Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Climate Change as Catch-22 at a Civilizational Scale

I've been meaning to blog this piece for many months and a long plane ride finally allowed me to get to it. Six months ago, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a landmark paper on "The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change." The effort was the result of a deep collaboration between high-level former US intelligence officials, climate scientists, and economists, and the reading is extremely sobering.

These are sober serious people, and what they conclude is that, "Unchecked climate change equals the world depicted by Mad Max, only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos. While such a characterization may seem extreme, a careful and thorough examination of all the many potential consequences associated with global climate change is profoundly disquieting. The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilize virtually every aspect of modern life. The only comparable experience for many in the group was considering what the aftermath of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange might have entailed during the height of the Cold War."

The conclusions of the report are based on three main scenarios:
  1. The expected climate change scenario considered in this report, with an average global temperature increase of 1.3°C by 2040, can be reasonably taken as a basis for national planning.... National security implications include: heightened internal and cross-border tensions caused by large-scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity, particularly in the weak and failing states of Africa; increased disease proliferation, which will have economic consequences; and some geopolitical reordering as nations adjust to shifts in resources and prevalence of disease. Across the board, the ways in which societies react to climate change will refract through underlying social, political, and economic factors.
  2. In the case of severe climate change, corresponding to an average increase in global temperature of 2.6°C by 2040, massive nonlinear events in the global environment give rise to massive nonlinear societal events. In this scenario... nations around the world will be overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges, such as pandemic disease. The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress, including in the United States, both as a result of a dramatic rise in migration and changes in agricultural patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world, especially in the Netherlands, the United States, South Asia, and China, has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos. In this scenario, climate change provokes a permanent shift in the relationship of humankind to nature.
  3. The catastrophic scenario, with average global temperatures increasing by 5.6°C by 2100, finds strong and surprising intersections between the two great security threats of the day— global climate change and international terrorism waged by Islamist extremists. This catastrophic scenario would pose almost inconceivable challenges as human society struggled to adapt. It is by far the most difficult future to visualize without straining credulity. The scenario notes that understanding climate change in light of the other great threat of our age, terrorism, can be illuminating. Although distinct in nature, both threats are linked to energy use in the industrialized world, and, indeed, the solutions to both depend on transforming the world’s energy economy—America's energy economy in particular. The security community must come to grips with these linkages, because dealing with only one of these threats in isolation is likely to exacerbate the other, while dealing with them together can provide important synergies.
In addition to these high-level conclusions, the authors also affirm three points that Small Precautions has been making for years on this topic:
  1. It's the underdeveloped who will suffer first and most: "Poor and underdeveloped areas are likely to have fewer resources and less stamina to deal with climate change... Some of the nations and people of these regions lack the resilience to deal with modest—let alone profound—disturbances to local conditions. In contrast, wealthier societies have more resources, incentives, and capabilities to deploy, to offset, or to mitigate at least some of the more modest consequences of climate change."
  2. Anyone who thinks that climate change will produce significant localized winners are kidding themselves: "A few countries may benefit from climate change in the short term, but there will be no 'winners.' Any location on Earth is potentially vulnerable to the cascading and reinforcing negative effects of global climate change. While growing seasons might lengthen in some areas, or frozen seaways might open to new maritime traffic in others, the negative offsetting consequences—such as a collapse of ocean systems and their fisheries—could easily negate any perceived local or national advantages. Unchecked global climate change will disrupt a dynamic ecological equilibrium in ways that are difficult to predict. The new ecosystem is likely to be unstable and in continual flux for decades or longer. Today's 'winner' could be tomorrow’s big-time loser."
  3. The impact of climate change will be experienced less as environmental catastrophe than as political and social catastrophe: "In the wake of disasters government authorities frequently attract popular wrath either for neglect or for intrusive efforts to minimize or prevent damage. Social conflict on some scale is routine during and after disasters.... Societies with little in the way of safety net… easily succumb to banditry, ethnic and religious violence, and even outright civil war under the stress of acute drought. Restraint and civility can quickly perish when confronted with imperious necessity.... Religious turbulence has long been a normal social reaction to nature's shocks. Throughout history most people understood plagues, hurricanes, droughts, and so forth as divinely ordained or the work of evil people with supernatural powers. Hence extraordinary natural shocks often brought heightened religiosity, either in the form of more intense devotion to traditional religions or more defections to innovative religions or cults. There is rarely a shortage of people charismatic and persuasive enough to make a convincing case (for those ready to be convinced) that any extraordinary event is a sign that religious reform is needed. It would be interesting to know whether the Katrina disaster brought an upsurge in religiosity along the Gulf Coast. In any case, if the future holds more serious extreme weather events it seems likely that the most extreme will generate new forms of religion and intensified commitment to old ones."
One way in which I may disagree with the report is the way it raises the specter of mass migration as the sharp end of the stick for how climate change will affect global stability. The paper notes that, "In all three scenarios it was projected that rising sea levels in Central America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and the associated disappearance of low lying coastal lands could conceivably lead to massive migrations—potentially involving hundreds of millions of people. These dramatic movements of people and the possible disruptions involved could easily trigger major security concerns and spike regional tensions. In some scenarios, the number of people forced to move in the coming decades could dwarf previous historical migrations. The more severe scenarios suggest the prospect of perhaps billions of people over the medium or longer term being forced to relocate."

