Confluence and Crossroads: Europe and the fate of the Earth
Bengal, where I was born, is a vast delta where thousands of creeks and rivers flow into each other to form a landscape that is mapped upon a grid of interlocking waterways. Here a confluence of rivers is both a seam and a separation - it joins many shores even as it holds them apart. The Bengali word for confluence is mohana which reflects this ambiguity while also adding to it an element of beguilement that evokes, in my mind, the image of the ‘crossroads’ - a metaphor that is almost universally identified with riddles and paradoxes, confusion and crisis.
A terrain in which the mohana is the dominant feature is inevitably a landscape of ambiguity, where there are no clear lines between river and sea, earth and water, island and mainland. In an imaginative sense it is the opposite of the landscape of Europe, which has come to be powerfully identified with certainty and solidity, with sharply drawn lines and clearly demarcated borders.
The irony however, is that Europe’s neatly-mapped terrain terminates in one of geography’s great mysteries, a matter that has perplexed schoolchildren for centuries: where exactly does the continent’s eastern boundary lie? Where is the line that separates Europe from Asia? It would seem that the location of this border is largely a matter of opinion - for Europe is is not of course, a continent at all, in the geographical sense, but rather an idea, of shifting shape. Nonetheless, in the imagination of the world ‘Europe’ is still a landmass in the first instance – that is to say as a terra continens, or ‘continuous land’, as defined by the geographers of the 16th century.
But this was not how Europe was first imagined. Greece, where the concept was invented, is a region where water plays almost as important a part as it does in Bengal. The ‘Europe’ of the Greeks was defined by bodies of water – among them the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Hellespont (‘Sea of Helle’). These ‘seas’ were precisely ‘mohanas’ in that they were a kind of crossroads that served to both join and separate.
The Europe of the Greeks was thus a point in a triangle that had Africa on one side, and Asia on the other. The Mediterranean was the confluence that joined Europe to those other continents; and the Hellespont was the confluence that lay between Athens and Troy, Greece and Persia. Without these confluences ‘Europe’ would not have been imaginable. Let us recall that the word derives from the legend of ‘Europa’ who was not herself ‘European’: she was a Phoenician princess, who died, like so many modern migrants, while crossing a confluence that was also a crossroads.
But a crossroads is not just a link between points in space. It is also a junction in the axis of time, in the sense that it lies between the beginning of a journey and its end. This is one of the reasons why I want to use the twin images of the ‘confluence’ and the ‘crossroads’ to frame two issues that are of critical importance today, to Europe as well as the rest of the world.
The first of these issues is migration. In recent years, as you well know, migration has come to be associated, in the minds of many Europeans, with a failure of cultural assmilation. This is an important question and to treat it fairly I think it is important to direct our gaze across the confluences that join Europe to other continents. Let us consider the example of the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Europeans who are are now working on other continents: for example, in Dubai, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Mozambique, South Africa, China, India, Thailand and so on. Let us ask: to what degree do these Europeans integrate into their host societies? The reality is that many, if not most of them, make every effort to maintain a strict distance between themselves and the countries they live in. They have their own clubs, they send their children to their own schools, they live in their own neighbourhoods; and very few become conversant with the languages and cultures of the places they inhabit.
To make the matter even clearer, let us turn our gaze back, by a few decades: let us consider European populations living in colonial societies – in India, Indonesia or East Africa for instance. Those circumstances were always characterized by a vast distance between Europeans and the wider population; they lived, in fact, in racially defined zones of exclusion where non-Europeans could only enter as servants. Similar situations persist even today, in the Gulf countries, and in parts of Asia and Africa. Compare this with the situation of Asian or African immigrant in Europe: no matter how sequestered their lives, it would be impossible for them to live in such complete isolation from the worlds around them.
If we look at the issue from this point of view – that is to say, if we start, not by looking at immigants in Europe but by asking what Europeans do when they are working abroad – I think it quickly becomes apparent that most human beings respond in much the same way when they find themselves in an unfamiliar place. They look for what is familiar and reassuring; and if they fail to find it they begin to create it in their homes and neighbourhoods. In that process a strange thing happens. They forget about the travails and disappointments of home – all those things that prompted them to pack their bags in the first place – and they create a new home of the imagination, a place that is imbued with a sentimental glow. This was exactly what happened with European colonialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries: travelers from England and Holland who went to India and Indonesia were often amazed by how rigid and old-fashioned their colonial countrymen were, and how they made fetishes of traditions that had long been forgotten at ‘home’.
