A cloudless sky, the sun warm on my shoulders – one of the first days when it’s felt as if the long tramp through winter’s cold is over. Gardening this morning, then walking my dog in Sefton Park in the afternoon, seeing all this glory in the natural world, brought to mind the question – What is wrong with us?

Spring crocuses
Spring crocuses in Sefton Park


Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone

What is wrong with us? The question is posed by Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, her book about climate change. The Guardian has printed two long extracts from her book to kick off  a major series of articles on the climate crisis and how humanity can solve it. Introducing the project, Alan Rusbridger, who is stepping down this summer after 20 years editing the paper, explained that his one regret was that ‘we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species’. He admitted that changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list: ‘The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers.’

The lengthy pieces offered by the Guardian so far have clearly been selected for their challenging nature, beginning with Naomi Klein’s answer to her own question, ‘What is wrong with us?’ Why has humanity failed to respond decisively to the threat of climate change, even though the alarm bells have been ringing for years?

Her answer might seem obvious coming from an inveterate campaigner against multinationals and globalisation.  But she is the first to admit that she didn’t make the connection between climate change and her campaigns against free market policies and the policies of large corporations. But now she makes that connection.

We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. […] It is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.

She continues by identifying the three pillars of neo-liberal policies:

Privatisation of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Much has been written about the real-world costs of these policies – the instability of financial markets, the excesses of the super-rich, and the desperation of the increasingly disposable poor, as well as the failing state of public infrastructure and services. Very little, however, has been written about how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.

The stranglehold that market logic has gained over public debate in the last few decades made action on climate change seem heretical:

How, for instance, could societies invest massively in zero-carbon public services and infrastructure at a time when the public sphere was being systematically dismantled and auctioned off? How could governments heavily regulate, tax, and penalise fossil fuel companies when all such measures were being dismissed as relics of “command and control” communism? And how could the renewable energy sector receive the supports and protections it needed to replace fossil fuels when “protectionism” had been made a dirty word?

Even more directly, the policies that so successfully freed multinational corporations from virtually all constraints also contributed significantly to the underlying cause of global warming – rising greenhouse gas emissions.  And the fossil fuel industry has fought relentlessly to continue extracting oil, shale gas, coal and fracked oil from the ground.

In the third Guardian piece veteran environmental campaigner Bill McKibben takes up the question of just how much more fossil fuel we can afford to extract.  The answer is: none. He demonstrates that the risk posed by the fossil fuel industry to the planet comes down to just three numbers, or simply  ‘doing the math’, as he puts it. This approach was new to me.  Here are the numbers:

The first number is 2C, the amount of global warming the world’s governments have set as a limit. Beyond 2C, the world’s scientists project “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people. The 2C number began life in 1995 as a round number that was useful in political negotiations. But since then scientists have warned that even 2C of warming will bring damaging impacts.

The second number is 565 billion tonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide, which scientists estimate is the maximum amount that can be produced by future fossil fuel burning if we are to have an 80% chance of keeping global warming under 2C. If you use a lower chance, say 50% or 66%, the amount of allowable CO2 gets a bit bigger.

But whatever the amount, they are all dwarfed by the third number. This is the total CO2 that would be released if today’s proven reserves of coal, oil and gas are burned: 2,795 GT. That is fossil fuel identified and ready to extract.

So here’s the arithmetic. To stay under 2C, only 565 GT of CO2 can be emitted, but there is already 2795 GT – fives times more – ready to burn.

This simple analysis has global implications. If climate change is to be tamed, most existing fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. That means continued exploration should be pointless and that assets worth trillions of dollars should become worthless. And that shows the scale of the challenge presented by climate change.

Melting ice sheet Greenland

Greenland’s melting ice sheet 

Icefield by David Harsent

A place of ice over ice, of white over white
and beauty in absences. There was a time when the only sound
was the wind calling its ghosts, when the skyline was set

clean as a scar on glass, when your heartbeat slowed
with the cold, when your dreams brought in a white bird
on a white sky and music that could only be heard

from time to time on the other side of night.
Now the horizon’s a smudge; now there’s a terrible weight
in the air and a stain cut hard and deep in the permafrost.

Breakage and slippage; the rumble of some vast
machine cranking its pistons, of everything on the slide;
and the water rising fast, and the music lost.

Bill McKibben’s essay is surprisingly upbeat, given his arithmetic.  He describes action across the world which is challenging the fossil fuel industry – and the emerging strength of the movement to disinvest from those companies that continue to extract carbon-based fuel from the ground.  At the same time, all eyes are on Paris, where negotiators will meet in December for a climate conference that – like those that have preceded it – will be described as ‘a last chance for humanity.’ To save humankind’s future on the planet is going to require organisation:

This fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice or reason. We won the argument, but that didn’t matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power. The richest industry in human history wants to keep on their current path for a few more years, even if it means dragging the whole planet over a cliff. (Never forget for a moment that this industry, having watched the Arctic melt, immediately set out to drill the newly open waters for more oil.) Their power lies in money and the political favour it can buy; our power lies in movement-building, and the political fear it can instill. They know they’re in a tough spot so they’re spending like crazy (the Koch Brothers, party of two, just announced plans to dump $900m on the next US election, which is more than the Republicans or the Democrats will spend). We’ve therefore got to organise like crazy.

And if we do we have a chance. The Copenhagen climate summit was a fiasco, but not because the science wasn’t clear. Copenhagen was a fiasco because environmentalists were hopeful that our leaders would do the right thing. Not this time – we’ll push as hard as we possibly can, and if we do then good things will happen before Paris, after Paris, and for years to come. Our task is brutally hard and painfully simple: keep the carbon in the ground.


Stand still.The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows Where you are.
You must let it find you.
– An old Native American elder story rendered into modern English by David Wagoner

See also

2 thoughts on “Spring: sunshine and glory. But: What is wrong with us?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.