The people who stole our future

I.

I’d like to make some points about some recent political developments in my country as well as the rest of the world. We’ve seen the rise of various right-wing antiglobalist movements, that seek to promote their own national interest at the cost of the rest of the world. When Donald Trump proclaims that the United States should build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, or brings up to Iraq’s prime minister that the United States should be rewarded with Iraq’s oil in exchange for invading the nation, that’s a fair characterization in my opinion.

Other political developments around the world can be interpreted similarly. In Brazil, Bolsonaro was elected, who has built a platform that largely revolves around the seizure and exploitation of indigenous land. In the past Bolsonaro used to be more explicit and directly hinted at genocide, but now he goes about it more subtly, suggesting that Brazil’s ranchers should be armed and Brazil’s indigenous reserves should be economically developed.

In the United Kingdom we’ve witnessed a referendum that ended in a vote to leave the European Union. There are legitimate grounds on which to criticize the European Union, Monbiot has pointed out a few of them, but those don’t tend to be the arguments that led people to reject membership of the European Union. Instead, the dominant drivers seem to have been economic gain at the cost of other nations.

Large parts of the world have taken a sharp turn to the right. In addition, there has been a strong backlash against globalization in recent years. The recent elections in the Netherlands also fit within this trend. These trends don’t emerge in a vacuum, there are legitimate grievances that lead people to grow disillusioned by globalization. This doesn’t change the fact however that the consequences are going to be dramatic and destructive. The decisions made today involve short term gains for the elderly, at the cost of the future of our youth.

II.

Back in the year 2000, after an orgy of exuberant economic prosperity, the IPCC published a report on various different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, that were grouped into four different families, based on how political and societal developments around the world would unfold. They could be categorized along two axis. The 1 group of scenarios fit within a globalized world, whereas the 2 group of scenarios revolves around a world with a stronger emphasis on regionalization. The other axis consists of A scenarios versus B scenarios. Under A scenarios, economic prosperity and material wealth is culturally emphasized around the world. Under the B family of scenarios, environmental sustainability is given preference over economic prosperity. This leads to four broad categories.

Together these four categories contain dozens of individual unique scenarios meant to simulate some of the most likely outcomes of our global predicament. Like every attempt to predict the future, there have been some errors and there have been some unforeseen developments. Overall however, these scenarios represent the fruit of the body of scientific knowledge available at the time. When it comes to greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, the IPCC has been a little too conservative, as actual emissions grew faster than in most scenarios. By 2012, it was clear that emissions were following most closely along a A2 type of scenario: A deglobalizing world, where people place emphasis on national interest at the cost of the world as a whole and material prosperity over spiritual and ecological values.

By now, political developments increasingly suggest the world is following an A2 type scenario too. People vote for political candidates who wish to reign in the societal trend towards increasing globalization. These candidates are also notable for their climate change denial. Bolsonaro has suggested withdrawing from the Paris agreement, Trump has in fact withdrawn, the recent election in the Netherlands ended in a new party that explicitly built a platform around denying climate change becoming the largest party in the senate. These are all outcomes that fit very much within the A2 family of climate change scenarios.

.

The A2 category is generally seen as either the worst or the second worst possible outcome in regards to the climate. Economic development is hampered by the fact that trade between nations is reduced, thereby leading to somewhat less warming in the long term than some of the worst of the A1 scenarios. However, the scenario is generally thought of as leading to four degree warming by 2100, with no genuine end in sight by then. Because of the emphasis on nationalism, low economic development and low emphasis on ecological values, the world’s population also continues to grow, as no demographic transition takes place in the developing world. The IPCC estimates the world’s population by 2100 would be 15 billion.

We can debate how likely these outcomes are. The IPCC has made it clear that its scenarios exclude “collapse” scenarios, where relatively sudden problems emerge that trigger significant economic upheaval and rapid population decline. It focuses instead on scenarios in which civilization continues to progress and looks at the subsequent interaction between economic changes and climatic changes.

III.

The nations of the world came together in an effort to set up a Green Climate Fund, that would be funded with 100 billion dollar per year by 2020. This money would be donated by developed nations, in an effort to help developing nations expand their economies in a sustainable manner and prepare for the impact of climate change. Developed nations would be able to promote birth control and legal abortion to address overpopulation, fund the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure and overall ensure that developing nations would end up with the standard of living that reduces fertility rates below 2 children per women, without requiring the rampant amount of greenhouse gas emissions our Western lifestyle currently requires.

Of course the world’s developed nations never ended up agreeing to donating this kind of money on an annual basis. When Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement, he explicitly called the Green Climate Fund a form of wealth redistribution from the world’s wealthy nations to the poor nations. There are two important points he failed to take into consideration however.

Whenever someone brings up “But what about China and India?”, it’s worth noting that we’ve already built up a huge environmental debt to the rest of the world.

To start with, the world’s developed nations have built up an ecological debt to the rest of the world. Between 1850 and 2011, the EU and the United States were together responsible for half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Africa can’t be found on this chart, but its share is around 3%, with most of that accounted for by Northern Africa. The places with the smallest responsibility for the problem, are the same places that will face the largest consequences.

