Deathly Salvation

TFW nuclear war may be the only way to stop human extinction.

Photo by  Yosh Ginsu .

Photo by Yosh Ginsu.

The global economy is hurtling humanity toward extinction. Greenhouse gas emissions are on track to warm the planet by six degrees Celsius above preindustrial averages. A six-degree increase risks killing most life on earth, as global warming did during the Late Permian when volcanoes burned a bunch of fossilized carbon (e.g., coal, oil, and gas). Called the Great Dying, that event was, according to New York Magazine, “The most notorious [extinction event…]; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead.”

Mainstream science suggests that we’re on our way there. During the winter of 2017, the Arctic grew warmer than Europe, sending snow to the Mediterranean and Sahara. The planet may have already passed irreversible thresholds that could accelerate further feedback loops like permafrost melt and loss of polar ice. Patches of permafrost aren’t freezing even during winter, necessitating a rename (may I suggest ‘nevafrost’?). In the summer of 2018, forests north of the Arctic Circle broke 90 degrees Fahrenheit and burned in vast wildfires. We’re reaching milestones far faster than scientists have even recently predicted. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted, “The Arctic meltdown […] is the kind of event scientists warned we could face by 2050. Not by 2018.” Mass marine death that rapidly emits uncontrollable greenhouse gasses is another feedback loop that seems ready to strike. The ocean is now more acidic than any time in the last 14 million years, killing everything from snails to whales. It’s growing rapidly more acidic. Meanwhile, from the global South to wealthier industrialized countries, people are already dying and being displaced from the impacts of extreme climate change via extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, and conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Authoritarianism is on the rise due directly to these climate emergencies and migrations.

The IPCC has recently alerted the world that we have about a decade to dramatically cut emissions before collapse becomes inevitable. We could prevent human extinction if we act immediately. But the world is unanimously ignoring climate change. Nations will almost certainly fail to avert biosphere collapse. That is because doing so will require a rapid decarbonization of the global economy.

But why does decarbonization--an innocuous enough term--seem so implausible? Well, let’s put it this way: a sufficient transition to non-carbon energy would require all the trains, buses, planes, cars, and ships in the world to almost immediately stop and be replaced with newly manufactured vehicles to run on non-carbon fuel, like hydrogen cells, renewable electricity, or some carbon-neutral biofuel. All this new manufacturing will have to be done with low-carbon techniques, many of which don’t exist yet and may be impossible to achieve at scale. This means all the complex supply chains that move most of the world’s food, water, medicine, basically all consumer goods, construction materials, clothing, and everything else billions of people depend on to survive will have to be fundamentally reformed, in virtually every way, immediately.  

It also means that all the electric grids and indoor heating and cooling systems in the world must be rapidly transformed from centralized coal and gas power plants to a mixture of solar, wind, and nuclear—both distributed and centralized—dispersed through newly built micro-grids and smart-grids, and stored in new battery infrastructure. These new solar panels, batteries, and nuclear plants will somehow have to be built using little carbon energy, again something that may be impossible to achieve at a global scale.

The cost of this transition is impossible to know, but surely reaches the tens of trillions of dollars. It needs to happen in just about every industrialized nation on the planet and needs to happen now—not in 2050, as the Paris Agreement dictates, or the 2030s, as reflected in many governments’ decarbonization goals. The engineering and administrative obstacles are immense; disentangling century-old, haphazard electric grid systems, for example, poses an almost unimaginable cascade of institutional and logistical hurdles. Imagine the difficulty of persuading millions of municipalities around the world to do anything simultaneously; now, imagine convincing them all to fundamentally shift the resource infrastructure on which their material existence depends immediately.

Perhaps even more daunting are the political obstacles, with diverse financial interests woven together in a tapestry of inertia and self-interest. Virtually all retirement funds, for instance, are invested in fossil fuel companies. Former and current fossil fuel industry managers sit on all manner of institutional committees in which energy and investment decisions are made: trustee boards of universities, regulatory commissions, city councils, congressional committees, philanthropic boards, federal agencies, the Oval Office couch. Lots of people make lots of money from fossil fuels. Will they sacrifice deeply vested interests to prevent collapse? They certainly have not shown signs of doing so yet, when the stakes are as dire as they’ve ever been; most have instead ruthlessly obstructed meaningful action. Will enough people be willing to do what it takes to forcibly remove them from the most powerful institutions in the world? That also seems unlikely, given meager public involvement in this issue so far.

This is the obstacle of collective action: everyone has to sacrifice, but no one wants to start. Who will assent to giving up their steady returns from fossil fuels if everyone else refuses? When people are living so precariously as it is (43% of American can’t afford basic necessities), how can we ask them to undertake energy transition? The US drags its feet on decarbonizing and justifies it by arguing that China has not made strong enough commitments. Which country will voluntarily give up access to strategic fossil fuel reserves? Much of our geopolitical dynamics and wars have revolved around access to mineral resources like oil. Is the US going to put itself in a disadvantaged position for the climate? Shell withdraws research funding for renewables because ExxonMobil goes full steam ahead on oil, and, hey, they must compete. Fossil fuel funded politicians of both parties certainly will not aid transition.

If untangling the webs of influence, interests, and engineering preventing decarbonization weren’t daunting enough, the world will also have to suck billions of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere that have already been emitted. Keeping the planet to even a deadly 1.5 degrees Celsius increase of warming depends on it.