In the latter half of the 20th century there was an ironic reversal of this process. European governments, often with the best intentions, responded to immigrants by providing support for what they saw as the most ‘authentic’ elements of their cultures. These policies – let us admit it – frequently had retrograde and damaging effects: the state’s money and support went to the most ‘traditional’ – which were also often the most hidebound - sections of migrant communities. The secularists and progressives were ignored and seen as irrelevant. I have known many migrant feminists, secularists and activists of different kinds, who have been confounded by this approach – embattled within their own communities, they also found themselves marginalized as ‘inauthentic’ by the wider society; sometimes they were even derided with variants of that peculiarly offensive French term deraciné.
The problem lies perhaps in squeezing the lived reality of life into rigid frames like ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘religion’ and so on. These frames set artificial limits on what people actually think and do; worse still, people come to believe in them and they even sometimes reinvent their lives to fit the frame.
Instead of thinking of ‘culture’ why don’t we think about everyday practices - what people actually do? Why don’t we think about the ways they spend their time; what they like to eat; what sort of music they listen to? When we think about questions like these, an odd thing happens. We find that migrants and their hosts are not so different after all; neither of them are stuck within their own ‘cultures’. Both have evolved, unwittingly or not, towards each other. We find that Holland is a country of soccer-playing rijstaeffel eaters who are famous for growing a Turkish flower – the tulip; we find that Britain is a land of cricket-playing, korma-eating reggae singers; Germany becomes a land of doner kabab and Eurovision and skateboarders. Why then should states support mosques and temples rather than football clubs and dance troupes and art exhibitions?
And why, in any case, should that support come from departments of welfare and social services? For many hard-working immigrants, who pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, the whiff of charity is a taint. Why shouldn’t the support come from those arms of government that serve the wider community – that is, ministries of sports, culture and so on? Why shouldn’t state-supported operas or museums or theatres throw their weight behind such projects? For let us make no mistake: the temples of Western ‘high culture’ are among the most rigid and exclusionary institutions on this planet. The lines they draw between ‘ethnic’ and ‘classical’ music, and ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ art are among the most important barriers to dialogue and assimilation. They too need to be muddied in the confluence of modern Europe.
But the issue of cultural assimilation, as it arises in Western and Northern Europe, is not the most pressing problem in regard to immigration in the continent today. The issue takes on a completely different aspect at the edges of the confluence – that is to say in southern Spain, and especially in Greece. As I see it, the violence that is being visited on immigrants in Greece today is just as critical a test for Europe as is the collapse of that country’s economy. There are many in Greece who are strongly opposed to the right-wing groups that are leading the attacks on immigrants: they need the support of other Europeans no less urgently than the country’s bankers.
Greece is sometimes looked upon as an exception. But in my view Greece is not a laggard but an outlier – it is a country that sometimes provides glimpses of things to come. When riots broke out in Greece in 2008 they seemed inexplicable. But in retrospect it is clear that they were the first signs of a wave of unrest that the currents of the Mediterranean would soon carry to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Spain, and even beyond to England and the United States.
This is why Greece is so important: if the ascendancy of the fascist, anti-immigrant right continues its rise in that country, it will have profound consequences for all of Europe. These developments will spread beyond Greece, and the violence that is now being inflicted upon Africans and Asians will soon be turned against other Europeans – the problems that the Roma are facing across Europe is evidence of this. Soon the tide of prejudice will turn also against internal immigrants – southerners in northern cities, East Europeans in the West, and so on.
One thing we can be sure of is that the pressures of migration are only going to intensify in the years ahead, not just in Europe but around the world. This is because the numbers of people displaced by climate change is going to grow very fast. 1 It is essential for Europe to take the lead in creating a template that can be used everywhere for dealing with the mounting crises of displacement that will arise from accelerating disruptions of our planetary environment.