The second issue to consider is that we all ultimately benefit from sustainable development in the third world. Sustainable development is a form of development that prevents ecological catastrophes from unfolding in the third world, prevents the influx of massive streams of refugees into the developed world and ultimately transforms the third world into places that can fully contribute to the world community. Development is not a zero-sum game. We benefit from the fact that Korea and Japan are developed nations, capable of delivering their own unique cultural and scientific contributions to the Western world.

Overall, sustainable global development is the scenario we should have aimed for as a global community, but didn’t. By now it’s starting to look increasingly unlikely that sustainable development will be achieved. Foreign aid budgets that reduce population growth in developing nations by delivering contraception and abortion services to women without access are being slashed. Politicians in Europe, Brazil and the United States increasingly emphasize short-term economic growth over long-term ecological sustainability.

IV.

It seems to me based on what we’re witnessing now that the most likely outcome is that the world will follow an A2 trajectory in the coming decades, before diverging from this course as a consequence of the ecological impact of our decisions. As the population grows faster than the economy, people’s standard of living starts to decline, which then leads to further population growth and further political backlash. The kind of cultural transition necessary to create a sustainable economy then becomes unattainable, as innovation begins to stagnate and short term issues start to receive further emphasis at the cost of pursuing long-term sustainability.

There are of course various uncertainties involved. Lab grown meat or self-driving cars might make a much bigger dent in our emissions than we would anticipate. The world might rapidly transition to a plant-based diet, weather modification might have less side-effects than currently anticipated, oceanic iron fertilization might work better than we currently expect, genetic modification might allow us to grow crops under conditions far more extreme than we currently anticipate, the impact of CO2 might be smaller than we anticipate. It’s unlikely for all of these different variables to point in the same direction however and it would be irrational to assume that some deus ex machina will prohibit us from having to bear the consequences of our own decisions. Instead, the most likely outcome is simply that we continue the trajectory we’re on, until something breaks down.

It’s worth pointing out that so far, global emissions of carbon dioxide and methane follow a business as usual scenario. Below you can see methane concentrations in the atmosphere:

And here you can see carbon dioxide emissions:

The different projections are referred to as different Representative Concentration Pathways. The eventual outcome this leads to would appear to be either RCP 8.5, or RCP 6.0 (not visible in these images), based on what we’ve seen so far. It needs to be taken into consideration however, that RCP 8.5 and RCP 6.0 are scenarios that involve sustained emissions until 2100. If we assume that things start seriously breaking down around us somewhere around halfway through this century, we would likely find ourselves ending up in an emissions scenario more akin to RCP 4.5: Emissions start dropping rapidly around 2050 and begin to plunge around 2070, remaining at around 5 Gigaton of carbon throughout the rest of the century, leading to a temperature increase of around 2.5 degree above pre-industrial in the IPCC’s estimate. Unfortunately however, the IPCC doesn’t really tend to discuss scenarios in which society starts breaking down as a consequence of fossil fuel depletion and climate change, nor does it adequately consider the positive feedback effects that result when global temperatures go up sufficiently.

V.

Today’s youth are left with a heavy burden to carry. They’re passed on a world robbed of its natural beauty and carrying capacity. Places now home to billions of people will see dramatic declines in carrying capacity in the decades ahead. Many people will die, others will flee to places further away from the equator, thereby pitting people from different ethnic groups against each other. This is not a temporary upheaval, this is what we’re going to be leaving behind for the coming centuries.

The people who are responsible for this catastrophe will tell you once it starts to unfold that it was inevitable, that they had no role in what is going to happen. However, they are lying to you. They saw opportunities for political power and self-enrichment and grabbed those opportunities to enrich themselves and their cronies at the cost of our youth and the billions of people whose homelands will become uninhabitable. The people who are setting our world up for mass death have names.

Thierry Baudet insulting a sixteen year old girl

I am thinking specifically here of a man like Thierry Baudet. Years ago, when he was asked about climate change, Thierry Baudet insisted that it is a fact that can not be disputed. Thierry Baudet now proclaims that humans are not responsible for the catastrophic upheaval of our climate, because this is an opportunity for him to gain power. The cost of adjusting our society is large, so Baudet insists that we can simply forgo transitioning to a renewable economy. He even proclaims that we have centuries worth of natural gas left. In addition, he argues that our Dutch impact on the climate is negligible, because we are a small nation and thus have no responsibility to stop polluting the atmosphere shared by seven billion people.

This man is not ignorant. This man simply knows what he needs to do to gain power. He knows that pretending the problem does not exist will lead masses of people to vote for him. In this regard, he is no different from oil companies like Shell and Exxon-Mobil, which knew about the impact of their business activities in the 1970’s, but decided to set up campaigns that sought to deny there is a genuine problem. In a sane society, politicians like Thierry Baudet and oil industry executives would be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

What we need is resistance. An insurrection against the people who have brought about this catastrophe is our moral obligation. Without meaning insult to well-meaning people, the time to lay dead in college campuses and train stations to “raise awareness” of the problem was twenty or thirty years ago. Everyone is aware of the problem. What needs to happen now is that the people who knowingly cause the problem to enrich themselves need to be held responsible for the suffering they impose upon future generations. When people cause mass death to enrich themselves, there should be consequences.

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