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The Earth is Too Big to Fail

22/04/2015 16:25 BST | Updated 22/06/2015 10:59 BST

"How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn't listen" - Victor Hugo

History is littered with civilizations that refused to adapt to a changing climate, and collapsed because of it. We're no different. The climate is destabilizing. We're aware of environmental degradation. We know the causes. We know the risks. And yet we continue to dither.

Years from now, when the costs are clear, we'll regret our inaction. Droughts, superstorms, resource competition, refugee crises, border disputes, failed states - these problems will define our political future. Soon, they'll be impossible to ignore. It's a terrible thing that our leaders won't tell us these truths. What are they waiting for? What's the plan? The proverbial clock is ticking.

Our dilemma invites cynicism. It's true: humans have a way of self-correcting, of modifying priorities in the face of chaos. But that doesn't inspire much confidence now, because our heads are buried in the sand. In 2008, when the economy was teetering, our government acted out of necessity. The consequences of collapse were too catastrophic. Maybe Wall Street was, in fact, too big to fail. Maybe an injustice had to be done in defense of the common good. I wasn't convinced by this argument, but I understood the logic of interventionism. I wonder, though, why this same logic doesn't apply to the planet. Is the earth not too big to fail?

Climate scientists agree: a disaster is looming. The planet is warming. Storms are becoming larger and more extreme. Water is rising. Food security is increasingly elusive. Our policy responses have been trivial. How is that possible? Are we so wedded to a worldview and a way of life that we'd rather perish than admit error? What could be more valuable than the physical system on which life, as we know it, depends?

Climate denialism is maddening for many reasons. The evidence is overwhelming, but the will to disbelief persists. There's something all-too-human about this sort of obstinacy. People have fixed ideas about the world, and most are unwilling to revise those ideas. But this need for clarity is dangerous, especially when supported by a rigid ideology. Ideologies are useful because they provide a framework for interpreting the world, for making sense of things. But they also constrain our thinking by tempting us to see only what confirms our worldview.

It's obvious how problematic this can be when confronting something like climate change. Ideologies are essentially narratives; they reorder the world in our own image. And they provide constancy by shielding our ideas from the vicissitudes of experience. But ideologies, at bottom, are self-serving projections - they reflect human biases more than material facts. Hence ideologues rarely yield to contrary evidence. The default response is always to retreat into self-delusion or to invent post-hoc rationalizations - whatever it takes to preserve the treasured dogmas. Such is the case today with neoliberals and climate change.

Since the 1970s, our political and financial classes have been in the grip of neoliberalism, the bedrock ideology of global laissez-faire capitalism. Neoliberals are wholly committed to mass privatization, unfettered deregulation, corporate tax cuts, trade liberalization, as well as a massive reduction in the role of government. Neoliberalism, regrettably, has become the economic orthodoxy of our time, with disastrous results.

Our non-response to the climate crisis is attributable to the institutionalization of neoliberal values, which have seeped into our collective conscience. For decades, apostles of neoliberalism have assumed, fallaciously, that the market system is the only viable mechanism capable of regulating CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. We were told, repeatedly, that the market would sort things out; that the world would innovate its way out of the climate problem. These are (and were) blind beliefs, not empirically defensible claims. The market has marched us gaily into the abyss - why should we think it our savior?

Part of the problem is that public discourse surrounding climate change is fraught with misinformation. This is not an accident. The Koch brothers, fossil fuel companies, and everyone else invested in the decaying industrial economy have deliberately muddied the waters. And why wouldn't they? They pioneered this model, and they profit from our predicament; it's natural that they would resist change. Their fidelity to the status quo is total. And they've taken extraordinary measures to ensure nothing changes. They've hatched think tanks, engineered elections, purchased politicians, organized PACS, and raised whole armies of propagandists whose sole mission is to manufacture doubt and slant the science. The result: a vast and woefully efficient climate denial machine.

This system of obfuscation has brought us to the brink. Inaction is a luxury we can't afford. The global economic architecture simply has to change, and that change begins here, with citizen activism. True, there are no easy answers, and there are legitimate questions about how to proceed. But there's no doubt that a revolutionary shift in the way we live, shop, and produce energy is needed - there's no escaping that. That shift will begin now or later, and later is likely too late.

One of the tragic ironies of climate change is that defenders of the status quo appear oblivious to their own interests. If current climate trends continue, there will be nothing left to exploit. There will be no borders to secure, no markets to free, no products to pimp. The planet will survive - our way of life won't. And that should surprise no one.

Nature speaks, and we refuse to listen.