These are interesting times, and the world of tomorrow will look very different from the world of today. Particularly with respect to climate.
2016 is set to break all records with respect to global temperature changes, and as this linked graph indicates, it appears that planet Earth is literally in a “downward spiral” of warming. Some of the worst case scenarios of climate — three foot (plus) rises in sea levels, 2 degrees (plus) Celsius of warming, and all the attendant challenges that will bring, appear to be well under way.
There is no question that humans will, at some point, en masse, realize how much things are changing. The question is when — and whether there will be sufficient time to partially mitigate such changes to preserve some elements of current civilization (the ship appears to have sailed on preventing or fully mitigating the effects of global warming).
What is ethical in a world that is set to change so much? What does ethics even mean in a future that will look so different than the present world?
There are a few conclusions that I think are safe to draw from the current state of the science:
1. Business as usual is producing a different Earth. There is no question about the science: the world is warming and sea ice is melting. The changes underway are historic far beyond that of a human time frame. We who are alive today are bearing witness to changes not seen for millions of years. The speed at which such changes are occurring is shocking scientists, but it is clear they are well under way.
2. The Earth that is being created will likely be less hospitable to human life. Scientists warn that a warmer Earth will lead to significant changes in the biosphere that will likely make human life less hospitable. Beyond simply being hotter, extreme weather events such as flood and droughts will happen more often. A warming world may produce the spread of viruses such as Zika. Marine life is being choked due to the increasing acidification of the oceans, so much so that scientists speculate that some species of oxygen-producing plankton may vanish. Some scientists argue that global warming will actually choke out oxygen on Earth, leading to widespread suffocation of human and animal life.
3. Social changes will likely be as dangerous to human life as natural changes. Of course, the changes affecting Nature are simply one part of the threat to humanity. The other is that in times of crises, our political systems and civilizations will be challenged in a manner that will literally be unprecedented. Climate refugees, the lack of clean water and crises in food production will produce cause severe shock to human social systems. Historically, times of crises are the fertile breeding grounds of despotism, tyranny, and war. Already, there is a rise in right-wing movements in almost every country, in nationalists, bigots, and hate-mongers. It is likely that as the planet continues to warm, social systems will likely break down in catastrophic ways.
4. The time to prepare is now, yet now is when people are the least prepared to make changes. The science is clear, and the scientific predictions are dire, yet humans have been slow to adapt. Perhaps our brains find it difficult to make concrete changes in the face of abstract data, and a few warmer summers (so far) are not concrete enough to prompt immediate social and political action. It is true that global leaders continue to discuss climate change amongst themselves, but the rejection of concrete action from the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses (including China and the United States), and the refusal for political leaders to enunciate a vision of a future that has successfully responded to the coming changes, means this is a low priority. Indeed, most people are struggling to survive in societies and economies that are the most unequal in terms of distribution of wealth in their histories.
5. The future requires a positive vision of human social systems that has successfully responded to a more hostile world. In the days that will come, humanity faces a choice: continue with business as usual, and respond to the coming climate crises on an ad hoc, largely disastrous basis, or band together with other humans who are united by a positive vision of a future in which humanity has more or less adjusted, coped, mitigated, and perhaps even sustained itself in these hostile changes to come.
The choice is obvious, but what is less obvious is the vision. For millennia, humans have been divided by politics, religion, and national boundary. But humans also possess a remarkable capacity for evolution in thought, flexibility in social systems, and the flourishing of culture. Now, more than ever, humanity has little choice but to unite under a positive vision, or perhaps several related visions, that provide a philosophical, ethical, and rational framework for the days to come.
What is this vision? The basis of one possible vision is the simple notion of human solidarity: the recognition that humanity is one species, one family, one community, that will thrive or suffer, sink or swim, and live or die as one unit; that all people are entitled to some basic human dignities, rights, and protections, and to responsive communities that will permit the flourishing of such dignities, rights and protections; and that despite the differences in language, culture, and religion that seem to divide human beings, there will be no lasting peace and no lasting solution to the imminence of climate change unless there is a common recognition of the conscious spirit that resides in each person, and in doing what is possible to ensure that such spirit can flower and grow on this elemental plane: on an Earth that is receptive to human life, where there is a basic decency and warmth; where there is a steady and permanent foundation for human joy.
Let us be moved by the passion of such solidarity and the logic of action that must accompany the dire conclusions that result from any reasonable and centered analysis of the current state of planet Earth. Under the shadows of the challenges that await, the only logical response is for each person, any person, who can, to act as the light that shines in the darkness.