This sounds simpler than it is, as if a big vacuum cleaner could siphon particulates from the sky. But no one really knows how to extract and sequester carbon at the scale necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. Engineers have thrown out a lot of ideas—some more plausible than others—but most scientists who have looked at proposals generally agree that it’s wishful thinking. As Huffington Post quotes Clive Hamilton, “In order to capture just a quarter of the emissions from the world's coal-fired power plants we would need a system of pipelines that would transport a volume of fluid twice the size of the global crude-oil industry.” Of course, manufacturing, shipping, and constructing those pipelines would require immense carbon energy inputs and emissions. And that’s just to capture the emissions from coal!

Like energy transition, carbon capture and sequestration requires governments to act collectively to invest trillions of dollars in risky, experimental, and probably mostly ineffectual sequestration technologies. Again, it’s a collective action problem: nobody wants to be the one to sacrifice while no one else is putting themselves on the line. And the miniscule likelihood that energy transition will occur under a Trump-Digs-Coal presidency—and the Trumpian nationalists winning elections across the world—casts further doubt on the possibility of rapid decarbonization. The administration’s energy department has projected that, “The carbon footprint of the United States will barely go down at all for the foreseeable future and will be slightly higher in 2050,” as InsideClimateNews notes. The world, today, is still setting records for carbon emissions and there’s no sign that will change anytime soon.

The only period in US history the nation has undertaken anything near the magnitude of collective action necessary for mitigation was during the Second World War and the rebuilding effort in its aftermath. But even those projects involved a fraction of the capital and coordination that will be necessary for sufficient energy transition and carbon sequestration. More importantly, today’s collective action will have to be politically justified without the motivation of defeating a personified enemy—a Hitler, if you will. Today, with interpersonal alienation running rampant and extremely consolidated wealth and power, industrial economies seem infinitely far from a cultural, political atmosphere in which collective action policies are even close to possible. To the contrary, wealthy countries are all still slashing public goods, passing austerity budgets, and investing heavily in fossil fuel infrastructure. Even most elected Democrats are dragging their feet on passing climate policy. The world is going in the exact opposite direction from one in which humans can live.

We’ve tied ourselves in a perfect Gordian knot.

The global economy is a vast machine, operating beyond the control of even the most powerful individuals, and it has a will of its own to consume and pollute. It’s hard to believe that this massive metal beast will be peacefully undone by the people who survive by it, and we all survive by it in some way, often against our wills; it bribes and entraps us all in ways large and small.

But a wrench could clog the gears, and maybe only a wrench can stop it. One wrench that could slow climate disruption may be a large-scale conflict that halts the global economy, destroys fossil fuel infrastructure, and throws particulates in the air. At this point, with insane people like Trump, Putin, Xi, May, and Macron leading the world’s biggest nuclear powers, large-scale conflagration between them would probably lead to a nuclear exchange. Nobody wants nuclear war. Rather, nobody sane and prosocial wants nuclear war. It is an absolute horror that would burn and maim millions of living beings, despoil millions of hectares, and scar the skin of the earth and dome of the sky for centuries, maybe millennia. With proxy conflict brewing between the US and Russia in the Middle East and the Thucydides trap ready to ensnare us with an ascendant China, nuclear war looks like a more realistic possibility than it has since the 1980s.

A devastating fact of climate collapse is that there may be a silver lining to the mushroom cloud. First, it should be noted that a nuclear exchange does not inevitably result in apocalyptic loss of life. Nuclear winter—the idea that firestorms would make the earth uninhabitable—is based on shaky science. There’s no reliable model that can determine how many megatons would decimate agriculture or make humans extinct. Nations have already detonated 2,476 nuclear devices.

An exchange that shuts down the global economy but stops short of human extinction may be the only blade realistically likely to cut the carbon knot we’re trapped within. It would decimate existing infrastructures, providing an opportunity to build new energy infrastructure and intervene in the current investments and subsidies keeping fossil fuels alive.

In the near term, emissions would almost certainly rise as militaries are some of the world’s largest emitters. Given what we know of human history, though, conflict may be the only way to build the mass social cohesion necessary for undertaking the kind of huge, collective action needed for global sequestration and energy transition. Like the 20th century’s world wars, a nuclear exchange could serve as an economic leveler. It could provide justification for nationalizing energy industries with the interest of shuttering fossil fuel plants and transitioning to renewables and, uh, nuclear energy. It could shock us into reimagining a less suicidal civilization, one that dethrones the death-cult zealots who are currently in power. And it may toss particulates into the atmosphere sufficient to block out some of the solar heat helping to drive global warming. Or it may have the opposite effects. Who knows?

What we do know is that humans can survive and recover from war, probably even a nuclear one. Humans cannot recover from runaway climate change. Nuclear war is not an inevitable extinction event; six degrees of warming is.

Given that mostly violent, psychopathic individuals manage the governments and industries of the world, it may only be possible for anti-social collective action—that is, war—to halt, or at least slow, our inexorable march toward oblivion. A courageous, benevolent ruler might compel vast numbers of people to collective action. But we have too few of those, and the legal, political, and military barriers preventing them from rising are immense. Our current crop of villainous presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs, whether lusting for chaos or pursuing their own petty ends, may inadvertently conspire to break the machine now preventing our future. When so bereft of heroes, we may need to rely on humanity’s antagonists and their petty incompetence to accidentally save the day. It is a stark reflection of how homicidal our economy is—and our collective adherence to its whims—that nuclear war could be a rational course of action.

Or, ya know, we could just stop using fossil fuels.

Samuel Miller McDonald is a writer and geography PhD student at University of Oxford studying the intersection of grassroots movements and energy transition.