From confluence to crossroads: I come now to a fork in the road that confronts not just Europe but our entire planet. 2
In some ways the dilemmas that face Europe today are unique. But there should be no doubt that in a broader sense the crisis that faces this continent is not Europe’s alone. The whole world is facing a crisis of multiple dimensions, in which economic breakdown, political paralysis, environmental degradation, and a broad cultural and imaginative failure are building up to a ‘catastrophic convergence.’ 3
Even as I say this, I am acutely aware of the historical ironies that are implicit in using apocalyptic words like ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ in a place that is as prosperous and tranquil as Amsterdam; and indeed, at a moment when people around the world are living longer than ever before - and some would even say, better than ever before, at least in that they are able to buy more things and consume more than at any time in the past. It is strange most of all, to be using these words in an era of peace, in the heart of a continent which has so often been convulsed by war – it forces us to recall other critical moments in the not-too-distant past. What for example, was it like to be here in Amsterdam, in August 1914, when this continent was hurtling towards the killing fields of the First World War? What was it like to be here in May 1940, when Germany invaded Holland? To someone who had lived through those times, it might seem a gross exaggeration to use the word ‘crisis’ in relation to what we are faced with today.
But this is indeed what makes the present global crisis so unprecedented and so peculiarly confounding. 4Everything we have learnt from our forbears, everything in human history and pre-history – including, indeed, the instincts of our primate ancestors – teaches us to think of crisis in terms of conflict. But the crisis that we are faced with today is not, in the first instance, a situation of conflict between groups of human beings: this is exactly why it is so intractable - because it has no precedent in history. There is nothing in our past, nothing in our collective memory that equips us to confront this crisis - or even to recognize it as such. 5 This is a crisis that is cumulative and, in a sense, invisible: that is exactly what makes it so easy for people to turn away from it.
One universal aspect of the human experience is that we value the past and try to learn from it. But now we are at a moment in time when we have to unlearn much that we have learnt – a moment in which much of the wisdom of the past looks like folly, and what seems like success is revealed to be failure; a moment in which the remedies that were once seen as solutions are now identifiable as precisely the causes of the catastrophe that we are now confronted with.
What then is the nature of this crisis? Let me put it briefly: the resources of this planet, which we all inhabit, are dwindling very fast, while its atmosphere and climate are changing in ways that may bring an end to civilization as we know it 6. There is now an almost-universal consensus amongst scientists that human activity – that is to say, industrialization and what is often called ‘development’ – have contributed significantly to changes in the world’s climate 7. The record shrinkage in the Arctic ice cap this year is proof that the changes are happening much faster than was anticipated by even the gloomiest forecasts. 8 Yet the political economy – and indeed culture – of our world is moving ever faster in a direction that is certain to lead to catastrophe. 9
We have all, to some greater or lesser degree, been confronted with the effects of climate change in our everyday lives: we have seen them in freakish floods, unaccustomed heat waves, bizarre storms, and most of all, in the drought that has blighted much of the world this year. The facts and realities are so familiar to all of us that I need not go to the trouble of compiling a comprehensive list. But here are a few examples of what is happening: glaciers are shrinking, around the world; permafrost is thawing, greatly accelerating the release of methane into the atmosphere 10; the oceans are warming and their waters are becoming more acidic 11; aminals and plants are migrating, as are human beings 12. According to the United Nations, 300 million people are now affected by climate change every year; in 2007 all of the UN’s appeals for humanitarian aid were linked to climate change, except for one; experts estimate that by 2050 there will be as many as 700 million climate change refugees across the world. 13
We know also that the changes in our climate could be significantly slowed, and possibly even reversed, if the world, as a whole, were to act in concert 14. Yet, we seem to be powerless to move in that direction: the rate of change, far from slowing down, is actually accelerating. 15 Nor is there even a widespread recognition of the crisis in the world’s most powerful country, the United States: what we see instead is the emergence of an industry of climate-change denial, funded and supported by corporate interests who have made their fortunes from environmentally damaging industries 16.
