Conceptual collage illustration of woman, rising temperatures and smoke stack.
Kelsey Niziolek

Climate Change

Lessons from a genocide can prepare humanity for climate apocalypse

The bad news is that our slow-motion ecological catastrophe demands new ways of thinking. The good news? We’ve faced the end of the world before.

Apr 24, 2019
Conceptual collage illustration of woman, rising temperatures and smoke stack.
Kelsey Niziolek

The fantasy version of apocalypse always begins with the longawaited event—a missile launch, escaped virus, zombie outbreak—and moves swiftly through collapse into a new, steady state. Something happens, and the morning after you’re pushing a squeaking shopping cart down a highway littered with abandoned Teslas, sawed-off shotgun at the ready. The event is key: it’s a baptism, a fiery sword separating past and present, the origin story of Future You.

Catastrophic global climate change, however, is not an event at all, and we’re not waiting for it. We’re living it right now. In August 2018, in a summer of forest fires and shattered heat records, the strongest, oldest ice in the Arctic Sea broke up for the first time on record, presaging the final throes of the Arctic death spiral.

In September 2018, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, gave a speech warning: “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.” The months following saw the US government crippled by a fight over whether to build a wall on the southern border to keep out climate change refugees, news that greenhouse-gas emissions have not decreased but in fact have accelerated upward, and a populist revolt in France sparked by opposition to a gas tax.

In the first weeks of 2019, new scientific reports appeared suggesting that we may have passed the point of no return. One found that particulate aerosols may be having twice the cooling effect previously estimated, meaning that more global warming would be happening were it not being tamped down by air pollution—and that curbing emissions would be likely to cause a spike in short-term warming. Another argues that the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet may have crossed a tipping point and is expected to contribute substantially to sea-level rise this century. Another shows that Antarctica is losing six times more ice mass annually than it was 40 years ago. Yet another announced the discovery of a Manhattan-size cavity in Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, further evidence of the ongoing catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise sea levels by 2.5 meters or more within a century.

Another report describes how extreme climate events such as droughts and heat waves decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that soil can absorb by as much as half, meaning that not only does global warming increase extreme weather, but extreme weather increases global warming. Yet another shows significant warming in Arctic permafrost, with Siberian permafrost having warmed almost a full degree Celsius between 2007 and 2016. That portends increasing Arctic methane emissions from the decay of thawing organic matter, a prediction borne out by another study showing a rapid increase in atmospheric methane levels from 2014 to 2017.

This growth in atmospheric methane is so strong that it would effectively nullify commitments made in the Paris climate agreement: “Thus even if anthropogenic CO2 emissions are successfully constrained,” says one paper, “the unexpected and sustained current rise in methane may so greatly overwhelm all progress from other reduction efforts that the Paris Agreement will fail.” Yet another study shows that early spring rains in the Arctic brought on by global warming increase methane emissions from permafrost by 30%.

Meanwhile, the oceans are warming 40% faster than previously thought, according to recent research. Given current trajectories of carbon emissions and feedback dynamics, it is likely that mean global surface temperatures will be between 2 °C and 3 °C higher than preindustrial levels by 2050, which may well push Earth’s global climate trajectory beyond the point where human action could stabilize it. A recent synthesis study argues that even 1.5 °C warming has at least a possibility of initiating “a cascade of feedbacks [that] could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.” Even more dismaying, a 2017 study argues that what many (including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) identify as the “preindustrial baseline” for global warming starts too late and doesn’t take into account factors such as early industrial emissions. This means we should probably add at least another 0.2 °C to measurements of current anthropogenic global warming over preindustrial norms, just to be on the safe side—which suggests, depending on how you measure it, that we may be approaching that 1.5 °C redline not in 20 years but in 10, or five, or three.

Kelsey Niziolek

A new dark age

Imagine 2050. I’ll be 72 years old. My daughter will turn 33. Wide swaths of now-inhabited coastlines and equatorial jungles and deserts will likely be uninhabitable, either underwater or too hot for humans to live in. People all around the world will likely have seen countless local and regional climate disasters, lived through major global economic shocks and catastrophic crop failures, and become used to random acts of violence as angry and sometimes starving citizens act out against increasingly repressive governments struggling to maintain control. In response to all this political, environmental, and economic instability, anxious populations will likely have traded their freedom in exchange for promises of safety, while security forces built more walls and nations began to fight over once-abundant resources like potable water.

If the political and social ramifications of global warming are anything like what happened during the last major climate fluctuation, the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th century, then we should expect a similarly horrific succession of famines, plagues, and wars. Historian Geoffrey Parker estimates that second-order effects of 1 °C global cooling that started around 1650 may have wiped out a third of the human population. Records from parts of China, Poland, Belarus, and Germany indicate losses of more than 50%.

