“The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths…”– from ”Darkness” by Lord Byron
The English poet Lord Byron wrote the poem “Darkness” in 1816 to describe the horrors of not having sunlight and adequate atmospheric heat to grow crops after the eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia the previous spring. The year 1816 is known as the “the year without a summer” because the dust in the sky blotted out the sun and caused temperatures to plummet. There was widespread famine in eastern Canada as a result of crop failure, as elsewhere in the world.
Clearly a stable climate matters if life is to flourish, and although 2022 has had quite a different sort of summer than 1816, its own set of catastrophic events rival what happened across the world in 1816. Unlike the natural event brought on with the eruption of Mount Tambora, our global woes are intrinsically linked to the fossil-fuel-addicted industrial countries, whose governments refuse to rein in oil and gas profits and stand up for young people’s right to a future. (Just twenty of the biggest oil and gas producers are projected to spend $932 billion by the end of 2030 on developing new oil and gas fields if they have their way.)
Remember that global temperature is now 1.2°C higher than it was in 1816. This summer’s multi-disasters have brought into stark relief what chaos awaits us if we disregard broadly accepted scientific reports predicting what confronts us with an increase of 2–3°C. Exceeding even 1.5°C of global heating could trigger multiple climate tipping points, warns Johan Rockström, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Climate tipping points such as sudden enormous water releases from Greenland’s ice sheet would engender a global emergency and are openly researched and debated. Many scientists believe that a 1.8°C rise is the most optimistic chance we have.
After this summer, when 1.2°C has caused such mayhem, what global hell awaits the living at 1.8°C? If this summer hasn’t made abundantly obvious and with added urgency the imperative for industrialized countries to shut down the oil and gas schemes for energy reliance, civil disobedience will scream its way to the halls of power.
We do this to ourselves. The poet John Donne, born in 1572, expresses this self-afflicting tendency of humans well: ”Nothing but man of all envenom’d things doth work upon itselfe, with inborne stings.”
What started with drought has moved to unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, putting a third of the country under water and displacing 32 million people. Two-thirds of Europe is suffering drought, and major rivers are becoming unnavigable for commercial craft. France relies on its rivers to cool its nuclear reactors, which produce most of its electricity, but those rivers are experiencing drastically diminished water flow. China’s summer of unprecedented heat waves has caused rivers there to not produce electricity causing a consequent upsurge of coal power production to take up the slack in electricity, which in turn accelerated climate emissions that causes more heat waves in the future. As well, the autumn harvest is threatened by the summer’s drought.
Extreme drought also continues in America’s southwest, and its huge dams are losing the capacity to produce electricity as well as supply water for agriculture and cities, because of historically low reservoir levels. The integrity of Great Salt Lake in Utah is collapsing, and the Rio Grande along the Mexican/US border can no longer be expected to supply enough water for agriculture and cities.
After years of wildfires it is not only forests and houses on the Pacific coast that are being impacted. It was recently documented that the Pacific Crest Trail, which follows the American Pacific and runs for 4,270 kilometres, is becoming impossible to walk in certain places because there is neither shade nor water.
Governments are quick to speak about the economic impacts of climate breakdown, but what about the accelerating and accompanying cascading ecological repercussions when rivers like the Po in Italy, the Loire in France and the 2,800-kilometre Danube dry up? Do governments care about the myriad life forms that inhabit those rivers?
Scientists are asking themselves whether this is to be the “new normal.” In recent research published in the science journal Nature, scientists were asked whether governments were up to the task of defending our climate. Most were highly sceptical, and in a second article, “Civil disobedience by scientists helps press for urgent climate action,” scientists speak openly, saying that civil disobedience is utterly justified in order to save us, as trust in governments’ ability to serve their populations and not their corporations is at a new low.
Scientists no longer view themselves as solely objective mouthpieces for scientific research or believe that their scientific neutrality in research prohibits public expressions of concern. They wish to make it absolutely clear that their values, like those of other citizens, demand in a time of environmental crisis a voice that has, as has always been the case, the right and indeed the obligation to influence ongoing and future events. They have arrived at a place of last resort to protect the planet, and they will be heard. Scientists’ credibility is not diminished because of their justifiable protests.
As developing nations have told the rich polluting west before, loss and damage must be a central topic if the UN climate talks to be held this November in Egypt are to succeed. “Loss and damage” refers to the global south’s precarious state as a result of 150 years of colonialism and fossil fuel extraction by the global north. The rising cost of staple foods, from olive and sunflower oils to wheat, illustrates all too well that countries cannot afford the prices that war, drought and floods have brought on. At the same time, zero-emissions Greenland is the largest contributor to ocean-level rise as a direct result of European and North American industries. Billions of tonnes of water from the ice sheet are finding their way to the oceans, and for the first time since records began, September’s temperatures are causing a release of water that until now only happened in July. Higher ocean levels will disproportionately affect the poorest coastal regions.
The UN climate summit in Egypt and the UN biodiversity summit in Montréal will hold the world’s attention this autumn. People are preparing to gather for these meetings, not only as government representatives, but also to represent Indigenous peoples and all those who demand a positive future for all living creatures. Stay tuned.