That very significant environmental change lies ahead is now a certainty. When the impacts accumulate no part of the world will be as badly affected by it as my own. 17 Bengal – by which I mean the Indian state of West Bengal as well as the country of Bangladesh – is a flat, low-lying floodplain. It is also one of the most densely populated areas of the world, with two hundred and forty one million people living on it – as many as in all of Germany, France, Spain, Holland and Italy combined. In Bangladesh alone 100 million people are estimated to live within a few metres of sea level. 18 In the event of even a small rise in sea-levels, millions will be adversely affected. Actually the process has already begun. In the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (which are the setting of my novel The Hungry Tide), several islands have been submerged in the last few years, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. 19
These facts stare us in the face. We know also that at a certain point cumulative change will lead to catastrophic change; that is to say, beyond a certain tipping point the climate will ‘flip’ 20, bringing about a series of cascading changes that will doom hundreds of millions of people around the world 21. Scientists and environmental activists have been shouting themselves hoarse for many years, trying to wake us to this threat. Their warnings have become apocalyptic to the point where one of them has actually said that it’s ‘game over for the planet’. 22
Why then is there so little urgency in confronting a catastrophe that has already begun to affect millions of people? Imagine for a moment a contrasting situation: suppose any country, anywhere in the world, were to learn that a neighbouring country were mobilizing for an invasion. The response would be not only instantaneous but perhaps even pre-emptive. The US launched an invasion of Afghanistan within weeks of 9/11. India and Pakistan have mobilized against each other several times in the last couple of decades.
Yet a major change in the planet’s climate is likely to cause much greater damage than most conceivable scenarios of military conflict. And still, far from acting to mitigate the processes of change, the world is moving in a direction that will only accelerate those changes. 23 As the New York Times notes, in a piece on the record melting of Arctic ice in the summer of 2012: ‘some scientists think the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of summer ice as soon as 2020. But governments have not responded to the change with any greater urgency about limiting greenhouse emissions. To the contrary, their main response has been to plan for exploitation of newly accessible minerals in the Arctic, including drilling for more oil.’ 24
How do we describe this process? To my mind it is summed up perfectly by a concept that is often used by climate scientists – ‘amplifying feedback loop’. An example of such a loop is ‘when a microphone is placed too close to a speaker, which amplifies any little sound picked up by the microphone, which then picks up the amplification, which is again picked up by the speaker, until very quickly the noise becomes unbearable.’ 25
In the physical world, the feedback loop that is driving climate change starts with carbon emissions, caused by the steadily rising use of fossil fuels 26. But this loop is actually embedded in another one - a human loop, rooted in history, society and politics. It is the helical pairing of these two loops that is pushing our environment towards a point of no return. The two loops cannot be separated from each other any more than the twin strands of the double helix that makes life possible: they are, so to speak, the paired strings of a helix of disaster.
The strands of these two loops were first joined in 17th century Europe, when fossil fuels, in the form of coal, first came into widespread use. This happened to coincide with the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the emergence of a range of new industries, technologies and institutions, of which perhaps the most important was the nation-state 27. These innovations gave Europeans enormous advantages over the rest of the world and they were soon able to extend their power over the entire globe.
What made this ensemble of elements so peculiarly powerful was its claim of universality: in principle it was available to everyone in the world. The new era of progress and modernity promised limitless possibilities and endless growth to all who opted for it. And nowhere did this ensemble play a more important role than in the newly conquered continents of the Americas and Australia, where an abundance of land and resources reinforced the idea that growth could be truly endless and profit could be sought without limit 28.
The universalism of this ensemble was self-fulfilling: in a very short time the countries that had invented it were the object of envy and aspiration for the whole world. People everywhere wanted to be included in this loop of nationalism, sovereignty, industrialization, individualism, consumerism and ever-expanding economic growth. People may have differed on the routes that were to take them into the loop – communism, socialism, dictatorship, democracy and so on – but the goal was shared by the leaders of every nation. Those who tried to define other goals for humanity, like Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, found few takers for their beliefs: for the most part they were dismissed as cranks and deluded dreamers.
Only after a substantial part of the world’s population had succeeded in acquiring the package did the world at large get an inkling of a truth that many so-called ‘savages’ had understood intuitively: the supposed ‘universalism’ of this path was a hoax, a fraud. This way of life was feasible only so long as it was practised by a few: the toll it exacted from the earth was too great for it be universally adopted.
For a century the West has held up its way of life as the standard of living to be aspired to by everybody. It was assumed that the whole planet would be a happy place if only everyone on it could share a Western lifestyle and participate in Western patterns of consumption. The United States has for decades offered this as a mantra of deliverance for the world at large.
