The 25th UN Climate Conference in Madrid has, according to reports, come to a complete standstill. This is the conference in which nations were supposed to up-the-ante and commit to a greater level of carbon reductions. Nothing is happening. On the contrary, nations are looking for bigger loopholes for emitting more pollutants. Nations are looking for bigger carbon offsets that will allow them to pollute more, offsets which George Monbiot has called the modern equivalent of medieval indulgences.
What have we learned from this long, drawn out UN conference process, year after year? That we really can’t do this. No matter how certain we become about the science, no matter what great new technologies we invent, no matter how sincere the promises we make, no matter how many crises we declare, no matter how many low-carbon transitions we start and green new deals we propose, carbon emissions keep going up, and up, and up.
We have failed. We have been failing for decades. And my sense is that we will continue to fail almost indefinitely. And my understanding now is that admitting the failure is actually the best outcome at this juncture; in fact, failure is necessary.
We have to learn that we can’t buy our way out of this. We can’t tariff, trade and tax our way out of this. We have to learn that we can’t create the wiggle room we want so that we can keep running this civilization the same way we always have so long as we can pull down the poop we pump into the sky.
As Greta Thunberg said, the greatest impediment to action on climate change is not the climate deniers, it’s the climate imposters: the politicians and corporate leaders who make it look like we’re doing something about emissions when we’re actually doing nothing at all.
We have to learn that we can’t tame nature. We can’t domesticate the oceans or the sky. We can’t turn forests into latrines for our waste. We can’t hold back the melting of the glaciers by putting a finger in the crack.
We will continue to fail, and we must fail, because only until we realize how truly powerless we are will we learn to live within the limits of nature.
Our shoreline cities, which include the largest and most prosperous cities in the world, will be destroyed by the overwhelming power of oceans and storms. Our great plains will dry up and millions will starve to death. Our forests will become roaring infernos that turn to cinder all the lovely homes we built in the suburbs so that we could be ‘close to nature.’
We have to learn that we can’t beat the extinction game. We don’t get to continue our existence as a species on a planet we destroyed because we think we are so special and smart and godlike. We can’t defy the laws of physics because we think we’re the Immortal Elon Musk.
Because ‘taming nature’ has been the modus operandi by which we have engineered this intractable mess. The delusional belief that we can control nature for our sole benefit is how we got to this impassible chasm in the first place. We must acknowledge that we have totally failed and that we can’t control nature in the last instance.
If we’re very lucky, a few hundred thousand human beings will be left on a scorched planet who will be forced to learn a different way of life. But nature will rebound as she always has. Nature will evolve an entirely new world of living beings, as she did after the last five mass extinctions. It just might not include us.
When we have failed, utterly and completely, when there is no hope left and we are looking at our impending demise as a species, then we will learn the power of nature. Then will learn to live within her stern and absolute limits.
We are not going to stop climate change. Climate change is going to stop us.