One of the games I play is called Reading History Forward.
As a writer of histories, I am used to anchoring accounts of an event or series of events to an occurrence that precedes their manifestation but foreshadows the story to come and embodies the forces that will drive it. A writer about the Civil War, for example, might open with the Dred Scott decision during the preceding decade, long before the shooting started, as the moment when the Civil War became inevitable and the war’s narrative truly begins. Reading History Forward involves trying to identify such signals of the world to come—the more obscure, the better—as they rush past us in the real time present tense and then project those forward, framing windows into the future and extrapolating the grist of events to come.
Yesterday, I played a round of Reading History Forward after stumbling over a short item in a British newspaper based on a press release from the International Energy Agency. I was waiting for my friend Lynn to come by to drop off some research material.
The British headline read, “Worst Ever Carbon Emissions Leave Climate on the Brink.” According to the IEA, charged by its 28 member nations with monitoring world energy use and supplies, “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach.” The Agency identified holding the coming temperature rise to 2 degrees C as the only way to avoid triggering a cycle of “dangerous climate change” that will disrupt and displace billions of people. To contain that rise, “the IEA has calculated that… annual energy related emissions should be no more than 32 gigatonnes (of Carbon Dioxide) by 2020. If this year’s emissions rise by as much as they did in 2010, that limit will be exceeded nine years ahead of schedule, making it all but impossible to hold warming to a manageable [level].”
When I eerily cast a line forward from that article towards the likely 4 degree rise by 2100, my knees got a little weak:
Shorelines are inundated. Food production has plummeted. Almost every significant collection of ice has melted and drought is endemic in broad swatches of what was once temperate geography. Precipitation all but disappears from certain latitudes. Disorder abounds. Nations war over access to resources, intent on protecting and enlarging whatever relative advantages they can gain. Authoritarianism is rampant, as is terror among the earth’s drastically shrinking population. Hundreds of millions of refugees are generated, far exceeding anyone’s capacity to minister to them. Multiple disease epidemics are under way. Natural disasters are legion and far more extreme. Survival itself is the issue for the human species, while the number of other species has been reduced to a mere fraction of what had existed a century earlier.
Lynn showed up when those pictures were still flashing in my head. I told her what I’d been up to and she had her typical response.
“Play all you want,” she warned. “But don’t jump on the bandwagon when you do. It doesn’t have to turn out this way, whatever the experts say. That story you found could also be the marker for when the humans got it, when a massive epiphany led to a radical change in direction and seeming wholesale disaster was averted in favor of far lesser disasters or maybe even no disaster at all. The people who wrote that article account for that possibility, even if it’s slim. Why don’t you write about what we have to do to realize that underdog option instead of filming disaster movies in your head?”
So I spent the afternoon after Lynn left generating a list of four radical actions that will allow us to avoid the worst. All four will be required if we are to stop ourselves before reaching the tipping point for climate Armageddon. I call them The Two Percent Solution:
1. Wage War on Carbon. As far as warming goes, burning carbon is by far the worst activity in which humankind is currently engaged. Abolition of that practice has to be our first priority, even if that involves the sacrifice of a number of our sacred cows along the way. Our goal has to be reducing the bond of energy and carbon to as close to zero as we can, as soon as we can. In the current emissions emergency that means abandoning coal and petroleum while maximizing our investment in all other energy technologies that do not include CO2 among their byproducts.
2. Retrofit and Redesign the Pattern of Human Habitation. The time to either abandon or protect the urban clusters along our coasts is now rather than later. Anticipating disaster is the first step to avoiding it. Sea walls need to be built and populations resettled. And while this requires a massive commitment, it is doable with the lead time we currently have. If we wait until the changes wrought by global warming are all over us, however, the only option is to be victims and try to mitigate our suffering as best we can.
3. Rewrite Our Lifestyle. Accomplishing steps 1 and 2 will require a concentration of resources, attention, and energy, much of which is currently given over to non essential consumption. Cutting such consumption in half will be essential. That means living with less but it doesn’t have to mean diminishing the quality of our lives. Adopting a kind of selfless discipline that is, for most, a foreign practice is imperative.
4. Act as a Species. None of the above can be accomplished without thinking and behaving as humans first, nations second or less. Where the issue of climate is concerned, there is only one sovereignty. All peoples have to subscribe to that concept if we’re to contain our rise to 2 degrees C and keep our dilemma manageable.
That is, of course, a daunting list. Obviously only a monumental Urgency will be sufficient to carry it forward. But then again, the stakes involved are the biggest for which humankind has ever played.