In all likelihood, what’s coming will be worse. According to Lloyd’s of London, which in 2015 commissioned a study on food security, any single significant shock to the global food system “would be expected to generate major economic and political impacts.” But as Earth’s climate transforms into an environment human civilization has never before witnessed, we should realistically expect not one shock but an unending series of them. And this is presuming that global warming continues only at current rates, rather than accelerating nonlinearly as a result of the cascading feedbacks previously mentioned.

All of this will happen day by day, month by month, year by year. There will certainly be “events,” like the events we’ve seen in the past decade—heat waves, massively destructive hurricanes, the slowdown in vital Atlantic Ocean currents, and political events connected to climate change, such as the Syrian civil war, the Mediterranean refugee crisis, France’s gilets jaunes riots, and so on—but barring nuclear war, we are unlikely to see any one global “Event” that will mark the transition we’re waiting for, make climate change “real,” and force us to change our ways.

The next 30 years are likely, instead, to resemble the slow disaster of the present: we will get used to each new shock, each new brutality, each “new normal,” until one day we look up from our screens to find ourselves in a new dark age—unless, of course, we’re already there.

This was not the apocalypse I grew up with. It’s not an apocalypse you can prep for, hack your way out of, or hide from. It’s not an apocalypse with a beginning and an end, after which survivors can rebuild. Indeed, it’s not an “Event” at all, but a new world, a new geological era in Earth’s history, in which this planet will not necessarily be hospitable to the bipedal primate we call Homo sapiens. The planet is approaching, or already crossing, several key thresholds, beyond which the conditions that have fostered human life for the past 10,000 years no longer hold.

This is not our future, but our present: a time of transformation and strife beyond which it is difficult to see a clear path. Even in the very best case—a swift, radical, wholesale transformation of the energy system upon which the global economy depends (which would entail a complete reorganization of human collective life), coupled with massive investment in carbon capture technology, all occurring under the aegis of unprecedented global cooperation—the stressors and thresholds we confront will continue to put immense pressures on a growing human population.

Goodbye, good life

Global warming cannot be properly understood or addressed in isolation. Even if we somehow “solved” geopolitics, war, and economic inequality in order to rebuild our global energy system, we would still need to address the ongoing collapse of the biosphere, the carcinogenic toxins we’ve spread across the world, ocean acidification, imminent crises in industrial agriculture, and overpopulation. There is no realistic plan for global-warming mitigation, for instance, that doesn’t include some kind of control on population growth—which means what exactly? Education and birth control seem reasonable enough, but then? A global one-child policy? Mandatory abortions? Euthanasia? It is easy to see how complex and contentious the problem swiftly becomes. What’s more, Earth’s climate is not a thermostat. There is little reason to suppose that we can dump a bunch of carbon into the atmosphere, radically shock the entire global climate system, and then pause it like a video game.

It is psychologically, philosophically, and politically difficult to come to terms with our situation. The rational mind quails before such an apocalypse. We have taken a fateful leap into a new world, and the conceptual and cultural frameworks we have developed to make sense of human existence over the past 200 years seem wholly inadequate for coping with this transition, much less for helping us adapt to life on a hot and chaotic planet.

Our lives are built around concepts and values that are existentially threatened by a stark dilemma: either we radically transform human collective life by abandoning the use of fossil fuels or, more likely, climate change will bring about the end of global fossil-fueled capitalist civilization. Revolution or collapse—in either case, the good life as we know it is no longer viable. Consider everything we take for granted: perpetual economic growth; endless technological and moral progress; a global marketplace capable of swiftly satisfying a plethora of human desires; easy travel over vast distances; regular trips to foreign countries; year-round agricultural plenty; an abundance of synthetic materials for making cheap, high-quality consumer goods; air-conditioned environments; wilderness preserved for human appreciation; vacations at the beach; vacations in the mountains; skiing; morning coffee; a glass of wine at night; better lives for our children; safety from natural disasters; abundant clean water; private ownership of houses and cars and land; a self that acquires meaning through the accumulation of varied experiences, objects, and feelings; human freedom understood as being able to choose where to live, whom to love, who you are, and what you believe; the belief in a stable climate backdrop against which to play out our human dramas. None of this is sustainable the way we do it now.

Climate change is happening—that much is clear. But the problem remains beyond our grasp, and any realistic solution seems unimaginable within our current conceptual framework. Although the situation is dire, overwhelming, intractable, and unprecedented in scale, however, it is not without historical analogues. This is not the first time a group of humans has had to deal with the failure of their conceptual framework for navigating reality. This is not the first time the world has ended. 

