– Climate Change is the Greatest Threat to Humanity
– This Book Is an Introduction to Climate Change
– Hope or Despair
– System Change not Climate Change
– The Role of Fossil Fuel Companies
Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity.
Global warming is inevitable – since it is already well underway.
The question is how bad will it get? There are considerable differences of opinions on this.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly warned that the world is not acting fast enough to deal with climate crisis: “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security, food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains. The poorest — those with the least security — are certain to suffer. Our duty right now is surely to do all we can to help those in the most immediate danger.”
His remarks came after the UN heard testimony from leading experts, such as naturalist David Attenborough, who called climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced”.
Can the world leaders act quickly enough to slash emissions to zero quickly enough to avoid total climate collapse? To keep it at a “manageable level?” Can society agree to devote the resources needed to help everyone adapt to climate change, not just the wealthy and the industrial nations?
Or will civilization as we know it unravel as hundreds of millions if not billions desperately struggle to obtain basic necessities such as food, water, land and shelter. Many previous civilizations have collapsed due to climate change.
As I started this book on Labor Day 2022, the death toll has exceeded more than one thousand as a third of Pakistan is under water from floods caused by heavier than usual monsoon rains and melting glaciers that followed a severe heat wave. The previous month, Eastern Kentucky was ravaged by a “thousand-year flood” that killed scores – though major flooding also occurred two years earlier. The West coast of the U.S. is engulfed in a major heatwave, one of several that blanketed much of the U.S., China, and Europe throughout the summer, drying rivers, fueling wildfires, and disrupting food and energy production. Thousands were forced to flee a wildfire in California – even though this year has seen fewer major wildfires than the record onslaught in recent years. The 22-year and counting drought in the western United States is the region’s worst in more than 1,200 years.
A climate study predicts a 125-degree “extreme heat belt” for the Mississippi river basin by 2053. Another study by the found that with the present rate of greenhouse gas emissions, by the end of the century areas near the equator will experience two weeks annually when temperatures are so high that it would be too dangerous for anyone to venture outdoors.
A new study of “zombie” ice melting in Greenland  says that it will cause sea levels to rise at least 10 inches – and likely as many as thirty. The artic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet – significantly faster than scientists had predicted. The world’s chances of avoiding the worst ravages of climate breakdown are diminishing rapidly according to a study by World Meteorological Society, as we enter “uncharted territory of destruction” through our failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions and take the actions needed to stave off catastrophe.
Even the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has noted that climate change is occurring much faster than it had predicted. The IPCC has been very clear that for the first time in the planet’s history, it is the actions of a species – humans – that is driving climate change: “Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750…The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.” 
While some level of dangerous warming is already baked into the climate system, efforts to limit emissions can still prevent those changes from becoming much worse. There are still multiple scenarios open to the planet, ranging from less bad to total catastrophe, which can be pursued. But achieving them will mean reining in the fossil fuel industry and its paid army of lobbyists that corrupt the democratic process.
After the IPCC released its Sixth Assessment, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet. If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as the report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses…. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021. OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, with all others following suit by 2040. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple, and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net zero trajectory by mid-century.”
It is often said that scientists have been warning about climate change for 30 years, yet little has been changed. In 1988, NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified to Congress that the era of climate change had begun. Yet the warnings began much earlier. The college magazine at RPI, a largely engineering school in Troy NY that I graduated from in the early 70s, was already writing stories half a century ago about the threat of climate change. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first predicted carbon dioxide levels could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect. In 1938, Guy Callendar linked carbon dioxide increases in Earth’s atmosphere to global warming.
The biggest challenge to surviving climate change is not technology but political and economic concerns.
Global warming is the result of less than three centuries of the industrial revolution. It has been driven by the enormous wealth and power accumulated by a few. It is a result of capitalism, as a few rapidly exploited and depleted a natural resource that took millions of years to create, largely for free. It was often stolen from indigenous and other poor communities. The wealth and political power created has enabled the fossil fuel industry to inflict enormous social, health and financial costs on the rest of us.
