We are the children of the Enlightenment. Our ancestors lived for countless centuries with only the vaguest idea of the world around or beyond them. Education and literacy was the preserve of tiny elites, usually in the service of religious or political ends. In the absence of the scientific method, bad ideas, superstitions and false reasoning held humanity in what must have felt like a permanent penumbra.
The Enlightenment swept in a brave new world. Science and technology raced forward in lock-step and those earliest to react found themselves masters of the Earth, as countries like England, Spain and Holland swept all before them in establishing and then gorging themselves on vast colonial empires thanks to their new-found technological edge in navigation and warfare.
The template for today’s globalised consumer society was laid down by the imperial powers, who were both the drivers and main beneficiaries of this astonishing leap forward. Human numbers surged exponentially forward, from fewer than a billion in 1800 to more than seven billion in 2014. No one species had ever come to so dominate the biosphere.
And then, in what felt like little more than the blink of an eye, the period historians refer to as ‘Western Civilisation’ had abruptly ended. Of course, civilisations have bloomed and failed many times in the past, but none of these were global in reach, and none before had the capacity and scale to drive humanity itself, along with much of the living world, towards the abyss.
“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame”. This is how Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway frame it in their extended essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation – a View From The Future.
The authors’ previous collaboration was the critically acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, an in-depth exposé of how the tobacco industry manufactured doubt and bogus controversy to protect their profits for decades, and how this highly effective blueprint for deception and disinformation came to be adopted by the global hydrocarbon industry in its trillion dollar battle to maintain its energy hegemony.
Oreskes and Conway’s latest project allows them to engage in literary and historical hindsight by setting the essay at the end of the tumultuous 21st century and casting a historian’s eye back at the unfolding tragedy of what they call the Penumbral Period (1988-2093).
There was enough, more than enough, clear scientific evidence available to both governments and corporations by the first decade of the century to signal that the current system was unsustainable, unstable and, unless radically altered, certain to lead to disaster. We knew, yet we did not act. The generation with access to more information than any other in human history chose not to act to save itself. Why?
“Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.
“Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats.”
Western civilisation, the authors suggest, had become “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.” Despite all the research undertaken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the knowledge that accrued from this vast scientific enterprise did little or nothing to dent the powerful economic and political forces wedded to hydrocarbon extraction, a network they label the carbon-combustion complex.
“Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists.”
The emergence of a powerful new ideology known as market fundamentalism, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990, deepened the crisis. Market fundamentalism took on all the trappings of a quasi-religious cult, its proponents bitterly opposing even the most rudimentary forms of government intervention in the ‘free market’, such as ensuring broad access to healthcare, education and birth control, or implementing progressive taxation and environmental regulations to protect ‘the commons’.
The founding fathers of market fundamentalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, respected science and saw it as the natural companion to capitalism. However, “when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary. ”
The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published in 2006. Commissioned by the UK government, the 700-page report concluded that climate change was “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. This analysis was roundly and repeatedly attacked – by neoliberal economists and right wing media commentators.
Arguing against regulation of any kind had become so ingrained (and profitable) for corporations that even the repeated presentation of clear scientific evidence failed to shake them from their certainties – with tragic consequences. “It is hard to imagine why anyone in the 20th century would have argued against government protection of the natural environment on which human life depends. Yet such arguments were not just made, they dominated the public sphere.”
The irony here is rich: “The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention”. Neoliberalism collapsed under the weight of its sheer irrationality, and took much of the world with it.
It is, the authors contend “difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism”. Even more puzzling to future historians is how scientists, the very people whose job was to understand the threat and to warn society, they too mostly failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat of climate change.
The key to understanding how poorly science responded may lay in its very structures, where science is divided up into precise disciplines. This meant scientists with deep expertise in one tiny area could in fact be relatively inexpert in related fields. “Even scientists who had a broad view of climate change often felt it would be inappropriate for them to articulate it, because that would require them to speak beyond their expertise, and seem to be taking credit for other people’s work.”
The establishment of the IPCC was supposed to provide this overarching system-wide perspective. While the collective expertise of the IPCC was vast, it concentrated on physical sciences, often ignoring the all-important social science dimension. “Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings—deforestation and fossil fuel combustion – yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption.”
Many scientists shied away from addressing overpopulation, for instance, wary of being drawn into complex moral, cultural and religious debates they were ill equipped to address. This is despite the fact that exponential population growth, in lock-step with massive increase in average per capita consumption, were driving the very phenomena scientists were painstakingly cataloguing.
