Tipping point

September 20, 2021

The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that we are rapidly destabilizing the climate and making the earth a more dangerous and biologically...

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The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that we are rapidly destabilizing the climate and making the earth a more dangerous and biologically impoverished planet. No surprise; we've known this since the 1970s. The primary cause of the worsening situation, however, is not the combustion of fossil fuels, but the massive political dereliction that has allowed the bonfire to go on after we knew that it posed a potentially lethal threat to humankind. We have no precedent for malfeasance at this scale therefore we have no law, no accountability – and so far – no remedy.

No one is in jail for complicity in ecocide. The burning part is just a symptom of a half-century long political failure attributable in large part to the power of unprincipled and unaccountable money to override the public interest, including that in our own survival. As a result, the worst ‘worst case’ scenarios are beginning to play out before our eyes. Commensurate to the scale of the problem, our leaders did not lead, public institutions did not act, media did not inform, social media pedaled lies, and conservative Courts protected power and wealth, ironically contributing to the most radical outcomes. All along our questions have been ‘too puny for our circumstances’; our ideas inadequate to the systemic challenges posed by a de-stabilizing climate and deteriorating ecosystems. Lets start with government and the broader subject of governance and political culture.

Governing is a perennial human problem. As difficult as it has always been, however, it is about to become much harder in the transition from the Holocene to a different and more hostile planet. From the first tribal councils to the present, rulers everywhere could safely assume that – whatever the weather – the climate was a constant even if they knew nothing about how the planet functioned or even that they lived on a planet. That assumption no longer holds. Climate stability is declining, forcing weather patterns everywhere into chaos. Without rapid and coordinated global action to stabilize the climate below some all-too-near threshold the human experiment is in jeopardy. The change from the stable climate of the past 12,000 years to a less predictable and more capricious climate, will require significant changes in government and governing. The reasons are becoming clearer.

First, the rate of planetary change is accelerating much faster than once predicted. The biogeochemical cycles of earth, particularly the carbon cycle, now set both the speed and the agenda for what governments will have to do to avoid calamity, preserve civilization, and adapt to hotter, drier, stormier conditions, rising seas, stressed ecosystems, and their social, political, and economic collateral effects.

Second, a destabilizing climate is ‘an everything issue’ affecting the full range of what governments at every level have been expected to do and more. Things long taken for granted, however, are now in jeopardy. Full shelves at the supermarket, electricity at the flip of a switch, clean water at the tap, economic growth, dependable supply chains, ecosystem services like pollination, relative safety in the streets, medical care, and someone to answer 911 calls.

Accustomed to incremental solutions to smaller problems, governments will increasingly face cascading and interlinked large-scale problems. Success – whatever that may mean – will require designing systemic solutions, at all levels of government, that solve multiple problems without causing new ones. Security, for one, has meant spending trillions on weapons to fend off external threats, sometimes conjured by our own behavior as ‘blowback’. Climate change, however, will jeopardize the security of everyone closer to home as larger, more destructive storms, longer droughts, larger fires, declining farm productivity, pandemics in changing ecologies, societal breakdown, and so forth. The occurrence of multiple crises could stress our response capacity to the breaking point.

Excerpted: ‘Letting the World Burn: The Question of Governance’

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