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Environment

Earth’s Changing Climate

We are facing a fundamental revision of the entire Earth-system, a dramatic shift away from the state it had inhabited since long before the dawn of human civilisation toward a new and unknown state for the future.

This is the first article in a series about the Earth-system – how our planet has shaped us as human beings, and how we, in turn, have shaped it. Read the series: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6.

If it seems like you’re hearing a lot more stories about heatwaves, fires, and floods than you remember hearing ten years ago, it’s not your imagination. June 2023 alone saw extreme heat break over Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that killed scores of people. Violent floods pummelled parts of north India in July and August, and Sikkim in October, drowning dozens of people, displacing untold numbers, causing landslides, destroying crops, homes, and infrastructure like roads and bridges. Parts of Delhi too were flooded as the Yamuna rose to its highest level in 45 years. And these are only a sample of stories from India.

During 2023, heatwaves killed hundreds in Mexico and the United States alone; heatwaves also struck Europe, China, Laos, and Thailand. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced by torrential flooding and wildfires in dozens of cities across the United States, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, Spain, China, Japan, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Greece, Libya—to name a few. This is to say nothing of the extensive damage to crops from heat, flood, fire, drought, and extreme winds across the world. As has frequently happened in recent years, 2023 was again declared the hottest year ever measured across the globe. But even more than that, 2023 was likely the hottest in at least a hundred and twenty-five thousand years. Yes, the situation is that far beyond what we consider ‘normal.’

As crazy as the weather has been, we are sure to see worse in the years ahead. This is because the frequency, extent, and intensity of such severe weather is increasing due to global warming caused by the accumulation of excess greenhouse gasses (GHGs) – like carbon dioxide and methane – that trap heat in the atmosphere. These excess GHGs result directly from industrial and other economic activities linked to burning fossil fuels and destroying forests and wetlands. The excess heat they trap is causing the ice to rapidly melt away from the Arctic Ocean and Greenland, exposing dark waters and rock surfaces that directly absorb even more solar radiation; this then drives its own contribution to further warming – and thus further melting – in what’s called an amplifying feedback loop, one of several in the climate system. Over the coming decades, the lists of nations and cities hit by floods will grow longer, the heatwave death tolls more harrowing, the crop losses much higher. This much we already know will happen, as the globe continues to warm.

Many scientists, environmentalists, and politicians have understood for decades that warming the world by burning fossil fuels would result in these kinds of catastrophes. For decades, they’ve been holding scientific and policy talks to address the problem. The leading group of talkers is called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), convened by the United Nations. Their twenty-eighth annual meeting – or COP28 – was hosted by Dubai in December 2023.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Every few years, the IPCC publishes major technical reports detailing the state of global GHG emissions, with a strong focus on carbon-dioxide, describing how this might affect the climate, different ecosystems, and civilisational infrastructures now and in the future. They outline a range of theoretical scenarios to guide governments and other institutions as they set targets to reduce fossil fuel burning, forest and wetland degradation, and other activities that directly contribute to the accumulation of atmospheric GHGs. They’ve determined, among other things, that the average global temperature is likely to rise by 1.5ºC between 2030–2053, relative to what it was before the Industrial Revolution – a threshold nearly touched already in 2023, when the globe warmed by 1.45ºC – quantifying and describing the extreme threats that lie beyond this temperature threshold. These findings have put pressure on governments to make pledges about lowering carbon dioxide emissions within their borders. Perhaps the IPCC’s greatest triumph is in helping to shift the global conversation on climate justice and equitability, finally establishing the need of a ‘loss and damage fund,’ whereby wealthier nations – who have historically contributed the far greater share of GHGs already in the atmosphere – can help poorer nations adapt to climate change and deal with its mounting onslaughts.

The IPCC reports are meticulous, exhaustive, based on top-notch science, and essential to our understanding of how the climate and Earth-system work. Running into thousands of pages, the reports are valiantly written, compiled by teams of earnest scientists and subject matter experts across a range of disciplines from around the globe. Yet despite this tremendous effort, governments are wavering on their emissions reduction commitments and reneging on their contributions to the loss and damage fund. Meanwhile, the world is screaming right past the IPCC’s recommended warming threshold.

In fact during the nearly three decades that the IPCC’s heroic work has been ongoing, GHG emissions have only risen steadily. About half of the excess carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere today has accumulated only since after the IPCC began convening. Despite the boom in solar panels and windmills and the rising adoption of electric cars, the rate of global GHG emissions, on average, also keeps rising year after year, putting us currently on track to heat the planet by 3ºC by 2100. Despite growing global concern and expectation that Someone Needs To Figure This Out And Fix It, no one’s been able to effectively alter the world’s course of warming. The situation, in fact, is deteriorating ever faster. Why? With all our sophisticated knowledge of atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, of winds and waters and solar radiation, of causes and effects, feedback loops and tipping points—what are we missing? Why are all our efforts still moving us in the wrong direction?

Despite the world’s attention and intention to curb global warming, while continuing with business-as-usual economic and industrial policies, led by international conferences and agreements, carbon dioxide has continued to accumulate in the atmosphere. Source: The Conversation/CC BY 4.0

The rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation (shown in parts per million (ppm)) continues to accelerate. The rate slowed for only a few years in the 1990s, following enactment of the Montreal Protocols, which reduced the use of chemicals known to threaten Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer. Image credit: NOAA, chart by Barry Saxifrage at NationanalObserver.com and VisualCarbon.org

Noting these dismal results, some people who have been tracking the climate crisis and its purported remedies are led to despair. Some conclude that human beings are incapable of living without destroying our world. But this flies in the face of all evidence from the course of human evolution. People just like us have been around for nearly 300,000 years – more than 10,000 generations – but the depth and scale of global environmental disruptions never remotely began to approach anything like we face now, until perhaps ten generations ago, less than three hundred years.

