Climate Change: Still Time to Staunch the Blood-Dimmed Tide
It’s the year 2100. The nationalist ideology popularized by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson has not only retained its hold on industrialized nations, but also expanded amid conditions of climate upheaval. Many of the world’s major powers have spent the last several decades focusing on themselves. Borders have closed. International investments in education and technology have declined. The divide between the developed and undeveloped world has widened.
No sane soul denies now that the world is warming, though some keep trying. Still others in the camp of nationalist reaction have taken to insisting the earth’s wrath is God’s punishment instead of humanity’s folly. But the evidence is all too crushingly plain that the violent, convulsive new world order taking shape in this moment of climate reckoning is entirely the handiwork of a fatal set of preventable human system failures. It’s been an excruciatingly slow-motion disaster, engineered by shortsighted, power-obsessed leaders hell-bent on denying scientific truths—and blocking the basic measures to mitigate carbon emissions and stave off drought, rising ocean tides, and mass migrations of climate-traumatized populations to higher ground in increasingly xenophobic and belligerent rich Western nations.
With all these catastrophic scenarios now daily facts of life, the specter of climate upheaval—long held forth as the urgent, and quite possibly final, imperative to overcome tribal political divisions and the human race’s retrograde hoarding instincts—is acting as an accelerant of global conflict, plunging nationalist powers into a regressive rivalry to seize scarce resources and deny access to putative outsiders of all descriptions. The lineaments of a more equitable, sustainable, and cooperative world sketched out by advocates of a Green New Deal have given way, in stunningly short order, to a race to a new global bottom, equal parts Thomas Hobbes and Mad Max.
The endgame was distressingly rapid, and looks especially so in retrospect. Following Donald Trump’s reelection to the presidency in 2020, the United States failed to implement aggressive climate policies necessary to avoid the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold. America’s continued abdication of any serious leadership role in the climate crisis touched off a series of other high-profile defections from regional and international climate accords that were already insufficient in their target goals. Plans to decarbonize developed economies ground to a halt in many countries. Developing countries, heeding the now-malign neglect of many leaders of industrialized nations, continued relying on traditional, resource-intensive forms of moneymaking: farming, mining, and fossil fuel burning. Their populations kept growing, too, since part of the global surge into nationalist reaction was a rollback of basic contraception and family planning services.
So the world kept getting hotter. The global community sailed past the 1.5 degree Celsius “‘safe’ threshold of warming” mark around 2038, and summers of Saharan intensity became an annual norm in Europe—often in North America, too. These extreme bouts of heat—too routine now to be dubbed “heat waves”—claimed annual death tolls of thousands in many countries, while wildfires courted the specter of mass famine by burning up billions of dollars’ worth of cropland. Around 80 percent of Earth’s coral reefs died off, tanking fishing and tourism economies around the world. The ocean rose about 1.5 feet, exposing an additional 69 million people every year to regular extreme flooding. Residents of the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which sits an average of a little less than six feet above the precrisis sea level, began to flee to Australia and New Zealand en masse.
The world’s population ballooned to 12.6 billion by the end of the century, and Earth’s temperature rose by 4 degrees Celsius—twice the level that scientists had long earmarked as the threshold sure to produce vast displacement and suffering for hundreds of millions of people contending with the simple misfortune of living too far south, or not far enough inland, or in a drought-ridden, deforested desert-in-the-making. The sheer scale of environmental devastation associated with a temperature spike of 2 degrees Celsius was enough, according to those early–twenty-first-century scientists, to threaten modern civilization itself.
Today, at 4 degrees, there is still civilization. But there is no Kiribati, given that sea levels have risen three feet since the beginning of the century. Most of the nation’s 110,000 people have fled to Australia and New Zealand—both of which are struggling with climate-driven scarcity in their own economies, and reverting to uglier forms of discrimination from their shared colonialist past. Australia has continued its practice of housing migrants in inhumane offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea—except now, drought has dried up the rainwater tanks that supplied New Guinea’s drinking water, and salt water from the rising sea has leached into the soil, further decimating agricultural production on the island.
