It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.
“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?”“I really don’t know how to explain this without sounding like I’m losing my marbles, boss, but it’s this dream…” Kenny froze. “Dream…what…dream?” The words tumbled out, almost afraid of the answer. “Jesus boss, don’t laugh, but I’ve just had the worst dream of my life. I woke an hour ago and nearly threw up. Then, the phone started ringing. First, it was Coveney, crying like a baby, then Reilly, then a couple of lads from the constituency office, then my pal from Trinity…” His voice trailed off.
“Christ, man, get to the point”, said Kenny, who became aware that his own lips were bone dry and almost stuck to one another as he spoke. “Sorry boss, this sounds completely mental, I know, but everyone I’ve spoken to in the last hour has had the same dream…seriously, the same actual goddam dream, the same dream. And people are phoning in and emailing from all over the world saying the same thing. Twitter has nearly exploded. Jesus boss, I’m a feckin’ medical doctor and I can tell you for a fact this is impossible, completely impossible. But it’s also true.”
Kenny slumped back into the chair, the mobile phone almost slipping from his sweat-soaked grasp. “This dream, Leo, did it have anything…you know…to do with some kind of… disaster…. anything like that?”
“Em, yes boss, it was that exactly; I felt like I was trapped alive in the worst horror story you could ever imagine…everything had fallen apart, there was floods, storms, looting, rioting, chaos, the lights were out, no water or food, the guards, firemen, hospitals, army, everything gone…but it was right here in Dublin, well, all over Ireland in fact. There wasn’t much contact with the outside world, but from what we could make it, it was at least as bad everywhere else. I know it had to have been a dream, but I’d swear to you it was real, I knew exactly what was going on every moment of it…” added Varadkar.
“Hello, hello, boss, are you still there?” After several seconds of silence, Kenny replied haltingly: “You’ve just pretty well described my dream…Leo, call a Cabinet meeting for noon today; whatever ministers are away, get them back. We need to get the general secretaries of all departments in as well. The Garda commissioner, Civil defense, army chief of staff, you know, the usual suspects. We’ll meet with them later this afternoon. We need to get all the ambassadors on a teleconference too, see if we can get a clearer picture from around the world.”
“What about a press briefing?”, Varadkar enquired half-heartedly. “Christ Leo, what are we going to say to them, some kind of Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ moment, I don’t feckin’ think so. Get the press officers in and let them get together and figure something out”. A fit 63-year old, this morning Kenny felt more like 93. His wife Fionnuala appeared. She too looked exhausted and ashen-faced. “Christ Enda, you won’t believe the dream I’m after having…”
And so it spread, all over the world. Billions woke that day frightened, confused and anxious. As news spread, churches, mosques and temples quickly filled to overflowing. The impossible had just happened. Years of warnings by leading scientific agencies that the world was on the path to catastrophic climate change and an epic global extinction event had gone unheeded. Nobody knew how it happened but now, everyone knew. The realisation fell like a hammer.
An emergency session of the United Nations was summoned, and leaders of over 190 countries, including Kenny, flooded to New York for an intensive behind-closed-doors briefing session with senior scientific members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society and their counterparts from another 20 or so major nations, including China and Japan. Even the Russians came in from the cold. Long-standing enmities and even the bitterest of rivalries were, for now, put on ice.
CEOs and chairmen of the world’s major transnational corporations were also invited to participate, as were the publishers and senior editors of over 300 newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and news websites. Senior delegates from all the world’s major religious organisation also attended.
After several days and nights of intense negotiations, four figures emerged to make a joint address to the UN General Assembly. They were US president, Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Jean-Claude Juncker on behalf of the EU. This was their statement:
“Something truly unprecedented has happened in the last few days. While we may never fully understand what has just occurred, its import is crystal clear. Together, we stand at the edge of the greatest crisis in human history. It is, quite simply, without precedent. Our scientists have been telling us this, in so many words, for years, but we, the politicians, the business community, religious and civil society, we haven’t been listening. We have been asleep. It took a dream to wake us up.
“Having consulted with other world leaders, we are today declaring a global climate emergency. With immediate effect, all energy production is being nationalised, and energy rationing will begin shortly. Every coal-burning plant in the world is to be fully decommissioned within 10 years. A trillion dollars is being ring-fenced for a multi-national renewable and nuclear energy programme. Work begins immediately.
“We are also declaring 500 million hectares of land off-limits to all human activity or encroachment. All logging and mining in these conservation areas is hereby declared illegal, and these will be rigorously enforced. We are also declaring the entire Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland regions, including surrounding oceans, as completely off limits to anything other than strictly regulated scientific activities. New laws are being put in place to enshrine the right of the natural world to exist and to flourish, and to be strictly protected from human encroachment.
“With immediate effect, couples will be limited to one child. To support this policy, policies, customs and religious rules restricting the rights of women and girls to full educational equality, including free access to family planning services, will be outlawed. Stringent new carbon taxes will be targeted at non-essential or luxury items. All tax shelters for corporations and rich individuals are being shut down, and we are restoring the top rate of income tax for high earners to the levels that applied in the early 1960s – ranging from 70–92%.
“Much of the proceeds of these new taxes will be used to improve conditions for the low-paid and those in poorer countries. Our shared ambition is to tackle income inequality, both between individuals and between states, as the only safe way of ensuring the social cohesion that is going to be essential in the extremely difficult times that lie ahead.
“Yes, these new regulations will impose hardships on some, but, as we all now know, the alternative is to be complicit in the greatest calamity in all of human history, and the destroy this world for all future generations. This would be the gravest stain on our species. We stand together, collectively determined that this generation will not and must not let this catastrophe come to pass.”
Some called it a communications failure, but it might be better thought of as a failure of imagination. Decades of growth and seemingly endless economic and population expansion and its accompanying ideologies had inured the world to the reality of the ever-tightening resource crisis, spiralling emissions, collapse in global biological diversity and the great unravelling of complexity across the biosphere.
The consequences of this massive fraying of the very fabric of life on Earth were, until that fateful night, beyond the reach of people’s imagination, and thus, in a very real sense, unreal, remote and of no great consequence.
And so began a new era in human affairs, one that would, in time, become known as The Great Contraction. Whether even such radical steps could avoid or forestall the severe impacts of a battered biosphere and a restive climate system would only become apparent by mid-century.
But, in starting over, there was reason to believe once more.