The Long Game: Facing Reality in the Environmental Century

170907084916-01-golf-wildfire-trnd-super-teaseGolfing while the mountains burn. Photo from Beacon Rock Golf Course.

Personally, I would rate the likelihood of staying under two degrees of warming as under 10 percent. – Michael Oppenheimer 2017

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  – Thomas Merton

Under a concrete sky on 5 November 2014, Michele and I awoke to realize that Paul LePage had been re-elected as governor of Maine. Once again, Mainers had split their votes three ways and LePage was elected by a minority of the voters to another four-year term. We were deeply disappointed because during his first term LePage had made clear his disdain for environmental concerns. Little did we know that the next few years would make LePage’s first term look like the good old days.

Michele and I moved to Maine in 2011 when I assumed my job as president of Unity College in rural Unity, Maine. Maine has many progressive and brilliant people dedicated to making the state and its people better. Their work goes on, despite setbacks from the twisted leadership in Augusta and Washington. Michele and I left Maine in December, 2015, largely for personal and professional reasons unrelated to the state’s dismal politics. I am grateful for the chance to have been of service and I often wish I had found a way to stay. One thing I learned about Mainers is that they know how to persevere in the face of hardships; a trait that we must all emulate as we face the coming decades.

Michele tells me frequently that we should see our progress toward social justice and environmental sustainability as two steps forward, and one step back. Although I appreciate her optimism, given recent massive setbacks driven by the regressive policies of the Republicans in Congress and in the White House, I believe that she is surely wrong. The examples of these assaults on our future are now too numerous to name. As an ecologist, I cannot see these events as examples of modest setbacks along a path of overall improvement. Significant permanent damage is being done.

To date, the Trump administration has been a wrecking ball on the environment, setting in motion a massive rollback of environmental regulations and offering a loving embrace to the fossil fuel industry. Two of the most egregious are the assault by the EPA secretary on the Clean Power Plan and Trump’s declaration that the United States would withdraw from The Paris Climate Agreement. The Endangered Species Act is on the chopping block. This all-out war on the environment demonstrates that conservatives are willing to accept the depredation of our life support systems for the sake of ideology and short-term profit. This is part and parcel of ongoing attacks on social justice and the social programs that millions of Americans rely on for essential services.

Thus, the government of the largest economy and the second largest emitter will no longer proactively engage in the development of solutions to the gravest threat to civilization in human history. The window of opportunity for meaningful mitigation of climate disruption during this century is almost closed. Without US leadership and commitment, the rest of the world is unlikely to achieve the necessary reductions in emissions. It is hard to believe that global average warming will stay below 2˚C.

If morality means anything, we have a moral obligation to be a leader in the development of solutions because a majority of the emissions in the atmosphere came from us. Only China, India, and the US could have such enormous global impact on the climate during this century, and by many metrics the US is the biggest dog in the pack. Delaying strong action now means that avoiding truly catastrophic climate change will require massive efforts that will disrupt the global economy. If Trump is re-elected, possibly with a three party split like LePage, all bets for our future are off.

There is evidence that the global rate of increase of fossil emissions has stalled, but this does not mean that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has stabilized. There is only one number that matters: 406.94. This is the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere as of 17 August 2017, and it continues to go up. I used 328 ppm as the global average when I calibrated my first infrared gas analyzer in 1981. Research has shown that the continued rise is increasingly attributable to biosphere warming and the resultant positive feedback from living systems. It is now obvious that we must manage biosphere emissions if we are to effectively control climate change.

Our efforts to respond to climate and biosphere disruption are part of the long game, a game that must be played over centuries, rather than decades. The so-called normal climate of the 20th century, which we use as our meteorological baseline, is gone forever. The Earth will not see such a climate again for millennia, if ever. The stark reality of our situation means that everything we do now is for the benefit of future generations that will occupy a massively transformed planet. Our target for building a sustainable civilization should be 2100 and beyond. In the face of progressive disruptions of the climate and biosphere and the associated losses and hardships, we must lay the foundation for a civilization capable of thriving under conditions never before seen in our evolutionary history.

This foundation will include not only reduction of fossil emissions to zero, but radically new ways of living in places where we presently do not live in large numbers. We must develop new means of managing our biosphere and conserving biodiversity. Restoration of nature as it was during the 20th century is an absurd goal in the face of inexorable massive transformation. Agriculture must be radically transformed to eliminate most meat production and utilize arable land with maximum sustainability. Population must be controlled, or it will be controlled for us. It is hard to conceive of technological solutions that will allow up to 12 billion souls to have subistence lives by 2100.

This will be a fight to the end of our days and beyond. Mitigation to whatever level we can and then centuries of adaptation. – Wendell Porter 2017

We are not having the right discussion in the scientific community. We need to be talking about the nature of the changes likely to ensue and how to manage ecosystems even as disruptions and extinctions unfold. We must develop adaptive management to enhance carbon sequestration and maximize biological diversity. New ecosystems will develop and some will thrive, but the pace of change over the coming decades will likely result in widespread disruptions of historic magnitude. As our life support systems are compromised, the very basis of our civilization may begin to fail even as technological breakthroughs offer tantalizing glimpses of what could be. The consequences of biosphere disruption include famine, drought, epidemics, mass human migrations, coastal inundation, and the geopolitical fallout from disrupted distribution of resources, i.e., wars.

In the face of this emerging reality, I believe that we must not give up, even though no one who is alive today will directly benefit from our efforts. We must develop predictive probability-based scenarios that can support long range planning. We need to stop focusing so much intellectual energy on wonky analyses of mitigation strategies. It is time for serious analysis of loss and triage in the near term and the development of strategic plans for planetary sustainability on a century timescale.

As a species endowed with consciousness, most of us believe fervently that our lives must have meaning. What meaning will remain as we face the coming decades of broadscale decline, suffering, and loss? The extreme heat, epic wildfires, and extreme weather of 2017 are just the beginning. Disruption of the climate system will get worse over the coming decades. How are we to live our lives during this century and beyond in the face of widespread disruption of natural and human systems? What vision should we have for ourselves and humanity?

I cannot answer these existential questions for anyone else, but for me meaning is derived from our ability to sustain each other and our communities. I find it poetic that it is these instinctual human connections that have always sustained our species. Before we had any vision or capacity for global domination, we relied on each other for survival. Thus, I find myself embracing the basics of what it means to be human.

I no longer have serious expectations of positive global outcomes and universal progress in my lifetime. For the foreseeable future, the disruption of the biosphere and climate will make life harder, but I believe that over the long term humanity will prevail. I find solace in the integrity of our efforts and value in the truth of the work itself, as so eloquently expressed by Thomas Merton. My connection to my fellows provides the context for this work and this supports me as I work to leave what good I can for our kids. It is only through community that we can foster resilience in the face of unfolding catastrophe.