While it is certain that such massive migrations will take place, and that they will be profoundly destabilizing both for departing and receiving countries, my own guess is that the more profound security implication of climate change is the destabilization/implosion of the globalized economy, and along with that economy, the global communications and transportation infrastructure which sets our civilizational moment most radically apart from previous human existence. The likeliest long-term implication of climate change—and I am speaking of results likely to come about several centuries from now—is a return to a more locally rooted, less technologically precarious, much less energy-intensive, and largely agricultural form of civilization. The necessary condition for such a return, of course, is a vastly shrunken human population, and the end of anything like the political. Such indeed is the scenario depicted by James Lovelock in his musing on Gaia, where he predicts that by the year 3000, the global human population will be only 100-200 million, clustered at the poles. This implies a 95-99 percent die-off of the human race—comparable to the collapse phases of the "oscillating population explosions" experienced by overgrazing bovine populations on the Argentine pampas in the nineteenth century. As with South American ungulate populations, the path to such population collapse will not be a smooth one, but rather will take place nonlinearly, involving massive famines and plagues that kill huge percentages of the total populations in a period of months, as entire ecosystems collapse.

All this may take place much faster than over a couple of centuries. As even climate skeptic Robert Zubrin points out, if we continue to experience the same sort of carbon-intensive economic development, then by the middle of this century we are likely to activate all known and presumably some unknown feedback loops, and within a few decades reach Eocene carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations of 2000 ppm—and certain catastrophe. What this implies is that the only way to ecological-environmental doom for modern civilization is by radically reconfiguring our global economy away from a globalized consumer-goods intensive, carbon-intensive, mass-extraction, industrial economy. However, that would mean the end of the global middle class, the end of the experience of mass affluence in the West, and the end of the dream of mass affluence in the developing world. Alas, that too would spell the end of our civilization as we know it, for that too implies the collapse of the global economy, of global interconnectedness, and unification of the globe into a integrated entity. In sum, climate change poses a Catch-22 at the scale of modern civilization itself: if we do nothing, modern civilization will collapse; but the only adequate response requires ending modern civilization.

In short, it seems certain that we are living in the dying days of a golden age. And like everyone who lives in a golden age, we have no anticipation that it is soon to come to an end—indeed, the false sense of civilizational immortality is a defining characteristic of "golden age" mentalities. Americans stand, I suppose, in more or less the same position as Romans in 150 AD. Like the Romans in second century Rome, the personal culture of Americans after two centuries of relative peace and prosperity is focused on sybaritic pleasure, while the collective culture engages in sophisticated lamentations about the political corruptions attendant on imperial life. Like the Romans, we remain worry vaguely about the barbarians, but in fact have little if any sense that the very basis of our civilization is disappearing beneath our feet. It remains unimaginable for us that the world as we know it, over the coming centuries, will disappear. And yet that is exactly what seems set to take place: the long-term outcome of fouling the collective human nest will be the end of our incredibly rich and centralized commercial and intellectual world.

Finally, let me close this depressing post with one final ironic observation: if this analysis is anywhere close to correct, then—contrary to the self-congratulatory clich├ęs of modernization theory—it is we in the cosseted seats of civilization that are living in the past, while it is the benighted and poor in the deltas of the Mississippi (Hurricane Katrina), the Ganges-Brahmaputra (Cyclone Sidr), and the Irrawaddy (Cyclone Nargis) who are tasting the future of the human race most directly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A truly thought-provoking post. In particular, it made me think of what you said as "adequate response", and the implications of it to the liberal global middle class.

I am wondering about the future power dynamics that will decide which ideas will be seen as "adequate response" in the political and social realm to climate change. If we take as our two premises that mass migration will provoke isolationist responses in the wealthy and less directly affected areas, such as Western Europe and United States, and if excessive migration is seen fundamentally resulting from global overpopulation, I am wondering how much space will deep ecology and eco-fascist ideas receive in the near future.

James Lovelock that you cited has said the following:

"So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia."


"each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can."

Also, a fairly known British writer Edward Goldsmith wrote a book on similar lines, called
"The Way: An Ecological World-View".

It seems to me that not only progressive modernisation thesis, but also modern humanism
as such is facing a challenge. It seems that the ecological and cosmic solutions of these texts flirt with straightforward eco-fascist thinking, a tradition which the mainstream Green movement has a complicated relationship with.

I am wondering what the possible consequences are if mass migration will go on the lines of the two worst scenarios you presented. Will the misanthropic ecological doomsday theories find friends within mainstream nationalists? I think it is a possibility, therefore, there is something to be done in the area of "sophisticated lamentations", regardless of how self-serving and elitist they may be. The liberal global middle class needs to be defended.