New York has never seemed more like the supposedly future world portrayed in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner than in the last few months—not just the noodle stands tucked in around the towering high-rises, but above all the endless cold, grey drizzle that mocked the persistent hope that winter was about over. So it’s hard not simply to be happy to see the sun again, along with the seasonal pleasures of blooming trees, flowers, people enjoying the streets.
The earth’s swing around its star brought with it, however, a drumroll of scientific warnings about the ongoing deterioration of climatic conditions. In March, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a report, What We Know, expressing in unusually urgent tones the need for immediate action in the face of accelerating climate change. This report amounted to a call for action: “Something that really hasn’t been emphasized,” asserted James McCarthy, Harvard oceanography professor, is “the risk concept—the risk of inaction.”
In April, the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the third of three reports intended to provide a starting point for inter-state negotiations on a climate change treaty set to begin in Paris in December. The most terrifying number in this report is 15—the number of years the I.P.C.C. anticipates we still have to reverse the warming trend and thereby prevent massive disruption of the global ecosystem, with inevitable consequences ranging from forced mass migrations to mass starvation as seas rise and agriculture collapses in one area after another.
A New York Times editorial put the resulting problem in a nutshell: “Governments have an enormous amount of work to do in devising emission reduction strategies by next year. As always, American leadership will be required, meaning leadership from the top.” The “as always” is particularly choice, in view of the U.S.’s derailment of the 1997 Kyoto climate-control treaty. President Obama is supposed to have a benign interest in the future of humanity, but as Bill McKibben wrote last December in Rolling Stone, “By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine.” Obama’s problem is generally described as “political reality,” by which is meant, reality outdoing the most vulgar version of Marxism, economics: the needs of the fossil fuel industries and the centrality of their products to the existing system of production and distribution of goods. As the Times puts it, responding to the problem created by the development of industrial capitalism since the 18th century will require “a huge shift in investment, both private and public, from fossil fuels.” In actuality private capital shows little interest in any investment outside of short-term, high-yield speculation. And public authorities, obsessed with curtailing governments’ infringement of the sphere of private enterprise, are cutting back on everything save the safeguarding of financial investments.
So we can forget about “leadership from the top.” That means it will have to come from the bottom. Luckily, this is a large number of people—99 percent (at the very least). Will we rise to the occasion? The Times editorial, as if recognizing the nonsensicality of waiting for “the top” to act, went on to lament the absence of “public anxiety and bottom-up demand for change,” and so do I. One thing is for sure: nothing that’s likely to go by the name of political realism—electoral politics, public demonstrations of concern, the promotion of carbon taxes and pollution-permit markets—is adequate to the emergency we’re in. Wen Stephenson showed the right spirit in his recent blog post on the Nation’s website:
Fuck Earth Day. […] Let it end here. End the dishonesty, the deception. Stop lying to yourselves, and to your children. Stop pretending that the crisis can be “solved,” that the planet can be “saved,” that business more-or-less as usual—what progressives and environmentalists have been doing for forty-odd years and more—is morally or intellectually tenable.
The overthrow of capitalism as a social system is required no longer just for an end to alienation and inequality but simply for the physical survival of very large numbers of people (and fellow creatures of other species).
Either way, it will be a tense and exciting 15 years.