But just for a moment let us consider what it would mean if this actually came about. Britain, for example, has 22 million households and 31 million cars. If India, with 247 million households were to move towards the same ratio of car ownership, then the country would have 345 million cars. If we add China to this picture, as well as Indonesia and the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America then we have a doubling or tripling of the one billion cars that are already on the road around the world. Just to look at the numbers is to know that the planet would asphyxiate long before this pattern of consumption could become ‘universal’.
What can be said about this trajectory except that it is powered by a dangerous delusion?
How then do we break free of this delusion? Where does the solution lie?
The United States is by far the world’s most powerful and important nation. It is also the nation that has contributed the most to our knowledge of climate change. Most of the leaders in this field of study are American; much of the research on the subject has been conducted in American institutions and the country probably has more environmental activists than any other. The government of the USA, at its highest levels, has been aware of these issues long before other parts of the world: President Jimmy Carter was speaking of it in the 1970s 29. What is more, the US has already begun to feel the effects of climate change: large parts of the country are now in a condition of permanent drought, forests are dying in the mountains and many regions have been hit by severe floods.
For all these reasons, the United States should, by right, be taking the lead in addressing climate change. There are indeed a great many people in the United States who are concerned about these and related matters – the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement is evidence of this - but their efforts have been largely offset by a well-funded corporate-sponsored campaign that has been extremely effective in obscuring the issues. This campaign presents a perfect example of how the feedback loop of carbon emissions amplifies and sustains itself at a political and cultural level. Over the last twenty years many factors - corporate money, an economy founded on fossil fuels, a political system that is open to manipulation by lobbyists 30, a powerful industry of persuasion, an ethos of nationalist ‘exceptionalism’; a culture that glorifies profit-seeking and regards regulation with suspicion – have come together to form a tornado-like spiral that has effectively swept aside the country's once-powerful environmental movement. At a time when the notions of the collective interest and the public good are more necessary than ever before, these values are increasingly imperiled in the world’s most important country 31.
Given these circumstances, is it possible, realistically, to imagine that the America of today might elect a leader who would have the courage to tell the world that the era of continuous economic growth will have to end soon, one way or another – either at the behest of human beings or of the planet they inhabit?
The answer is self-evidently no.
Inasmuch as there is any plan for the future in the US, it would seem that some kind of silent consensus has been reached that the country will adopt a ‘lifeboat’ approach to climate change – that is to say it will seal its borders, prepare militarily, and tackle problems as they arise, trusting that its highly developed economy and infrastructure will see it through. As for the rest of the world it will be up to everyone to sink or swim according to their abilities.
As critics have pointed out, such a course will of course have genocidal effects, resulting in the death of great numbers of people around the globe 32. Nor will America’s own population be unaffected: a large part of the 47% of the population that Mitch Romney describes as ‘moochers’ will also find no place on the lifeboat.
Where else then are we to look for leadership on this issue? Could it perhaps come from newly-emergent nations like India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa? These countries certainly have much to lose in the sense that many of the people who are most vulnerable to climate change live in them. Yet to hope that they will take the lead on this issue is both unrealistic and unjust. The emergent powers are all striving to raise the living standards of their own people; they are all motivated, to a greater or lesser degree, by a desire to ‘catch up’ with the West, in all things, including carbon emissions 33. Even though two of them, China and Inda, are already among the world’s top three polluters, it is still true that at this point in time, their per capita contribution to the net stock of carbon in the atmosphere is small 34.
The rapid increase of emissions from these countries thus has a dual aspect: in one sense it represents a new level of intensification in the globe’s collective rush towards disaster 35. But in another sense it is also a challenge, a clear declaration that if there is to be any cutting back, if sacrifices are to be made, then they must come, in the first instance, from the West, which has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the world’s resources. 36 In other words the emergent countries have taken the stand that history has absolved them of taking the lead in this matter: they are rather looking to be led – not by coercion, but by example.
