit from the disaster. 

The planetary crisis, the global scale of our awareness, the local scale within which we can act (if at all), and our certainty that inequality will continue past the point of crisis and shape its outcomes all leave us with the kind of bleakness that’s good for dark humor, or darker nightmares. But it also pushes us into a state of antagonism and polarization which may be a closer and more urgent threat than that posed by climate change itself. 

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For decades, oil-producing countries have tried to transform their economies so they might survive after peak oil, and then they discovered that the planet cannot survive the extraction of all fossil fuel reserves to begin with. Sooner or later, these countries will have to reduce their oil production and oil will become less important, just as coal became less important. 

This knowledge drives oil producers to reckless strategies such as flooding the markets with oil, driving its price down in an attempt to stall the development of alternative energy sources, or just to scoop up as much profit as possible before the whole thing collapses. They work to translate their wealth into international influence, resulting in a geopolitics that more often than not reignites old conflicts, although it sometimes creates new ones. As usual, these conflicts are not limited to their material terms — they feed from and into struggles along the lines of sect (Sunni versus Shiite) or cultural ideology (autocratic Russia versus liberal Europe). 

We probably won’t run out of oil, but clean water is becoming scarcer as the globe gets warmer. Conflicts over fresh water are as old as civilization itself, but changes in the frequency and patterns of rainfall are a threat to economies and to settled human communities around the globe. Clashes between pastoralists and farmers have grown sharper, from East to West Africa, and because conflicts over water can take on tribal and sectarian roles,  it is presented to us as a struggle between Muslim nomads and Christian sedentary farmers. This comes to dominate the narrative, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more we lose sight of the environmental crisis that is at its center. 

From the Mekong and the Indus to the Jordan and the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers, water conflicts have shaped states, foreign policies, and military systems. Climate change exacerbates and compounds these conflicts when, for example, wealthy states without fresh water resources try to buy them in the form of cash crops or by leasing agricultural land in other countries, and use their influence to prop up governments that will continue to export water even if it harms their own populations. 

Climate change also intensifies domestic political conflicts, as it did with the yellow vest movement in France. The protests were in opposition to tax reforms that were theoretically about reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  Whenever we object to the destructive consequences of growth, capital accumulation, and competition under capitalism, economists tell us that the problem is in the markets — that, in their current form, markets fail to account for the consequences of production, such as risks to the environment and to our health. The solution they propose is to monetize all potential dangers and losses with, for example, a cap-and-trade system, or with carbon taxes. 

These fiscal policies are marketed to us as magical solutions which will quickly and effectively reduce fossil fuel consumption and encourage sustainable alternatives. The protests in France began when people living in suburbs and small villages realized that the new fuel taxes were targeting them — not the major producers of oil and automobiles. The producers receive various forms of support from the government, including political and military intervention in regional conflicts to steer the outcome to their favor. (Look at France’s involvement in Libya to protect Total, or its financial rescue of Peugeot a few years ago.)

Fear of social unrest resulting from climate change has been a significant, if silent, contributor to political polarization in the West. Americans living in coal-producing regions supported Trump. Large sections of the UK’s poor, fearing that they would be left to bear the burden of environmental regulations by the European Union in which they had no say, opted to leave the Union altogether. These political crises have arrived before the anticipated climate cataclysm, but they become more severe, taking on populist and ideological roles that will be impossible to untangle or to stop even if we do find solutions for the environment. 

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We respond to the common threat of climate change by blaming one another for the damage. We complain about Americans and their obsession with big cars and red meat, about Europeans who insist on shielding themselves from winter weather with excessive indoor heat, even if it means sharper climate turbulence for the rest of the planet. Americans and Europeans, for their part, complain about a growing class of people in China and India who are adopting Western styles of consumption and luxury. Everyone complains about Africans having too many babies. 

Perhaps the most fitting biblical story here is not the Flood of Noah, but the Tower of Babel: because of our arrogance, our thoughtless overconsumption and over-construction, God has punished us by confounding our tongues, so that we can no longer speak to or understand one another. 

We don’t need the Bible for examples of this predicament. During the Cold War, people lived with the real threat of nuclear war between two poles of power. The globalized paranoia and sense of doom took each and every domestic and regional conflict out of context and forced it into one of two blocs. Even though the worldwide nuclear war that everyone feared didn’t erupt, a recent study shows that nearly 20 million lives were lost in conflicts that were directly inflamed or triggered by this polarization, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The world was acting on their fear of a crisis that never came, but there was a lot of tragic loss anyway, and we are still living with the consequences of those Cold War conflicts today.

The Cold War seemed to be about the struggle between two ideologies, but climate change appears to be a result of how modern life is inherently organized. Capitalism is so advanced, its systems so entrenched, that it seems like only divine intervention can save us. This is why even secular discourse is infused with biblical stories and images. This is why there is an appetite for magical solutions like clean, inexhaustible energy or carbon capture and storage technologies, or ideas that are actually other-worldly,  like moving to Mars

The crisis is not in our awareness of the danger of climate change, it is in our inability to imagine alternative ways of organizing our lives. After two full centuries of struggle against capitalism, we are giving up. 

Like cars and fossil fuel technologies, climate change, the patterns of consumption that cause it, and the social inequalities that shape its consequences are all human inventions. We can change them without magic and without miracles. Efforts to resist capitalism may not have done away with it, but they have done a lot to mitigate and tame it, and to improve the lives of the majority. In looking for solutions to climate change, we must concentrate on the collectivity that is tied up in any potential salvation. 

We won’t find solutions if we operate as individuals with severely limited space for action. We have to find new ways of organizing and working that transcend continents. Before we can do this, we have to disentangle from parochial conflicts, and from populism. We have to reclaim spaces for action on the local level — not so that we can preserve meager gains, but so that we discuss a better future for everybody. 

The real crisis is that we have given in to inequality and accepted it as an inevitable reality. By this logic, each group of people will move to defend its own interests when faced with a common threat. But if we organize ourselves around the possibility of — and hope for — a better future, our awareness as a global population will transform into positive energy. 

Hope, here, is our only choice. Our rosy dreams will probably never come true. But if we surrender to our nightmares, fear will take control long before the flood ever arrives.