And Kiribati is but one snapshot of the new global normal. Mass migrations are pushing populations into overstrained, and often inhospitable, new host nations as sea levels rise, and extreme weather intensifies, while less visible side effects, such as saltwater intrusion, undermine more and more of the world’s agricultural carrying capacity. More than 23 million people in China alone have been forced to move, as their land has been reclaimed by the rising ocean tide. So have 2.8 million people in Indonesia; 2.1 million people in Bangladesh; and ten million people in Vietnam. In the United States, meanwhile, 13 million people have left their water-adjacent homes in search of higher ground, or at least drier pastures.
People are being uprooted by other climate shifts as well. Heat stress, drought, and resulting declines in agricultural yields have helped push six million people in Mexico to pack their things and move north. Nearly twelve million people in sub-Saharan Africa, and millions across the Middle East, have done the same. No matter where they go, though, it’s unlikely they’ll escape the heat. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population now faces the threat of dying from hot weather.
These demographic shifts, combined with the resource-based national rivalries unloosed by climate change, have made these mass migrations a key flashpoint of global conflict. Borders are not only closed; they’re militarized. The ethno-nationalist backlash in most industrial Western powers has spurred the rise of an eco-fascist ideology—the same one cited in the online manifesto by the gunman in the mass shooting of 2019 in El Paso, Texas. This “greening of hate” keys into long-standing Malthusian panics about scarcity and overpopulation as the great threats to civilization and global order. In this bleak worldview—which now governs most of the former bastions of Enlightenment-age democracy—the only way to maintain life is to let it end in those regions not preselected for social Darwinian survival. Its apostles see the catastrophic impact of climate change as a historic opportunity to revert to the comforting, delusive tribal vision of racial purity in a world given over to chaos and all but permanent geopolitical turmoil. After all, it’s not the white-majority countries that people are fleeing.
Of course, not everyone is leaving the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, even in the face of alarming climactic shifts, most people have chosen to stay where they are. Acute natural disasters such as floods and typhoons have shattered villages in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. But many ultimately rebuild, and in sub-Saharan Africa, the population has spiked from just over 800 million people at the beginning of the century to 3.7 billion at the end. And as the population has risen, so has the risk for armed, violent conflict—often over food and water scarcity. Worldwide, such risk has increased by 26 percent.
As people facing the accelerating, overlapping threats of global warming start to feel vulnerable, they seek reassurance in new leadership—and reactionary authoritarians see opportunity. These crises, they say, can be easily solved, and nations can thrive—if only populations temporarily give up their democratic rights. As famine, drought, and refugee crises widen, strongmen increasingly exploit the mounting global mood of desperation to build power.
Meanwhile, 5.5 billion people are living in water-stressed areas. Two-thirds of the mountain glaciers that have historically supplied most of the water for Pakistan and India, together with much of the rest of the South Asian subcontinent, are gone, and China is holding the rest hostage through its control of the “Third Pole”—the massive water source in the once-frozen Himalayas. Chinese leaders have erected dams near the water’s origins, keeping it from draining into India and Bangladesh. Water access is emerging as a lead cause of regional conflict, especially as scarce water falls under the control of rogue black markets.
War has also broken out in the now-iceless Arctic between the United States and Russia over access to the region’s rich stores of ever-shrinking resources: fish, gas, oil, and minerals.
This dystopian vision of a new era of climate-driven geopolitical conflict and ideological regression has been lurching into the foreground of global politics for at least the past generation. No one in power today can credibly say they weren’t warned. They can, perhaps, claim they didn’t know how rapidly the threats were multiplying; they can even say they didn’t accept or believe them. But no one can plausibly say they did everything they could. Few can say they even tried.
Even those who have long sounded the alarm on climate chaos say today they have regrets; that they should have done more, or approached things differently. “It took me 10 or 15 years to realize I should be organizing, not writing books,” said Bill McKibben, who has written 17 books—mostly about the climate crisis. “I spent those years thinking we were in an argument, and that my job was to provide the weight of evidence that would eventually cause us to win the argument. It’s now utterly clear that we were never engaged in an argument. It was a fight.”
And like other major inflection points in the world system, the failure to join the climate fight in anything like a timely fashion is rooted in distressingly familiar and mundane defects in our political culture. Just as the assassination of an Austrian noble in Sarajevo touched off World War I in the early twentieth century, it’s likely that future historians will look back at the bleak landscape of resource rivalry and mass climate migration in the twenty-second century, and marvel at how long, and how extensively, world leaders were briefed on the specter of climate chaos, only to shirk their basic responsibilities to provide and govern for posterity over an entire political generation.