Where then can leadership on climate change come from? It is clear that it will come neither from the United States nor from 'emergent nations' like India, China and Brazil. This leaves only one other possibility: Europe. If there is a silver lining in this grim scenario, it is that Europe happens to have arrived at a point where it is singularly well-suited to take the lead. Here are the reasons why:
Firstly, if there was ever a transnational issue then it is climate change – the weather has no respect for national boundaries and borders. 37 Yet in the face of this dire crisis, many nations, especially the larger and most powerful ones, are pursuing their national interests ever more aggressively. Nationalism is indeed one of the most pernicious threads in the helix of disaster.
Europe, where nationalism was born, and which has endured its worst excesses, is the only part of the world that has succeeded in articulating and acting upon a vision of political organization that goes beyond the nation-state. Its progress down that path has been slow and fitful, it is true, but I think deep down Europeans understand and appreciate the world-historical significance of the project they have embarked upon (the recent Dutch elections are proof of this). A few other parts of the world have also moved towards transnational co-operation – South-East Asia and the Andean countries are two examples. If these pockets of post-nationalism could join hands they could have a significant impact.
Secondly, experience shows us that if climate change is to be tackled effectively then it will require stringent regulation and oversight by national and transnational bodies. That the issue has burst upon us at a time when much of the world is in thrall to an ideology of laissez-faire is but another aspect of the catastrophic convergence that we are now faced with. In the United States, in India, and in many other countries the domain of the public interest has narrowed to a sliver, and corporations have effectively captured the machinery of government, including regulatory bodies.
In this too Europe is an exception: the public good continues to be a cherished ideal, and regulatory oversight is accepted to be one of the most important functions of government. This perhaps is why corporations have not been able to create an industry of climate denial in Europe. As a result the European public is far better informed about climate change than people elsewhere.
Thirdly, climate change cannot be addressed without a historical reckoning. We are, as I have said, at a moment when what once seemed like success is revealed to be folly; when old remedies are seen to be the causes of the disease. To move ahead will require a massive change of expectations amongst people. Unfortunately, in most countries around the world, this is politically speaking, an impossible message to communicate. In China and Russia, political stability is premised on the delivery of rising standards of living; in the USA, India and many other democracies, elections depend on stoking expectations. This is yet another thread in the helix of disaster.
Here again Europe holds the only possibility of hope. Europe knows what it means to disavow the past: this was one of the impulses that led to the founding of the European Union. But even here, it will not be easy to educate people into a realistic awareness of what lies ahead - but this is one place where it could succeed and if it does it will set an example for the world. 38
Fourthly, most European countries still continue to provide a high level of basic education. This is in marked contrast to the United States and Canada, where, by some reckonings more than 40 per cent of the population is functionally illiterate 39. For this reason too, the public culture of Europe has not yet retreated into a world of celebrity-worship, spectacle and fantasy, as is the case in most English-speaking countries and in India. Europe is one (perhaps the only) part of the world where the populace at large could understand the nature of the changes that confront us.
Finally, Europe is equipped to lead on this issue because it is the one part of the world that has already undertaken large-scale preparations for climate change. No country is a better example of this than Holland. As a non-European it is with awe and envy that I follow reports on the preparations that Holland has already made for dealing with sea level rise – the sea gates, the floating dwellings that have been made available to people; the plans for evacuating a third of the country, and so on 40.
The project of Europe has been flawed in many ways: it was excessively bureaucratic; it placed the interests of business above those of people; it was half-hearted in some respects and over-reached in others. But let us not forget Europe’s successes. Along with Japan, it was Europe that took the lead in the negotiations for Kyoto; Europe has also tried in good faith to find a way towards an equitable solution to the problem of climate change. 41 Europe’s credibility on this issue is such that it is in a position to lead, not as it has in the past, by dominance and coercion, but by example.
Through most of the journey that has brought the world to this fork in the road, Europe has led the way. In doing so it has created an immense continent of carbon in the atmosphere, a dark shadow wholly out of proportion to its size. Now that we have arrived at this turn in the road it is clear that what lies ahead is not a fork but an unbridgeable, steadily-growing chasm. We can only hope that Europe will now take the lead once again, in showing us how best to turn back.
September 21, 2012
1 For more on this see The Age of Consequences: The Foreign policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change, by Kurt Campbell et al, published by the Center for New American Security, 2007.
2 I am echoing the phrasing of climate scientist James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth of Our Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury (references are to the Kindle edition), ‘humanity has reached a fork in the road’, loc. 2202.
