Limited Vision: As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.
ON TUESDAY MORNING the world should have awoken to financial chaos.* Stockmarkets around the planet should have been plummeting to levels not seen for a decade – or more.
For the markets to be in freefall, however, something truly shocking must have happened. Had the Saudi monarchy been overthrown? Had the President of the United States been assassinated?
The answer, of course, is: “No.” and “No.”
What had happened was that, on Monday afternoon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its latest emissions report.
This sombre document speaks bluntly about the huge response required from the whole of humanity if the emissions targets set at Paris in 2015 are to be met. Massive and disruptive economic and social challenges loom ahead for the global community. The future of the human species (not to mention the survival of the millions of other species with which humanity shares the earth) now depends on those challenges being confronted and met.
But, as everyone reading this knows perfectly well, the world’s stockmarkets did not go into freefall on Tuesday. There were some jitters over the deepening rift between the United States and China – but these weren’t serious. Certainly, nothing approaching the financial Gotterdammerung of 2008-09 had unfolded – anywhere.
And that should tell us something about the problem of Climate Change.
Clearly, the “Masters of the Universe” – those expert buyers and sellers of financial derivatives, pork-belly futures and Apple shares – weren’t worried. The men (and they mostly are men) who drive the world’s markets up and down – had placed not the slightest weight on the IPCC’s pronouncements. They weren’t in the least bit bothered that the world’s leading climate scientists were telling them that by the 2050s (and maybe sooner) capitalism, as they understood it, would cease to be a viable system.
It’s not as if these economic movers and shakers are all Climate Change Denialists (although some of them undoubtedly are) or that they don’t believe in science. They do. In fact, market traders have a great deal in common with the climate scientists. Both groups spend their time developing models about the way the world works, and then using them to anticipate and shape future events. The big difference between the two, however, is that market traders base their predictions on the behaviour of human-beings, and climate scientists on the behaviour of the earth’s atmosphere.
The market traders know to a near certainty that nobody – or at least nobody that matters – is going to do a damn thing about the IPCC report. World leaders certainly aren’t about to hurl their respective peoples into a maelstrom of economic and social pain. The producers of coal, oil and natural gas are not going to stop sending their product to market – not while upwards of 90 percent of the world economy still runs on it. Those with money and status will continue to fly around the world to admire the scenery and soak up the cultures of faraway lands – regardless of the damage inflicted by their enormous carbon footprints.
“The American way of life is non-negotiable”, warned the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, in 2001. Seventeen years later, the rest of the world’s newly enriched citizens feel exactly the same way about the rising living standards to which they are rapidly becoming accustomed.
“But what about the rising seas!”, laments Greenpeace. “What about the extreme weather events? The floods? The forest fires? The hurricanes?”
To the world’s environmentalists, their fellow human-beings’ blank indifference to the looming catastrophe is both baffling and infuriating. As good ecologists, however, they should not be surprised.
As a species, human-beings are superb at dealing with immediate dangers and short-to-medium term problems. Storing up food for the coming winter, setting aside enough grain for next year’s crops: thinking this way produced extraordinary human advancements. So many that, as a species, we never really saw the need, or acquired the knack, of thinking ten, twenty, a hundred years ahead.
For the past ten-thousand years, humanity’s ability to master the planet’s creatures and plunder her natural resources has brought nothing but a longer and more bounteous life. In the desiccated remnants of that legacy, future generations will curse us for taking so long to identify our species’ suicidal trajectory, and wonder why we refused to get off it – until it was too late.
* In a wonderful example of Murphy's Law, two days after I filed this column the world's markets were in turmoil. Not, I hasten to add, in response to the IPCC's report, but still. - C.T.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 October 2018.