When cultures collapse

Poets, thinkers, and scholars have pondered cultural catastrophe again and again. The ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of humans surviving civilizational collapse caused by ecological transformation: Gilgamesh “brought back wisdom from before the flood.” Virgil’s Aeneid tells of not only the fall of Troy but also the survival of the Trojans. Several books of the Torah tell how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Jewish people, destroyed their temple, and exiled them. That story provided later generations with a powerful model of cultural endurance.

One historical analogy stands out with particular force: the European conquest and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Here, truly, a world ended. Many worlds, in fact. Each civilization, each tribe, lived within its own sense of reality—yet all these peoples saw their lifeworlds destroyed and were forced to struggle for cultural continuity beyond mere survival, a struggle that the Anishinaabe poet Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance.”

The philosopher Jonathan Lear has thought deeply about this problem in his book Radical Hope. He considers the case of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Apsáalooke people, also known as the Crow tribe.

Plenty Coups guided the Crow through the forced transition from life as nomadic warrior-hunters to peaceful, sedentary ranchers and farmers. This transition involved a harrowing loss of meaning, yet Plenty Coups was able to articulate a meaningful and even hopeful way forward.

The experience of Chief Plenty Coups and the Crow, as Lear explains, is that after the coming of the white man and the passing of the buffalo, “nothing happened.” That is, when the Crow way of life collapsed, the Crow people could no longer find meaning for individual acts and occurrences within a rich web of shared signification, values, and goals. The Crow had survived, but they did not live as Crow had lived. In a strong sense, occurrences no longer had any meaning at all—which is to say there was no longer any such thing as an “event.” The Crow faced the destruction of their conceptual reality.

Despite this, Plenty Coups offered his people a vision of a future in which meaning and events might once again become possible. He framed his vision through a dream he’d had of the disappearance of the buffalo. Within the dream, a chickadee teaches Plenty Coups to listen carefully, learn from his enemies, and “learn to avoid disaster by the experiences of others.”

“The traditional forms of living a good life were going to be destroyed,” writes Lear. “But there was spiritual backing for the thought that new good forms of living would arise for the Crow, if only they would adhere to the virtues of the chickadee.”

Today the Crow—just like the Sioux, the Navajo, the Potawatomi, and numerous other native peoples— live in communities that struggle with poverty, suicide, and unemployment. But these communities are also home to poets, historians, singers, dancers, and thinkers committed to indigenous cultural flourishing. The point here is not to glamorize indigenous closeness to “nature,” or to indulge a naive longing for lost hunter-warrior values, but to ask what we might learn from courageous and intelligent people who survived cultural and ecological catastrophe.

Kelsey Niziolek

We must go on

Like Plenty Coups, we face the destruction of our conceptual reality. Catastrophic levels of global warming are practically inevitable at this point, and one way or another this will bring about the end of life as we know it.

So we have to confront two distinct challenges. The first is whether we might curtail the worst possibilities of climate change and stave off human extinction by limiting greenhouse-gas emissions and decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The second is whether we will be able to transition to a new way of life in the world we’ve made. Meeting the latter challenge demands mourning what we have already lost, learning from history, finding a realistic way forward, and committing to an idea of human flourishing beyond any hope of knowing what form that flourishing will take. “This is a daunting form of commitment,” Lear writes, for it is a commitment “to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp what it is.”

It is not clear that we moderns possess the psychological and spiritual resources to meet this challenge. Coming to terms with the situation as it stands has already proved the struggle of a generation, and the outcome still remains obscure. Successfully answering this existential challenge may not even matter at all unless we immediately see substantial reductions in global carbon emissions: recent research suggests that at atmospheric carbon dioxide levels around 1,200 parts per million, which we are on track to hit sometime in the next century, changes in atmospheric turbulence may dissipate clouds that reflect sunlight from the subtropics, adding as much as 8 °C warming on top of the more than 4 °C warming already expected by that point. That much warming, that quickly—12 °C within a hundred years—would be such an abrupt and radical environmental shift that it’s difficult to imagine a large, warm-blooded mammalian apex predator like Homo sapiens surviving in significant numbers. Such a crisis could create a population bottleneck like other, prehistoric bottlenecks, as many billions of people die, or it could mean the end of our species. There’s no real way to know what will happen except by looking at roughly similar catastrophes in the past, which have left the Earth a graveyard of failed species. We burn some of them to drive our cars.

Nevertheless, the fact that our situation offers no good prospects does not absolve us of the obligation to find a way forward. Our apocalypse is happening day by day, and our greatest challenge is learning to live with this truth while remaining committed to some as-yet-unimaginable form of future human flourishing—to live with radical hope. Despite decades of failure, a disheartening track record, ongoing paralysis, a social order geared toward consumption and distraction, and the strong possibility that our great-grandchildren may be the last generation of humans ever to live on planet Earth, we must go on. We have no choice.