3 The phrase is Christian Parenti’s, see Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Nation Books, NY, (references are to the Kindle edn.) p. 7. What he means by it is not that several disasters happen simultaneously, but rather ‘that problems compound and amplify each other, one expressing itself through another.’ Similarly Bill McKibben, writes of ‘a crescendo of cascading consequences’ in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Times Books, 2010, p. 10 (references are to the Kindle edn).
5The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty analyses some of the challenges that climate change poses to traditional historical thinking in his article The Climate of History: Four Theses, Critical Inquiry, 35, pp. 197-222, 2009.
6 See Kolbert, Elizabeth: Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (references are to the Kindle edition), Chapter 10: ‘It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.’
7 See James Hansen, op. cit. ‘human made climate forcings are now in total dominance over natural forcings’, (loc. 994), and also. Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit., Chapter 1: ‘The American Geophysical Union, one of the nation’s largest and most respected scientific organizations, decided in 2003 that the matter had been settled. At the group’s annual meeting that year, it issued a consensus statement declaring, “Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures.”’ Also Chapter 2: ‘Arrhenius [1859-1927; Nobel, chemistry, 1903] recognized that industrialization and climate change were intimately related, and that the consumption of fossil fuels must, over time, lead to warming’; and Chapter 3, where she quotes Robert Corell, ‘an American oceanographer and former assistant director at the National Science Foundation’, who says of a meeting of scientists: ‘”Let’s say that there’s three hundred people in this room... I don’t think you’ll find five who would say that global warming is just a natural process.”’
9 Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit., Chapter 1. Kolbert quotes the report of the 1979 Charney panel: ‘”We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.” Since then ‘carbon-dioxide emissions have continued to increase, from five billion to seven billion metric tons a year...’
14 Measures for the reduction of carbon emissions (and thus the rate of global warming) are described in Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit. Chapter 8 & Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Planet and What it Means for Life on Earth, Atlantic Monthly Press (references are to the Kindle edn.) pp. 267 – 283. However many changes are now already irreversible: see Age of Consequences, p. 55.
16 Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit, Chapter 8, names some of the lobbying groups such as the ‘Global Climate Coalition, a group that was sponsored by, among others, Chevron, Exxon, Ford, General Motors, Mobil, Shell, and Texaco...’ See also Tim Flannery, op. cit., p. 239. For more on this group see Tim Flannery, op. cit., p. 242.
17 See Climate Change and International Security (Paper from the High Representative and the European Commission to the European Council, 14th March, 2008): ‘Sea-level rise may threaten the habitat of millions of people as 40% of Asia’s population (almost 2 billion) lives within 60 km from the coastline,’ (p. 6); & Christian Parenti op. cit., ‘Climate scientists predict cataclysmic physical changes for the subcontinent in the near future’, p. 138. Asian mega-cities like Kolkata, Bangkok and Manila will be particularly hard hit. The World Bank’s 2010 report Climate Risks and Adaptation in Asian Coastal Megacities (provides a detailed analysis of the probable climate change impacts on Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Kolkata. Saskia Sassen’s essay Cities are at the Center of our Environmental Future (S.A.P.I.E.N.S., Vol 2, No. 3 ‘Cities and Climate Change’, 2009) also examines some of the possible impacts including intensifying violence.
20Cf. Age of Consequences pp.83-4; & Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit., Chapter 1. Kolbert quotes a scientist: “You can tip it [the climate system] and then you’ll just go back...And then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down.”’ Also Chapter 3: ‘Where once the system was thought to change, as it were, only glacially, now it is known to be capable of sudden and unpredictable reversals. One such reversal, called the Younger Dryas... took place roughly 12,800 years ago. At that point, the earth, which had been warming rapidly, was plunged back into ice age conditions’; and ‘The record preserved in the Greenland ice sheets shows that our own relatively static experience of climate is actually what is exceptional.’
25 James Hansen, op. cit., preface. A climate related example: ‘when Earth becomes warmer, ice and snow tend to melt. Ice and snow have high reflectivity, or “albedo” (literally, “whiteness”), reflecting back to space most of the sunlight that hits them. Land and ocean, on the other hand, are dark, absorbing most of the sunlight that strikes them. So if ice and snow melt, Earth absorbs more sunlight, which is a “positive” (amplifying) feedback’ (loc. 878).
