At The Intercept, Kate Aronoff reports on a scientific paper published recently that set off a storm of alarming newspaper headlines such as “No Existing Policies Will Be Enough to Prevent a Future Hothouse Earth” and “Earth at Risk of ‘Hothouse’ Climate Tipping Point Even If Emissions Are Reduced.” The paper—which is entitled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” but which has come to be known as the “hothouse earth paper”—was actually less panic-inducing than the headlines suggest. As Aronoff explains, the paper did not in fact imply that catastrophic climate change is inexorable and inevitable. Instead, it suggested a key change that could avert the worst-case scenario: shifting from an economic system based on carbon-fueled growth to one based on a sustainable relationship to our natural environment. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Asked what could be done to prevent a hothouse earth scenario, co-author Will Steffen told The Intercept that the “obvious thing we have to do is to get greenhouse gas emissions down as fast as we can. That means that has to be the primary target of policy and economics. You have got to get away from the so-called neoliberal economics.” Instead, he suggests something “more like wartime footing” to roll out renewable energy and dramatically reimagine sectors like transportation and agriculture “at very fast rates.”
That “wartime footing” Steffen describes is a novel concept in 2018, but hasn’t been throughout American history when the nation has faced other existential threats. In the lead-up to World War II, the government played a heavy hand in industry, essentially shifting the U.S. to a centrally planned economy, rather than leaving things like prices and procurement of key resources up to market forces. By the end of World War II, about a quarter of all manufacturing in the United States had been nationalized. And while governments around the world continue to intervene heavily in the private sector — including in the U.S. — those interventions tend now to be on behalf of corporations, be it through subsidies to fossil fuel companies or zoning laws that favor luxury real estate developers.
Contra much of the apocalyptic coverage around “Trajectories,” runaway climate change of the kind described in Steffen and his co-authors’ paper is very likely preventable. The ways to prevent it just happen to go against the economic logic that has dominated the world economy for the last half-decade, to scale back regulations and give major industries free reign.
Image via The Intercept.