In retrospect, the fight over doing something about climate change has never been about science, data, or reason. If it were, George H.W. Bush would have at least tried to fulfill his 1988 campaign promise to “do something” about global climate change; to fight the “greenhouse effect” with the “White House effect.” He would have listened to his deputy assistant secretary of state, Richard J. Smith, who wrote in a 1989 memo, “If the climate change within the range of current predictions actually occurs, the consequences for every nation and every aspect of human activity will be profound.” If that had happened, policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have been implemented with at least some time to work out the kinks. Likewise, if the Obama White House had managed to get a cap-and-trade plan through a Democratic Congress in 2009, a basic framework to address the crisis would have at least been in place. Instead, the climate-conscious administrators in the Obama administration fell back on a series of executive orders and regulatory shifts, all promptly undone in the early days of the Trump White House.
No; in retrospect, the fight over doing something about climate change has been about money and power—assets that the fossil fuel industry, the chief beneficiary of a laissez-faire-mal approach to global warming, has always possessed in great abundance. Even as the first George Bush administration paid some lip service to the specter of climate crisis back in the early 1990s, oil interests had marshaled a complex of PR outlets and dubiously credentialed authorities to push a denialist line on global warming, and to keep the terms of debate in Washington mired in a state of fretful paralysis. “They understood that if they could make people doubt whether climate change was a problem, they would sap the energy necessary to take it on,” McKibben said. “They set out to waste everyone’s time, on purpose, and they did.”
The oil industry spent millions to elect and reelect George W. Bush, who, once he took office, promptly scuttled all campaign talk of mitigating global warming. Bush expanded on his father’s legacy, not only censoring climate scientists and skirting the topic in public, but hiring fossil fuel cronies to shape policy decisions across his administrations. Those same cronies then spent millions to elect Donald Trump, who is now following the same playbook of denial, disinformation, and deflection on climate change. As a result of all the well-funded, bad-faith temporizing on the climate crisis, we are now just eleven years away from being locked into 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the point where irreversible catastrophe begins.
Barack Obama’s presidency was the opportunity to set the disastrously skewed climate debate on a course of responsible and reasoned planning—the baseline correction needed to avert global calamity. With outsize Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, Obama dedicated his first term to reforming health care, not the climate—or as McKibben puts it, “They set out to deal with the last problem of the 20th century, and not the first problem of the 21st.”
The Democrats could have pursued another climate bill after Congress’s first cap-and-trade effort died in the Senate, but they didn’t. According to Obama White House insiders, then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was so angry about how the process had gone down on the first attempt that he swore off trying again. Emanuel reportedly told congressional leaders that large-scale climate legislation was off the table. It was, in essence, “You tried; you failed; we’re moving on.”
It was an almost laughably ridiculous position, given the stakes of the climate crisis as we know it. Judith Enck, who served as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 administrator during the Obama administration, confirms the drastic gap between the unassailable research on the climate crisis and the failing political consensus on the most urgent existential issue of our time. “We knew a lot,” she said. “The science was definitely robust. But the federal government and the general public didn’t appreciate how serious it was.”
That excuse was pitifully inadequate in the first two years of the Obama administration; ten years on, it’s a recipe for civilizational collapse. Our opening dystopian portrait of the climate-ravaged global order of the next century is only partly a work of speculation. It’s based, in broad outline, on what the climate science community calls the “regional rivalry” scenario. In the suite of now-imaginable climate projections before us, it is known as Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 3 (SSP3). It’s one of five carefully crafted pathways that climate scientists employ to game out what global society, economics, policy, and demographics might look like under longer-term pressures of climate change. Scientific forecasters use these political and economic pathways in climate models to inform their understanding of how greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures will shift amid shifting new geopolitical alliances and confrontations.
SSP3 is the worst possible pathway for the global climate and conflict, according to Bas van Ruijven, the co-chair of the International Committee on New Integrated Climate Change Assessment Scenarios, and a key analyst for the SSP narratives. “It is a world that breaks down on many dimensions,” he said. “Countries have their own interests first, with a narrow definition of what their ‘interests’ are.” Van Ruijven is understandably wary about handicapping the likelihood of SSP3—or any speculative future scenario—coming true, but he very much wants global leaders to have them firmly in mind. The whole idea, he said, is to get policymakers to understand that “if you keep going in a certain direction, [this is] where you end up.”