This Book Is an Introduction to Climate Change
This book assumes that like most people – including most Americans – you already understand that climate change is a serious problem. If you need that information, read the various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the thousands of academic studies, or track the global increase in extreme weather events.
I wrote this book after teaching a course on climate change and advocacy at Bennington College in the spring of 2022 and not finding a good basic introductory text to climate change. This book is a starting point for those seeking to educate themselves on climate change. The book opens the doorway on many issues that have other books, studies and articles that go into much more detail about the many complexities.
This book draws heavily on the work of many climate scientists, groups, activists, and journalists. It is climate 101, not new research. In many ways it is a compilation of fact sheets, with the large number of footnotes reflecting that many sources the book draws upon. The goal is to give those new to climate change a good foundational understanding of the issues.
Climate change is both simple and complex.
The planet is rapidly warming due to humans having burnt fossil fuels for several hundred years as part of the industrial revolution. Global warming is driving extreme weather and other changes that threaten the ability of humans to continue their present way of living, with access to land, water and food threaten.
To avoid climate chaos, we need to as quickly as possible stop burning fossil fuels and build a world based on clean, renewable energy based on the sun and wind. We already know how to build renewables and they continue to rapidly become more efficient and cheaper. A rapid transition to a clean, renewable energy future will create many living wage jobs, stop the air pollution that kills 8 million people annually worldwide, and lower the cost of energy moving forward. A win-win for the planet and its inhabitants.
The complexity is how to do all of this.
The world’s politicians and energy leaders have mostly ignored or even disputed the warnings over the dangers of climate change over the last 30 years. Getting several hundred countries to agree to work together is very difficult, especially in view of the wide disparity in wealth and prosperity.
Converting a world based on fossil fuels is not easy. There are technological challenges in making renewable energy workable and affordable, especially since the sun does not always shine or the wind below. Moving renewable electricity from where it is produced to where is needed requires a massive transformation of our transmission system. There is significant opposition to where wind and solar farms are built. Battery storage is in its infant stages. Decarbonizing buildings and transportation, the two biggest drivers now of greenhouse gas emissions, is more challenging than for electrical production. Trillions of dollars are at play.
Many of the key political and business leaders and decision makers will not be around to experience the worst of climate change. Politicians often balked investing in long term solutions, focusing instead on the next election. Many economists contend that the future negative impact on the Gross Domestic Product (3 to 4%, though those estimates will rise) from climate change is too low to justify major investments to retool our energy and economic system. Other human civilizations have collapsed even when solutions existed but were not implemented as they would challenge the power and wealth of the leaders.
Fossil fuels are more incorporated into our everyday lives than most people realize, and alternatives don’t always exist. There are major industrials processes such as cement and steel that require the high temperatures only presently possible from burning fossil fuels. Even if we figure out how to solve all these challenges, we have already burnt so much fossil fuels that climate change and extreme weather is already occurring. We may not be able to keep global warming below tipping points that will drive catastrophic actions such as ice shelves melting to raise sea levels and permafrost melting that released trapped greenhouse gases. How do we compensate countries that have not yet used the burning of fossil fuels to spur development to raise their standard of living and now that path to development is foreclosed?
A Focus on the United States – and New York
While this book does provide an overview of climate change globally, it is primarily written for an American audience. It focuses mainly on climate action at the state and national level. One reason is the U.S. has been the main driver of global warming and remains as the dominant superpower, though that position is increasingly shaky.
The book focuses on the structures and limits of the American political system. While the U.S. may claim to be the birthplace of democracy with the American revolution, the rest of the world’s democracies over three centuries have had the opportunity to build upon and improve upon our system. The U.S. is one of only three countries with a democratic electoral system that does not employ proportional representation to create legislative bodies that reflect the political divisions among its populations. The U.S. is unique in that it has only two viable national political parties, which severely limits the range of political discourse that is possible, a significant problem in dealing with climate change. Its two-party system combined with its corporate concentration of media ownership and its porous restrictions on campaign finance contributions gives the fossil fuel industry an outsized role in political and economic decisions.
