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Realities of Change

starfish's picture

“As The World Burns” and “The Collapse of Western Civilization” both portray semi-apocalyptic futures brought about by environmental degradation. But, despite some central similarities, the two stories are different in key ways. In the The Collapse Oreskes and Conway relate a “fictional” historical account of how rising sea levels and Market Failure led to widespread death and the restructuring of world politics. Jensen and McMillans graphic novel,  a light satire centered around an invasion of planet eating robotic aliens, urges a collective overthrow of the system to stop climate change, for which green lifestyles are inadequate. Both stories portray the incapability of capitalism and democracy to leave their self destroying course but the they offer hope in different places. In Oreskes tale China ultimately emerges as a world power when their centralized government allows them to evacuate citizens to escape rising sea levels as the more democratic countries descend into chaos. In the graphic novel the animals (and some humans) rise up in a violent revolution against the aliens to form a structure where humans can once again live at one with nature.

Where Oreskes story suggests that some systems of government may be capable of implementing policies to manage climate change (more centralized ones), Jensen (although he targets capitalism specifically) seems to see the problem as lying with any mechanized structure of society. The robotic aliens assert that their power comes from their nature as machines and a policeman is urged by one of take responsibility and not act as a cog in the mechanism, while his boss gives the opposite message that he must act as or the system will crumble. The story ends when the aliens reveal that the only thing they truly fear is wildness and the animals effectively destroy them. So which science fiction tale offers us a better solution? Should individuals who recognize the urgency of combating climate change focus their efforts on changing government policies or or turn to a more drastic form of revolution, involving at least consumer activism if not a revolutionary overthrow of the entire capitalist system?

The solution must be both achievable and effective. As the authors of both stories would acknowledge, we have ran out of time to waste in a doomed enterprise, but we have also reached a point of  environmental crisis beyond what marginal, gradual change can save us from. We must consider whether current societal realities allow more for activism leading to shifts in governmental policies or systematic overthrow. At the same time, an achievable course of action is pointless if it doesn’t also have the potential to create the desired results.

For a strategy to be effective it must lower both industrial and domestic outputs of greenhouse gases. Two target numbers often discussed for limiting greenhouse gases are the reductions necessary to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 and 2 degrees celsius respectively. The 1.5 degree target (announced as an aim at the paris climate accords) would probably require limiting emissions to zero by 2050, a goal some scientists claim is already unachievable (Pearce). To achieve the goal of zero emissions all sectors of society would have to be involved. Twenty five percent of global emissions come from electricity and heat production; 24 from agriculture, forestry and other land use; 21 from industry; 14 from transportation; 6 percent from buildings; and 10 from other sources (Global). Emissions from US households constitute 8 percent on their own (All Things). Leaving out any one of these sectors would prevent us from meeting the target necessary to limit temperature increases to the 1.5 degree limit.

These targets are critical numbers because of the drastic global effects we will experience if they are not met. Even if we stay within the limits of these numbers we will still have to deal with consequences from global warming. According to some evidence the risk of extreme hot-weather has already more than quadrupled and it will double again at each threshold. At 1.5 degrees declines in river flows from droughts could range from decreases of a third to a half. At 2 degrees some regions would require air conditioning to be at all inhabitable. Even at 1.5 degrees corn yields in parts of Africa could fall by half, and risks of poor yields in the midwest United States could double (Pearce).

The potential achievability of a popular campaign is hard to predict. While 45 percent of American’s report themselves as at least concerned about climate change,  34 percent report that they “have thought little about the issue and see it as having little personal relevance” (Roser-Renouf et. al). Meanwhile, 21 percent are reportedly “skeptical and tend to oppose climate action” (Roser-Renouf et. al). Those who say they “have joined, or would join a campaign” encouraging government representatives to pass laws reducing our dependence on non-renewable energy sources constitute 36 percent of the population, while 53 percent say they would sign a petition given the right circumstances (Leiserowitz et. al). But while those expressing a desire to “do something” about climate change are over a third of the population the numbers of people actually reporting doing so are lower. Only 10 percent of Americans report signing a petition on global warming in the past year. Between 5 and 7 percent report sharing information on social media, writing letters, or giving money or time to a political candidate (Americans’ Actions).

Consumer activism seems to be the most widely implemented form of action with “half of all americans at least occasionally” considering environmental impacts when buying a product (Americans’ Actions). Unfortunately, it is questionable whether it could achieve the results necessary to stay within the 1.5 degree increase marked as critical by some scientists. According to the Harvard Business Review effective consumer campaigns are characterized by passionate activists, easily understood issues, low cost to participants, and participation of the mass media (Diermeier). While many americans say they consider environmental factors when buying products only 17 percent report themselves truly alarmed by climate change, and it is questionable whether those with less strong feelings would get involved in a boycott intense enough to be effective. Additionally, for the cost of a boycott to be low it must target a single company so that consumers can get the product somewhere else (Diermeier). If americans are going to target companies involved in energy production (a key contributor to global warming) the costs would be high. Successful boycotting of a single company would hardly address the issue. The other factors cited by the Harvard Business Review might be easier to achieve.

Governments seem to have the potential to be much more effective than consumers in preventing the most disastrous fallout of global warming. Some scientists argue that to meet the 1.5 degree celsius goal would require the use of carbon reducing technology (Pearce). Such a program would most likely require government funding to implement. Other programs for shifting our energy reliance to clean sources would benefit from government funding as they have high, initial costs that businesses are reluctant to take on. So is it realistic to hope that governments will get seriously involved in preventing climate change?

The authors of “As The World Burns” would tell us that it isn’t. Oreskes and Conway would back up their depiction of democratic capitalism as slow, inept, and in the pocket of corporations. On the other hand, a complete overthrow of government, as Jensen and Mcmillan call for, would doom any chance of corporate regulation and public funding of scientific innovation. But their general call for revolution might not be entirely off target. If western societies empowered centralized governments, such as china in the futuristic historical account, perhaps they could do something before it is too late. Then again, with Americans questionable dedication to environmental, causes such a revolution may be unlikely to occur. Perhaps the answer is to do just what Jensen ridicules and take care of our own behavior and our measly 8 percent contribution to global emissions. After all any limitation on global warming is a good thing, and if we can limit temperature increases to only what is caused by industry, at least that’s maybe enough to prevent global climate change on the scale of aliens eating the planet (if not the fall of western civilization).



All Things Considered. “How Consumers Can Affect Climate Change”. NPR. NPR, 2009. Web. 05 Dec. 2016

"Americans' Actions to Limit Global Warming" Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Yale Center for Environmental Communication, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, june 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2016

Diermeier, Daniel. “When Do Company Boycotts Work?” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2016

“Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data” US Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Rosenthal, S. (2014) Americans’ actions to limit global warming, November 2013. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Pearce, Fred. "What Would a Global Warming Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like?" Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Roser-Renouf, C., Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., & Rosenthal, S. (2016). Global Warming’s Six Americas and the Election, 2016. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication


Anne Dalke's picture

you’ve done a power of research here, really looking hard @ the causes of global warming, and also surveying possible solutions. The end point of all that work, though, is your return to the sense of bleakness with which you began: there is little possible intervention here, little that can be done except “take care of…our measly 8 percent contribution to global emissions.” Let’s discuss the arc of your argument in your conference tomorrow--along with the question of which of the papers in your portfolio might profit most from revision: which one can you “grow” most effectively, perhaps with the assistance of a new text, a new lens to think with-and-through? I look forward to learning--Anne