Some signs already strongly suggest we’re about to head down the SSP3 pathway. After all, the American Republican Party is far from the only political force presiding over the toxic fusion of climate denialism and hyper-nationalism: Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Narendra Modi’s India, and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary are all countries now led by dismal Trumpian comrades in arms. Parties with right-wing authoritarian tendencies now govern or share power in seven European Union nations; such parties have achieved double-digit results in the most recent elections in Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom, in addition to numerous former Eastern bloc countries.
The global ethnonationalist surge is significantly escalating the risk of a conflict-ridden climate scenario, said Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, the head of climate science at the policy nonprofit Climate Analytics. “In order to prevent these things from happening, you need to have an international community that’s willing and able to respond [to] and support affected countries,” he said. “In a world that is thinking about one country first, your willingness or ability to provide that support suffers, and the external mechanisms we have historically relied on may not be available.”
What’s more, it’s not as if the old world order’s mechanisms to deter and contain conflict are anywhere near adequate to address the scale of the potential climate wars to come. To take just one example, global emergency response efforts from the United Nations and Red Cross are today almost exclusively focused on catastrophic flooding and hurricane events—they largely ignore events of major heat stress, drought, and desertification that are poised to emerge as key factors of societal collapse in a warming world. The U.S. federal budget also devotes a minuscule percentage to aid for developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming. “It sounds basic, but it’s absolutely key” to avoiding a conflict-ridden future, said Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security.
It’s true that U.S. military reports, intelligence strategies, and training exercises have for decades featured warnings that climate change could exacerbate tensions worldwide. But actually prioritizing climate as a threat multiplier “doesn’t mean just putting it in a defense strategy document,” Femia said. “Nuclear proliferation, international terrorism—we don’t just say those are priorities. We put billions of dollars into them and expend significant political will to prevent them, and it changes what the world looks like.” After 9/11, Femia noted, the United States created the Department of Homeland Security to prevent another attack—and “no one at the time thought that was an unreasonable response.” If we really consider how seriously disruptive and catastrophic climate change could be in the future, shouldn’t we be creating institutions and devoting resources to reflect the assessment of this threat to our security?
Such a strategic overhaul would help the United States “manage the unavoidable,” to borrow a phrase from a paper Femia co-wrote with Caitlin E. Werrell. It’s imperative to start planning for the resource-driven brand of conflict that will arise in the case of catastrophic warming—together with the warming-related conflicts that are already taking shape. (Russia, for example, currently has nearly 50 icebreakers to navigate the melting Arctic, and the United States only has two.) But the United States also has to “avoid the unmanageable,” Femia maintains—that is, actually prevent such conditions for conflict from happening in the first place. And the only way to ensure that is to rapidly decarbonize the global economy. It’s not an either/or choice; both have to be done. It is basic contingency planning.
The good news is that such an approach has the potential to generate positive results beyond the mandate of skirting immediate catastrophe. Research has shown that when two countries cooperate over the shared problem of decreased water access, the partnered countries are then more likely to resolve other, unrelated conflicts. “When you have a common threat, it is natural for nations to ally against that threat,” Femia said. “If we see climate that way, it’s an opportunity for conflict resolution all over the world.”
It’s doable—but it has to happen soon. Femia said the time line could be as little as two years, in an obvious nod to the dire implications of the 2020 presidential election. And though climate change has hardly taken center stage in the campaign news cycle so far, there are signs that this could be the year things start to click. Polling shows the issue rising in importance among Democratic voters. Nearly every viable Democratic candidate has a comprehensive climate change plan. Even though the Democratic National Committee has declined to sponsor a climate debate, two major television networks are holding climate-focused policy forums for the Democratic candidates. And that’s not happening because politicians are finally becoming conscientious citizens of the world—rather, it’s because the effects of climate change and the demands of activists have finally started to drown out the fossil fuel industry’s chorus of denial.
But if McKibben has learned one thing in 30 years of climate advocacy, it’s that the voices demanding change have to be louder—not in the pages of books or magazines, but on the streets and at the polls. “This may be the last moment that comes in time for us to do any good,” he said. “We better make the most of it.”
[Emily Atkin is a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author of the climate newsletter Heated.]