I have been a climate activist primarily in New York, which has some unique approaches to energy. New York deregulated its electricity market in 1996 to ‘lower prices by more competition.’ Utilities are not allowed to produce electricity which is done instead by independent power producers. New York system of Renewable Energy Credits to subsidize renewable energy is also different than other states. While I try to avoid projecting unique aspects of New York’s energy system onto the rest of the country, undoubtedly some of that occurs.
While this book presents basic factual information on the various climate change issues, it at times presents my own beliefs and conclusions about the challenges presented by climate change.
I understand that climate change poses an existential threat to the future of human civilization and that world leaders are not acting anywhere fast enough. We need radical, systemic change, not incrementalism. I have always viewed myself as a progressive populist, though in recent years I have added the frame of Ecosocialism.
However, the book does present alternative perspectives on climate issues when there is significant disagreement within the climate movement, such as on nuclear and carbon taxes. Each of us have to make up our own minds based on the scientific evidence, our values, and on our theories of how change occurs.
This book does not focus on providing inspirational stories about the great work that many frontline communities, organizations, and individuals are already doing to confront climate change. Others have already done that, and I list some of them in the resource section.
This book will be out of date the moment it is finished, as climate change continues to accelerate. Data collection on emissions, electricity generation and other climate issues are usually a year or two behind.
Hope or Despair?
Fossil fuels are destroying the world.
How do you respond if you believe that the likely outcome of climate change is the collapse of civilization as we know it? This is the existential question that many climate activists and scientists increasingly face. How do you speak the truth without paralyzing people with a sense of hopelessness?
Yet our understanding of climate and weather continues to evolve. As the world prepared for COP27 in November 2022, three United Nation agencies released reports saying that the world was close to irreversible climate breakdown, saying that the ongoing weak response by governments across the planet meant the crossing the 1.5-degree threshold was inevitable.
In the same week, David Wallace-Wells, dubbed the prophet of climate doom due to some his prior articles, wrote in the NY Times that the range between climate optimism and pessimism was narrowing, noting while the politicians had continued to blow the opportunity to act in time, the “worst-case temperature scenarios that recently seemed plausible now look much less so.” The main question was not whether the human species could endure global warming but how well will politicians and the wealthy respond in order to reduce the level of human suffering and social upheaval.
In Nov. 2022 during COP27 the NY Times observed that the “the world was on track to heat up by 4 degrees Celsius on average by 2100 before the Paris Agreement was signed, and we are now on track to warm up by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius. That’s still very bad.”
In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change warned that we had 12 years left to take worldwide dramatic action. Other scientists felt that was too optimistic. The IPCC tends to be conservative in its estimates, as science seeks a level of proof that is often difficult to achieve in the real world with so many overlapping causes and inputs. The IPCC’s pronouncements, particularly the summary that the media and politicians focus on, need agreement from countries that include the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Brazil.
Many of the IPPC’s previous predictions have underestimated the speed and severity of climate change. One Harvard-based study also released in 2018 estimated that the deadline may be five years. A number of prominent European climate researchers raised the fear that we have already passed the tipping point for runaway climate change, as feedback loops such as the melting of polar ice accelerate. 13,000 researchers signed a statement warning that we are rapidly running out of time to avoid such tipping points.
The climate clock says we now have 7 years left before our present rate of greenhouse emissions exceed the limit of emissions that pushes us past global warming of 1.5 degree Celsius. 
Civilization is a complex web of social and economic interactions that takes centuries to reach its peak, but once it begins to unravel, collapse can occur swiftly. Prior collapses have often been due to environmental factors. Most civilizations have lasted around 300 years. Some scientists contend that in many cases, solutions to the problems existed, but they threatened the power and wealth of the ruling elite. The elite chose the status quo. A paper funded by NASA found that “Collapses of even advanced civilizations have occurred many times in the past five thousand years, and they were frequently followed by centuries of population and cultural decline and economic regression.” The study found that unsustainable resource consumption, and economic stratification that favors the elite – trends that exist worldwide today – can easily result in collapse.