What changed? Is it simply human greed, as some say? Our selfishness? Apathy? These vices have certainly always been part of the human mix and no doubt play a role in stymying helpful responses to our crises. But why did it take hundreds of thousands of years for these ancient traits to emerge as fatal flaws? Simplifying the causes of our complex predicament to a few of the worst human traits is an overly narrow framing of the problems we face. It can be a way of shifting blame onto a small coterie of individuals – perhaps the heads of oil companies or political leaders – as an easy target for our anger or unease. But none of them created global warming. And while they may represent companies or groups who work against reducing carbon emissions, as individuals they cannot stop it. Their actions are legally and logistically constrained by the same systems that we depend upon for our modern livelihoods; their fossil-fuel products are the life-blood of the modern economy and their capitalist politics are its beating heart. Those CEOs and politicians are, in fact, merely today’s winners of the very same capitalist game that most of us are also playing to win at, whenever we hope to make more money, ‘get ahead,’ or promote economic growth. Individual blame-mongering that glosses over the complexity of the system we’re all a part of – and that most of us earnestly vote for – leads to useless or even dangerous responses.

We all understand that how we frame a problem directs where we look for answers, right or wrong – as in that old aphorism that when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Or the apocryphal story of the guy searching for his keys under a streetlamp, though he could’ve lost them anywhere; ‘because this is where the light is good,’ he explains. It matters very much how we frame the predicament we face, how we describe its causes and effects, how we conceive of responsibility and envisage justice. What if the reason our response to global warming has been ineffectual is because we’re asking the wrong questions? What if we’re framing the problem too narrowly – or looking entirely in the wrong place?

To take one example, consider that the presently privileged worldview describes our planetary system primarily in mechanistic terms and approaches every difficulty as a set of engineering problems to be optimally solved for furthering human economic growth in a capitalist, global, industrial economy. But what if we took a broader view grounded in an understanding of Earth’s living systems? The discipline of ecology, for instance, strives toward holism, rather than mechanism, in understanding our Earth-system. It was gaining prominence in the 1970s, but then quickly fell out of fashion in the 1980s, dismissed by many as too ‘soft’ of a science, which might well be translated as not a way to make money.

All the mainstream responses to climate change seek to frame the problem in ways that can be answered by ‘market solutions.’ That’s the lens through which our institutions and global systems have learned to see all problems. They’ve sought to simplify and reduce the causes and consequences of climate change to technicalities, whether that’s temperature rise, sea-level rise, the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, or some other individuated metric. They then envision technical ‘fixes’ to these problems. But our changing climate doesn’t merely present a set of operational parameters to be tweaked. We are facing a fundamental revision of the entire Earth-system, a dramatic shift away from the state it had inhabited since long before the dawn of human civilisation toward a new and unknown state for the future. It’s not only about rising carbon dioxide, but a degraded biosphere, alterations in the water and nitrogen cycles, and other derangements – in fact, we’ve already exceeded six of the nine known planetary boundaries for civilizational stability. And we’re driving these destabilising changes by the way we live, through the very structures and dynamics of the vaunted civilisation we’re trying to preserve. Both the consequences of the ecological degradation caused by our civilisation and our responses to it will affect the future of all life on Earth: The stakes are literally existential. We must respond well.

To effectively address this ecocide, we need to change the way we live – the way our global civilisation is structured. Yet billions of lives are dependent upon maintaining the present systems. Drastically altering patterns of production or consumption puts everybody within this civilisation at risk. This makes what we face not just a set of problems but a predicament. Problems may have solutions. Predicaments do not. Predicaments, at best, can be met with responses that will require tradeoffs, some better than others. But salutary responses to any predicament require us first to recognise our situation as such, a matter of trade-offs resulting in deep systemic change.

This is the first essay in a 12-part series on climate change. In this series, I intend to propose alternate framings or conceptions of our predicament. I hope first to break out beyond our globally dominant stories, to broaden the field of view, so we might speak about things in a new way. Our present stories – like those that reduce our world to a machine with discrete and quantifiable parameters – are not helping us to formulate apt and adequate responses to our ongoing crises. We need to find new stories – many of which are already available to us in alternate conversations, though far from the mainstream – in order to discover better responses.

In this context, I will tell a different story about the Earth-system, how our planet has shaped us as human beings, and how we, in turn, have shaped it. How our human systems are merely a part of our planet’s larger living system, requiring a balance of give-and-take for us to thrive. And what has recently changed in our relationship to the Earth. Mindful that change in our human-systems is what’s now required – finding new ways of relating to each other and our planet – I’ll also consider beneficial sorts of responses to our predicament. For we will fall short of sensible and just approaches if we don’t consider a fuller story of our world, one that casts light upon ourselves as living parts of our planetary system, considers what is of inalienable value to us, and explores what it might mean for humans to thrive within Earth’s life-sustaining bounds.

Usha Alexander trained in science and anthropology. After working for years in Silicon Valley, she now lives in Gurugram. She’s written two novels: The Legend of Virinara and Only the Eyes Are Mine