26 See James Hansen, op. cit., Chapter 8 (‘Target Carbon Dioxide’), & Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit.; Chapter 4: ‘Since preindustrial times, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by roughly a third, from 280 to 378 parts per million. During the same period, the concentration of methane has more than doubled, from .78 to 176 parts per million.’
27 See Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit, Chapter 10: ‘According to Crutzen, the Anthropocene began all the way back in the 1780s, the decade in which James Watt perfected his steam engine. Arrhenius undertook his pen and paper calculations in the 1890s.’
28 This is how Tim Flannery puts it: ‘America and Australia were created on the frontier, and the citizens of both nations hold deep beliefs about the benefits of endless growth and expansion’, p. 237.
29 Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit., Chapter 1: ‘The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming in 1979... (T)he results ... were alarming enough that President Jimmy Carter called on the Academy to investigate.’
30 See James Hansen, op. cit, ‘The role of money in our capitals is the biggest problem for democracy and for the planet’ (loc. 1805); & Tim Flannery: ‘Coal miners donated $20 million to the Republican cause in 2000 and have added $21 million since, ensuring that industry access to Vice President Cheney and his secret energy committee is unparalleled’, p. 241.
31 Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit. Chapter 8, writes: ‘the United States, having failed to defeat Kyoto, may be in the process of doing something even more damaging: ruining the chances of reaching a post-Kyoto agreement.’ This judgement was proved correct at Copenhagen.
32 See Christian Parenti on the politics of the ‘lifeboat’, op. cit., p. 10, and on ‘climate fascism’, p. 11. Tim Flannery writes, in reference to the ‘adaptation’ model of coping with climate change, favoured by some in the US: ‘Because of the differing capacities of rich and poor, and of human versus natural systems, to adapt to climate change, some in the environment movement are characterizing adaptation as having acquired “a genocidal meaning”’, p. 207.
34 These arguments have been recognized as well-founded by European nations (although not the US and Australia). Cf Elizabeth Kolbert, op. cit., Chapter 8: ‘Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment secretary, described the European outlook to me as follows: “We cannot say, ‘Well, we have our wealth, based on the use of fossil fuels for the last three hundred years, and, now that your countries are growing, you may not grow at this rate, because we have a climate change problem.”’
36 As James Hansen writes: ‘On a per capita basis, the UK is more responsible for the climate problem than any other nation. That may be surprising, given that the U.K. produces less than 2 per cent of global fossil fuel emissions today – the United States and China each burn more than ten times as much fossil fuels. But climate change is caused by cumulative historical emissions. The fraction of carbon dioxide emissions remaining in the air today is much less for older emissions than for recent emissions, due to carbon uptake by the ocean and biosphere. But the greater diminishment of older emissions is compensated by the fact that they have had more time to affect climate. The result is that the U.K., United States, and Germany, in that order, are the three countries most responsible, per capita, for cumulative emissions and climate change...’ (loc 3199).
37 See, for example, Europe in the World: Political Choices for Security and Prosperity, by Tim Burke and Nick Mabey, (published by Third Generation Environmentalism, London, 2006): ‘The biggest global problems that will dominate the 21st century, from terrorism to climate change, from mass migration to organized crime, cannot be solved by nations acting alone. They require a pooling of sovereignty. Europe is the world’s most sustained and far-reaching experiment in the practical and political realities of sharing sovereignty.’
38 The European Union’s documents on climate change, such as Climate Change and International Security and Europe in the World are salutary in their realistic approach to the issues, and also in that they do not envisage planning for climate change as a principally military exercise.
39 Cf. Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Nation Books (references are to the Kindle edn.), ‘A public that can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction is left to interpret reality through illusion’ (p. 50). However, as the authors of Europe in the World point out, Europe has ‘lost its way’ on this issue as on some others.
40 Dutch assessments of and preparations for climate change impacts on the country are extensively detailed in the report of the Deltacommisie 2008: Working Together with Water: A living land builds for its future, findings of the Deltacommissie 2008. Elizabeth Kolbert also provides an excellent account of these preparations: op. cit. Chapter 6.