Some scientists have raised the possibility of human extinction. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of species , which continues to accelerate. Insects and pollinators are rapidly disappearing. Other species on which humans are dependent for survival — such as phytoplankton, which produce half or more of the world’s oxygen — are rapidly dying off. Unlike previous extinction events caused by natural phenomena, this extinction is driven by human activity, especially the unsustainable use of land, water and energy use, and climate change. 30% of all land that sustains biodiversity has been converted for food production. Agriculture is responsible for 80% of global deforestation and accounts for 70% of the planet’s freshwater use, driving the loss of habitat many species.
Man claims we have the right to dominate the other species on the planet due to our superior intelligence; or that we are just at the top of the world’s food chain. Yet despite our intelligence, for decades our political leaders have done virtually nothing as the threat to our future existence has grown ever more apparent.
The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement arose in England in response to the threat of extinction of human species and the failure of governments to take it seriously. It describes itself as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.”
Recently scientists have formed their own XR group: ‘We are scientists who agree with Extinction Rebellion that it is time to take direct action to confront catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown. We further declare that overwhelming evidence shows that if global greenhouse gas emissions are not brought rapidly down to net zero and biodiversity loss is not halted, we risk catastrophic and irreversible damage to our planetary life-support systems, causing incalculable human suffering and many deaths. We note that despite the scientific community first sounding the alarm on human-caused global warming more than four decades ago, no action taken by governments thus far has been sufficient to halt the steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions, nor address the ever-worsening loss of biodiversity.” 
System Change, not Climate Change: We need a Revolution:
Pope Francis in his Climate Encyclical pointed out that the capitalist system and its focus on profits has failed humanity. The encyclical highlighted that solving climate change requires us to solve other forms of oppression that emerge from the same mentality that leads to environmental exploitation, namely that the rich and powerful are free to oppress others, whether based on race, gender, wealth, or nationality. Climate change will be solved only if we make the common good our top priority.
In practice, this means that climate advocates need to build not only connections but unity with other social change movements. The necessary climate actions will likely only occur if there are fundamental changes in how our political and economic systems operate. Climate justice requires justice for all. Climate groups are increasingly aware of the need to provide support to other movements such as Black Lives Matter but have not yet figured out how to effectively combine the various movements into a singular focus for change.
In November 2022, just prior to COP 27, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg called for a “system-wide transformation” noting that the world’s current “normal” – dictated by the people in power – has caused the climate breakdown. “What we refer to as normal is an extreme system built on the exploitation of people and the planet. It is a system defined by colonialism, imperialism, oppression, and genocide by the so-called global North to accumulate wealth that still shapes our current world order.” The climate crisis “has its roots in racist, oppressive extractivism that is exploiting both people and the planet to maximize short-term profits for a few.”
Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene, the Japanese best seller on combating climate change, makes a similar point: Capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth. That means an end to mass production and the mass consumption of wasteful goods. The climate crisis will spiral out of control unless the world applies “emergency brakes” to capitalism.
Solving climate change means embracing a world based on sustainability and equality. We also need to democratically control and plan the transition to a sustainable economy, not allow the drive for profits to determine where we build new renewable energy systems. Ecosocialism seeks to democratically plan the economy to meet everyone’s basic needs within ecological limits. Having hedge funds get rich off of renewable energy won’t solve the climate crisis.
A word of caution. Just replacing capitalism (a very difficult task) with some form of public ownership of our energy and economic systems would not be sufficient. Democratic control, a focus on the common good and a commitment to sustainability are essential. A number of socialists in the U.S. have called for the nationalization of the fossil fuel companies as a way to shut them down. But as Naomi Klein has pointed out, as of a few years ago. 70% of the world’s fossil fuels were already owned by some form of state or public entity. And countries that lean towards socialism (Europe) or profess to be communist (Russia / China) are among the world’s leading carbon emitters. Socialist leaning countries such as Venezuela export their fossil fuel resources to the rest of the world to bring in funds to drive their economy.