Another block for scientists was the concept of statistical significance. The gold standard of 95% confidence means reaching a level of certainty that a given event could have only happened by chance at being less than one in 20. In reality, this is setting the bar impossibly high when trying to make assessments of highly complex systems and the likely distribution of stochastic processes.
More importantly, this gave a field day to skeptics and deniers, who were able to throw back these impossibly high levels of proofs in the face of scientists and repeat the line that events that didn’t meet this level of certainty could simply be dismissed as ‘unproven’.
It is a canon of Western science that it’s worse to fool yourself into believing in something that wasn’t the case than not to believe in something that is. In science, these positions are known as ‘type 1” and “type 2” errors, the authors explain. “So while the pattern of weather events was clearly changing, many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change” (Ray Bates comes to mind here).
“Even as lay citizens began to accept this link, the scientists who studied it did not…scientists missed the most important opportunity in human history, and the costs that ensued were indeed nearly “all costs.”
While the scientists dithered, the world burned. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put in place in 1992. By any reasonable yardstick, it can be said that from that date, the world was in no real doubt other than that GHG emissions would have to be first reined in, then phased out entirely, as part of a global energy transition. Instead, the opposite happened. Between 1992–2012, total CO2 emissions skyrocketed by 38% globally. The ‘shale revolution’ began in 2005 in the Bush-era US, and gathered pace as ‘unconventional’ fossil reserves flooded onto world markets, lowering energy prices and crowding out low-carbon alternatives, be they renewables or nuclear.
Our historian from the future observes that the IPCC had projected a global doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050 – in fact, it arrived ahead of schedule, in 2042. The projected 2-3C surface temperature rise turned out to be 3.9C.
“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures – such as water and food rationing and Malthusian “one-child” policies – were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards”
Much worse was to follow. The brutal Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041 led to global food crop failures, famines, food riots and unprecedented panic. “Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen”
By the early 2050s, social order was crumbling – first in Africa, but quickly sweeping through Asia and Europe. The US government declared martial law as its breadbasket dried out and famine swept the continent. As the situation became ever more desperate, the Unified Nations Convention on Climate Engineering & Protection (UNCCEP) began planning a global climate cooling project. Aircraft fuel was seeded with sulphate particles.
For its first three years, the project appeared to be succeeding, and temperatures began to edge downwards. However, an unintended consequence of this geoengineering gamble was the virtual shutdown of the Indian monsoon, leading to famine sweeping across the sub-continent. The experiment was abandoned in 2063, but the shutdown led to a ‘termination shock’ as the heating rebounded fiercely – a projected 0.4C cooling quickly became a +1C of additional heating, pushing global temperatures to +5C over pre-industrial.
By the mid-2060s, a global climate tipping point was passed. There was a sudden and dramatic thaw of permafrost and methane (CH4) release. “Estimated total carbon release of Arctic CH4 during the next decade may have reached over 1,000 gigatonnes, effectively doubling the total atmospheric carbon load. This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect (sometimes more dramatically called the Venusian death): a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6C.”
This methane pulse disrupted ocean temperatures and circulation, and dealt the death blow to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Between 2073-2093, rapid Antarctic melt sent global sea levels surging by five metres. Around this time, the Greenland ice sheet split down the middle and began to quickly slide into the north Atlantic, adding another two metres to sea levels.
Globally, some 1.5 billion people were displaced from coastal regions by the 7-8 metre sea level rise. Waves of ‘eustatic refugees’ caused huge disruption in the already distressed communities into which they poured. A second Black Death swept Europe and North America. There was no functioning health system to arrest its spread. Up to half the affected populations died. Some 60-70% of all species on Earth went extinct during this period.
At +11C, we would assume the Sagan effect (named after Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist and science communicator) would have led to the obliteration of all life as a series of positive feedbacks led to runaway global warming and the death of the oceans. However, the authors flinch at such an outcome (after all, who’d have been left to tell the sorry tale of a civilisation that knowingly destroyed itself?).
Our (exceedingly unlikely) redemption sprung from a Japanese genetic engineer, Akari Ishikawa, who synthesized a form of lichenised fungus which consumed CO2 highly efficiently during photosynthesis. “This pitch-black lichen, dubbed Pannaria ishikawa, was deliberately released from Ishikawa’s laboratory, spreading rapidly throughout Japan and then across most of the globe. Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery.”
The authors can’t help concluding by ridiculing neoliberalism’s role in what happened next: “It might be viewed as a final irony of our story – China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralised government, leading to the establishment of the Second People’s Republic of China and inspiring similar structures in other, reformulated nations. By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”
‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’ – Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’