There’s no escaping a hothouse earthAug 8, 2022
A couple of months ago I set off with my partner to the northern hemisphere for a prolonged stint in Canada. I’ll admit I was excited and relieved to be getting away from the rain-soaked Northern Rivers. The region had been robbed of sunlight for months on end and the trauma of the floods earlier in the year was deeply ingrained, even though I was among the lucky few whose house was spared.
Yet like countless others, I did bear witness to what occurred: the wrecked houses and shops, piles of rubbish everywhere, and clear evidence of collective despair and resilience. It was my first direct experience of a climate disaster, something that millions of people around the world are more than familiar with. And increasingly so.
My initial bout of holiday mania was tempered somewhat by a nagging sense of destructive self-indulgence. Flights to Sydney, then to Vancouver and Calgary, then on to Halifax in Nova Scotia, then back to British Colombia and ultimately, on to Sydney. These were hugely discomforting journeys, both physically and emotionally. Despite the guilt-relieving banality of carbon offsets and the promise that this would be my last long-haul trip, I was, in practice, still a creature of the Anthropocene, a willing participant in climate disruption for which the enriched ‘West’ is largely responsible. Overly dramatic? I don’t think so.
I was heading to Canada to visit a friend. He’s a corporate lawyer specialising in securities and capital markets. He works in one of Canada’s biggest law firms based in Calgary, Alberta, the epicentre of the nation’s fossil fuel industry. His regular dealings with representatives of polluting industries tend to trouble him. He’s certainly not oblivious to what drawing up contracts for oil and gas companies means for the planet. While he’s no radical greenie, he thinks that fossil fuels should be kept in the ground. But he faces a problem. To even hint at such a position would likely get him bundled out the door. We had a few laughs over the irony of working for the man. While the partners turn a blind eye to carbon and methane emissions, they encourage charitable acts like cycling for hours up and down mountain ranges. That’s just dandy, but whatever you do, don’t mention the climate apocalypse (my preferred term these days).
After Calgary, we set off for the wonders of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton. At the height of summer these places are hauntingly beautiful with brightly coloured weatherboard houses, rolling hills, and craggy coastlines and sandy beaches. On the unfortunately named Prince Edward Island we visited the resting place of famed author of Anne of Green Gables Lucy Maud Montgomery. Sadly, the burial site chosen by Montgomery for its natural beauty (she died in 1942) now buts up against a busy intersection, on one corner of which is, yes, a Tim Horton’s.
Despite the splendours of Canada’s east coast, the fact is that it’s under enormous threat from storms and rising oceans. As a low-lying region prone to the world’s highest tides, it faces a deeply uncertain future. In the small university town of Wolfville they’re already contemplating 30-foot dikes to prevent flooding. (Calgary too has built vast flood barriers along the banks of the Bow River which in 2013 spilled over the city). Everyone I spoke to in Nova Scotia was incredibly nervous about the future, a few were exhibiting signs of extreme eco anxiety. “What will become of us?”, they seemed to be asking. It’s a good question. None of us has the definitive answer. Things are changing too quickly.
Waiting for another pollution-spewing jet in Halifax, I flicked through my phone. There were countless stories of heat waves, forest fires across continental Europe, northern Russia, Canada and the US, along with historic floods in China and accounts of deadly droughts in Africa and the Middle East. Communities in eastern England were experiencing the highest temperatures ever recorded, peaking at just over 40 degrees. Forests burnt and houses caught fire and exploded.
Back in Oz I regularly dip into a website called Economy and Climate which provides regular updates on extreme weather events around the globe. Such events are now everyday occurrences. They’re the norm. They tell us that the world’s biosphere, its landscapes, seas and oceans are being transformed at rates few believed possible just a few years ago.
I talk of the climate apocalypse because the word emergency suggests a way out of this mess which, on current emissions trajectories, looks nigh impossible. What all this means, I think, is a very different set of considerations to those that have long accompanied climate discussions. Perhaps our guide to future deliberations should be Bill McGuire, Emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. His new book, Hothouse Earth is a brutally honest and clear-eyed appraisal of what lies before us. There’s little of the baloney about the need to take action to avoid global temperatures rising above 1.5 degrees. We’re probably there already, he says, and on a path to 3 degrees by the end of the century, or sooner. At 3 degrees much of planetary life would end. McGuire argues that changes to the biosphere are now at the point of no return, and that climate modelling has not kept pace with the rapid changes we’re witnessing. The pleas for rapid mitigation have, he says, largely fallen on deaf ears or have given way to realpolitik.
