We're in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, and this will be the first one - and possibly the last - we will witness as human beings.
Video games usually provide you with multiple lives. If you step on a landmine or get hit by an assassin, you get another chance. Even if such virtual reincarnation is not built into the rules of the game, you can always reboot and start over again. You can try again hundreds of times until you get it right. This formula applies to first-person shooter games as well as simulation exercises like SimEarth.
The real Earth offers a similar kind of reboot. Catastrophe has hit our planet at least five times, as Elizabeth Kolbert explains in her new book, The Sixth Extinction. During each of these preceding wipeouts, the planet recovered, though many of the life forms residing in the seas or on land were not so fortunate (“many” is actually an understatement—more than 99 percent of all species died out in these cataclysms). As Kolbert points out, we are in the middle of a sixth such world-altering event, and this will be the first—and possibly the last—extinction that we will witness as human beings. The planet and its hardier denizens may soldier on, but for us it will be game over.
A subset of environmentalists is already preparing for the end game. In the latest New York Times Magazine, Paul Kingsnorth—the author of the manifesto Uncivilization—confesses that he has given up trying to save the planet. He rejects false hopes. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years,” he says, “and every single thing had gotten worse.” He’s heading to the wilderness of Ireland to grow his own food, homeschool his kids, and prepare for the difficult days ahead.
Survivalism: it’s not just for right-wing wackos any more.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are still trying to figure out how to avert disaster. The United Nations recently released another in its series of reports on climate change. This one tries to put a price tag on what we need to do over the next 15-20 years to stop the global mercury from rising.
To implement the recommendations of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), governments must dramatically increase their investments in low-carbon energy sources. Each year, governments will have to spend an additional $147 billion on such renewable sources of energy as solar and wind power. On top of that, governments need to put $336 billion each year into greater energy efficiency in public and private infrastructure. If we follow all the IPCC recommendations, we can expect to save about $30 billion from eliminating subsidies to industries in the dirty energy sectors.
That still leaves an annual bill of more than $450 billion. This is probably a lowball figure, given the commitment that the industrialized world has made to help the developing world continue to grow economically without expanding its carbon footprint. This figure also doesn’t cover current climate change costs associated with extreme weather events, droughts in food-growing areas, the preservation of coastal areas, and other catastrophes in the making. The bill for upgrading U.S. infrastructure alone will run into hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
If you’re planning to remodel your kitchen, you’re supposed to get a couple of different estimates. So, with a task as large as saving the world, it’s probably wise to check in with a couple other sources.
But those looking for salvation on the cheap are going to be disappointed. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization connected to the OECD, estimates that the world needs to invest a trillion dollars into clean energy—every year between now and 2050. Then there was the Stern Commission report on the economics of climate change that came out in 2006. At the time, Nicholas Stern estimated that stabilizing the current level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere would require an investment of 1 percent of global GDP, which at the time was a little more than $300 billion. He revised that up to about $600 billion a couple years later, though nowadays he’s talking more in the trillion-dollar range as well.
Of course, these costs should be compared to the price tag for not addressing climate change quickly and resolutely. This, Stern estimated, would add up to 20 percent of global GDP. At some point, of course, we will hit a tipping point at which no amount of money can turn back the clock.
Where will the money come from? A “climate security” tax on military spending would make sense, forcing governments to turn swords into windmill blades. We’re currently wasting over $1.7 trillion a year on the enormous potlatch otherwise known as the global military budget.
Another “simple” answer is to not only remove subsidies from dirty energy but to tax it as well. In this way, governments discourage the use of coal and oil and raise the revenue necessary to invest in clean technologies. It seems an elegant solution, except that the energy companies and their political representatives have bitterly fought against carbon taxes. In 2011, the Labor government in Australia pushed through a carbon tax and established a $10-billion “green bank” to support sustainable energy projects. That hasn’t lasted long. The new center-right government has vowed to repeal the tax, but the Australian parliament has so far turned back the government’s repeal effort.
Denmark offers a less fractious alternative. The country is currently planning to unshackle itself completely from fossil fuels by 2050. And it plans to do that without relying on nuclear power. The country has invested heavily in wind power, and last year, for the first time, wind supplied more than 50 percent of the country’s energy consumption for an entire month. How much will this 40-year transition cost? The estimate is roughly 1 percent of the country’s GDP. By the end, Denmark will have cut its carbon emissions by 80 percent.
The Denmark model requires a few caveats. The entire scheme involves significant investment in new technologies and infrastructure upgrades. It also depends on a critical variable—the increasing cost of fossil fuels. If oil and gas and coal remain cheap, capital will not flow into the new technologies. In other words, the possibility of the earth burning up is not sufficient to concentrate our minds and mobilize our efforts. It comes down to a pocketbook issue. Only astronomical prices at the gas pump will force us to change our behavior, individually and collectively.
We could wait for the market to push up these prices, but that will likely be too late. Instead, we need to artificially raise the costs of fossil fuels, and that brings us back to some form of carbon tax. Another part of that strategy would be to leave some of that ancient, liquefied plant and animal matter in the ground and at the bottom of the ocean, forgoing deep sea drilling, refusing to rip up forests for the treasures beneath, and leaving the tar sands be.
But perhaps the most important caveat is this: Denmark will only succeed if we are all on board. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back, seeing if the calculations involved in Denmark’s fossil-free scenario work out, and then following suit if we like the results. By that time, it would be too late.
As with our individual lives, there is no reset button for the human race (Noah’s flood notwithstanding). Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska put it well in her poem “Nothing Twice” (translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh):
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
That we arrive here improvised
And leave without the chance to practice
Even if there is no one dumber,
If you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
You can’t repeat the class in summer:
This course is only offered once.
If humanity fails this particular science class, we’re done. It doesn’t matter whether we’re straight-A students from Denmark or flunkards like congressional climate change denier James Inhofe. We won’t be given another chance at the global joystick.
Earth: game over. For us at least.