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Global Climate Justice--Everybody Knows

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It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis.  Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily.  And that "environmentalism," as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning.  But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized.  Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream.  And the European dream.  And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.

Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil.[1]  And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late.  The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate.  Moreover, our plight is becoming visible.  We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is "unburnable" - in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed.[2]  Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge.  Also, even as China rises, it's obvious that it's not the last in line for the promised land.  Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity.  Why wouldn't they?  Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.

The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.

The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made.  As Francis Bacon said so long ago, "what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes."  And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world.  The alternative - an honest reckoning - was just too challenging.  For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth's finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market.  And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue.  Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time.  With enough growth - the universal balm - redistribution would never be necessary.  In time, every man would be a king.

The denial had many cheerleaders.  The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a "hysterical woman" couldn't have known that they were pioneering a massive trend.  Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces.  But it's no secret that, during the 20th Century, the "engineering of consent" reached new levels of sophistication.  The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism.  On this front, I'm happy to say that the long and instructive history of today's denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed.[3]  Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force.  A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.

To be clear, I'm not claiming that the denialists are going to shut up anytime soon.  Or that they'll call off their suicidal, demoralizing campaigns.  Or that their fogs and poisons are not useful to the fossil-fuel cartel.  But the battle of the science is over, at least as far as the scientists are concerned.  And even on the street, hard denialism is looking pretty ridiculous.  To be sure, the core partisans of the right will fight on, for the win and, of course, for the money.[4]  And they'll continue to have real weight too, for just as long as people do not believe that life beyond carbon is possible.  But for all this, their influence has peaked, and their position is vulnerable.  They are - and visibly now - agents of a mad and dangerous ideology.  They are knaves, and often they are fools.[5]

As for the rest of us, we can at least draw conclusions, and make plans.

As bad as the human prospect may be - and it is quite bad - this is not "game over."  We have the technology we need to save ourselves, or most of it in any case; and much of it is ready to go.  Moreover, the "clean tech" revolution is going to be disruptive indeed.  There will be cascades of innovation, delivering opportunities of all kinds, all around the world.  Also, our powers of research and development are strong.  Also, and contrary to today's vogue for austerity and "we're broke" political posturing, we have the money to rebuild, quickly and on a global scale.  Also, we know how to cooperate, at least when we have to.  All of which is to say that we still have options.  We are not doomed.


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