In a hothouse earth the only choice facing governments and populations at large may be to drawdown what we can and adapt, something that may not be possible for those living on low lying Pacific Islands or in drought-stricken parts of the world. Indeed, we are, says McGuire, likely to witness a radical restructuring of the planet’s geography, along with epic population movements, civil unrest, state clampdowns and a growing gulf between the rich and poor – outcomes that have long been predicted.
The question arises as to how any of us can or would want to live in such dire circumstances. There’s no clear answer to this question. And nor should we view catastrophe as novel. Many Indigenous peoples, for example, have as a result of colonial violence, had their worlds totally upended. Apocalypse is nothing new to them. It’s too easy in the affluent corners of western society to slip into belated hand ringing. Responses to the climate apocalypse often bounce around between hope and despair, a binary which Canadian writer, Britt Wray in Generation Dread considers deeply unhelpful as we seek ways to live in the planetary ruins. Obviously, how we talk about and reflect upon ecological collapse varies across cultures and the intersections that shape our human experience. Each of us may have to face up to some of the worst stories we can tell ourselves; namely, that extinction (notwithstanding the fairy-tale of a geo engineering miracle) is a very real possibility.
This is heretical talk in some quarters. I have friends – bright, committed activists – who insist, despite anything I say to the contrary, that “you can’t really give up on hope”, “things will turn around, you’ll see”, “stop catastrophising”, “if we don’t have hope we might as well kill ourselves” etc. My simple retort to such remarks is, “am I missing something in what climate scientists are saying?”. “Where’s the evidence that we can turn things around, given that emissions are still going up and multiplier effects and feedback loops are already in play”? For some, this is water off a duck’s back as they continue to peddle disengaged hope in some as yet unproven, last-minute technical solution. I’ve stopped quarrelling with such people, preferring instead to listen to what informed and accredited observers have to say. I’m especially drawn to those writers like Dahr Jamail, Jem Bendell, James Bradley and Catharine Ingram who accept that we’re in the eye of an apocalypse and then try to figure out how, in very human terms, we come to grips with this. Such candidness is uncommon, however. McGuire notes that many climate scientists, for example, say one thing in private and another in public, opting for the we-can-overcome line rather than telling the stark truth.
Personally, I’m delighted that McGuire has written this book – however hard it may be to contemplate its message. It’s broken a longstanding silence on the state of the climate. I share McGuire’s deep concerns. Based on what I have read over many years, the climate scientists I have listened to, and the current and likely future concentrations of green house gasses in the atmosphere, I feel there is little prospect that we, as a planetary species, can avoid further massive ecological destruction to the point where life on earth may be unsustainable. As a lifelong political activist, this is difficult to say. Sure, the environmental justice movement may have won some significant battles over the decades but it has lost the war. In place of the huge and immediate systems change that we need, we are often encouraged to dabble in what George Monbiot refers to as “micro consumerist bollocks”. To be sure, we’re all implicated in the apocalypse, but as Jeff Sparrow points out in Crimes against Nature, much of the blame can be sheeted home directly to giant polluting corporations, compromised governments and their media toadies.
It may not look like it, but none of what I’m suggesting here means a slide into despair. To the contrary, the climate apocalypse may prompt us to live life in a way it should have been in an ecologically and deeply connected world of inter-being. It means more, rather than less, activism and commitment to change. Activism has never been conditional on victory. It is a deeply ethical practice that affirms opposition to the things that harm life on a fragile earth.
There’s no doubt that current generations of young people feel abandoned, angry and disillusioned. Yet they have led the global fight for climate action, galvanising many into the ranks of radical activism. I too greatly admire Extension Rebellion, Australia Blockade and numerous other movements which have shown the way in terms of elevating public awareness and acting on principle – even in the face of an unfolding catastrophe.
To ignore or play down the nature and scale of what is before us is unhelpful. As environmental activist, eco philosopher and teacher Joanna Macey has pointed out, expressing our deepest concerns, speaking out, trying to be honest even when it hurts, is an act of deep compassion and respect in terms of our commitment to justice and ecological survival. We need to listen to first nations peoples – those usually in the front line of the apocalypse. By respectfully drawing on Indigenous knowledge, we might learn of more earth-centred ways of being and how to deal with what is before us. And each of us needs to be heard, or else we encounter what psychologists refer to as “disenfranchised grief”.
It turns out that my trip to Canada was, on so many levels, a farewell tour – one that, above all, reminded me of the terrible path we’re all on and the possibilities that arise in the midst of what is a dire scenario.