Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? – by David Ray Griffin
Reviewed by David Lorimer
Reactions to the recent Paris climate accord have been broadly positive, although with many reservations owing to its structure and lack of binding commitments. Elizabeth Kolbert, whose book The Sixth Extinction I review in books in brief, wrote in the New York Times that it was probably the best agreement that could have been brokered in the circumstances while remarking that those who say it was a triumph and those who insist it was a sham – like James Hansen – are both right. Private Eye humorously summarises the drift in its latest issue, remarking that ‘there were standing ovations all round in Paris last night, as 194 world leaders applauded themselves for having agreed on what they all agreed was the most historic agreement ever agreed in the history of the world.’
In his latest book, David Ray Griffin brings his meticulous scholarship and critical acumen to a completely new field, with 75 pages of notes covering every aspect of climate change that one can think of. He originally made his name in philosophy and religion, especially with respect to Whitehead, and he has also written on parapsychology. More recently, he has written over 10 books on 9/11, most of which I have reviewed in these pages. It is an extraordinary achievement to have mastered the climate change literature so thoroughly and produce a highly acclaimed book asking if civilisation can survive the CO2 crisis. At the beginning of the book, he quotes Nobel prize winner Sherwood Rowland as saying: ‘what’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we are willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?’ This quote effectively frames Griffin’s analysis.
The book is in three parts: unprecedented threats, covering extreme weather, heatwaves, droughts and fires, storms, sea level rise, fresh water shortage, food shortage, climate refugees, climate wars and ecosystem collapse and extinction. The second part addresses unprecedented challenges and failures: climate change denial, media failure, political failure, moral challenge, religious challenge and economic challenge. Part three spells out what can be done in terms of the transition to clean energy, the abolition of dirty energy and mobilisation. In some ways, Griffin builds on the work of Lester Brown and his formulation of Plan B, although he cleverly adds Plan C. Plan A is business as usual, which is not really a plan at all, while Plan B spells out the necessary mobilisation process and action that can avert environmental catastrophe. Plan C is the wait-and-see option which, in the end, is not very different from Plan A. This leaves Plan B as the only truly rational and moral option, but it requires a fundamental change of course that will not be initiated by our current political systems.
Drawing on authoritative sources, Griffin spells out in the first part the catalogue of evidence for climate disruption, focusing primarily on the US but bringing in evidence from other parts of the world as well. Because we are used to thinking in linear terms, it is more difficult for us to understand that global warming may be a systemic cause of many of the disruptions he describes. Some of the later chapters illustrate the effects of the earlier ones when it comes to water and food shortages. There is a separate chapter on climate refugees, which Sir Crispin Tickell was warning about 20 years ago. Here Griffin gives a particularly interesting example concerning Syria. We already know that the whole region is under pressure so far as water is concerned, and Syria suffered a terrible drought between 2006 and 2011. This led to widespread crop failures and death of livestock, reducing 2 to 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants to extreme poverty. Government policy further exacerbated water shortages and it seems plausible that the government’s failure to respond to this humanitarian crisis was a trigger of the uprising. At the end of each chapter, Griffin spells out clearly the options of Plans A, B and C so that the reader becomes progressively more convinced that we must find a way of implementing Plan B.
The second part opens with a discussion of climate change denial, which is largely linked to oil interests, particularly Exxon Mobil. Griffin lists the principal scientists and institutions supported by the industry, and has some eye-opening quotes from informed politicians. He compares the denial campaign with that of the cigarette industry, and could also have cited the current tactics of the food industry in relation to obesity. He goes on to document the failure of the media and politicians, commenting on the huge gap between the public’s understanding of the situation and the scientific understanding, which has actually widened over the last five years. The main reason for media and political failure is a combination of the power of money and ‘economism’, which frames the whole analysis in terms of the growth of the existing system, in spite of warnings from distinguished academics like Lord Stern, whose views have become more urgent since the publication of his initial study in 2006. Science has been overruled by politics and short-term economics and I’m sure Jonathan Pershing is right to remark that the politics of negotiations do not speak in any way to what has to be done. A very important factor is intergenerational justice, which reinforces the moral case for immediate action. Griffin also shows how various apocalyptic theological perspectives do not help the situation: if you rely on God to intervene or you are expecting the end of the world, then climate change can fulfil these aspirations.
The third part goes into considerable detail about the possible transition to clean energy, using a variety of technologies and showing that the world could be powered by such technologies by 2050. German figures have already reached one third. Forecasts for keeping global warming within 2 degrees mean that we can only burn a further 565 gigatons of carbon, while the known reserves of fossil fuels are 2795 gigatons. This means keeping 4/5 of these reserves in the ground. Needless to say, the fossil fuel companies have no intention of doing this, so governments will have to act more vigorously on the carbon front and by removing fossil fuel subsidies. Griffin shows that none of our existing fossil fuel technologies are clean enough to make a difference. Like Lester Brown, he advocates mass mobilisation to address the overall challenge. This gives a unique role to the President of the United States, but equally the office is hemmed in by campaign funds given by fossil fuel and other interests. Griffin spells out the clear and present danger that we face and details a series of policies that reverse the trends. In doing this, he goes further than Brown by showing what various sectors of society can contribute, including leaders at state and city levels.
So we come back to Paris and the agreement. Elizabeth Kolbert thinks that the media have a special role to play in keeping world leaders up to the mark in fulfilling their obligations and aspirations. We do not yet have a collective sense of emergency that is conveyed in this powerful book, so the question becomes how this will come about. There is always wiggle room in associating a systemic cause with a particular effect, so perhaps our best bet is to support every effort we can not only to move towards clean energy but also to support projects that regenerate our ecosystems, especially in relation to agriculture, and reduce our ecological footprint. This also means a major campaign on contraception and women’s education so as to reduce family size as population and consumption together determine our overall impact on the environment.