The Green Party of the U.S. platform states: “We will build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy. Some call this decentralized system ‘ecological socialism,’ ‘communalism,’ or the ‘cooperative commonwealth,’ but whatever the terminology, we believe it will help end labor exploitation, environmental exploitation, and racial, gender, and wealth inequality and bring about economic and social justice due to the positive effects of democratic decision making.”
Futurists outline two major paths. One is to continue to build a world based on increasing economic inequality, with billionaires becoming ever more prevalent and powerful. That leads to a world of heavily fortified biospheres for the select few and competition for survival for the rest of us. The other path is one based on equality and mutuality, where every human is a respected member, whose needs are to be met. That path gives us the most chance of not only survival but for a decent living for future generations.
A clean energy revolution would end health problems from air pollution, create an enormous number of well-paying jobs, and lower future energy costs. The Green New Deal first called for in the U.S. by the Green Party in 2010. would combine a rapid ten-year transition to zero emissions with an Economic Bills of Rights, guaranteeing a living wage job, single payer universal health care, housing, and a college education
The industrialized nations with their complex interdependencies and systems are especially vulnerable to quick collapse from major disruptions. Yet it is the less developed societies that are the principal victims of climate change and whose citizens and governments have far less resources to cope with global warming caused primarily by the industrial north and the industrial revolution. This is why the call for environmental justice is so central to the climate movement.
In America, we have moved from being the center of climate denial under Trump to an administration more marked by climate delay and evasion. While the Democrats are increasingly willing to invest in the expansion of the renewable energy industry, their leadership is still unwilling to shut down the fossil fuel industry and their campaign donations. Climate change is already becoming a pretext for massive corporate subsidies of schemes (e.g., carbon sequestration and capture, blue hydrogen, biomass) focused more on increased profits for donors than on curbing global warming.
Many hoped that the removal of Trump from the White House would allow America to win the climate battle. That hasn’t happened, as the Democrats have failed once again to rise to the challenge. They “allowed” Manchin and his coal holdings to block action in Congress, refusing to take any action to punish his misbehavior. The Inflation Reduction Act finally passed in the summer of 2022 may have represented the biggest investment ever by the U.S. in renewable energy and climate but was one-tenth of what Biden initially proposed – which itself was far less than needed.
With some limited exceptions, Biden has failed to use his executive powers to take comprehensive climate actions as outlined in climatepresident.org. despite his campaign promises, Biden increased the number of permits for oil and gas on federal land. He used the invasion of Ukraine to promote fossil fuels and has refused to tax the price gouging driving inflation. Virtually nothing other than talk and press releases happened at the COP26 six-year follow-up to the Paris climate accords.
We need to somehow end the polarization of American society – a problem that is plaguing many other nations as well. We are not going to solve climate change if half the country opposes taking action. Solving climate change requires us to create a future where everyone feels that their needs are being met, that they are an important and integral part of our society. It means we must listen to those we disagree with to figure out how to create common ground. People must believe that the call for a Just Transition includes them.
After the recent dire IPCC report, the Secretary-General of the United Nations said it was now or never for climate action, saying “This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” The IPCC concluded that any further delay would force humanity to miss the “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
There is no time left for incrementalism.
 https://www.treehugger.com/ancient-civilizations-were-destroyed-climate-change-4869712; https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/astrobiology-alien-apocalypse-can-any-civilization-make-it-through-climate-change-322232/ ; https://www.encyclopedie-environnement.org/en/climate/climate-change-and-ancient-civilizations/
 https://www.worldhistory.org/collection/28/the-fall-of-civilizations/; https://phys.org/news/2020-10-history-societies-collapse-leaders-undermine.html; https://dgrnewsservice.org/civilization/patterns-of-civilization-collapse/
 https://money.cnn.com/2015/09/21/news/economy/pope-francis-capitalism/index.htm; https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2013/11/26/pope-franciss-stinging-critique-of-capitalism/; https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/may/documents/papa-francesco_20190527_climate-change.html; https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-03/pope-francis-unesco-poverty-climate-change.html