A Premonition Of The Planetary Future

Simultaneous climate calamity brings the whole Earth into focus.

Yeyei Gómez for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

This summer, a chain of extreme weather conditions took hold across the planet. Extended droughts along the Yangtze watershed in Sichuan Province, China and the Rhine Valley in Europe are drying up rivers critical for hydroelectric power and commercial navigation. In California, the longest drought in over 1,000 years is tipping into irreversible aridification. In France, Beaujolais grapes are withering on the vine from scorching heat while fires ravage its southwestern forests.

Where there is not drought, there are damaging deluges. Flood waters are inundating large swaths of Pakistan and overflowing the banks of the Mississippi River in the United States.

We may well look back upon 2022 as that moment when the global simultaneity of climate calamity finally crossed an epistemic threshold, registering in the mind’s eye the most compelling image of the whole Earth, now in peril, since the marvelous “Blue Marble” photograph taken from space by the Apollo astronauts in 1972.

Political Will Has Finally Arrived

What adds to this sense of an axial shift is a new seriousness of purpose in addressing the future headed our way that is evidenced, at last, by a burst of political will across different governing systems.

The U.S. Congress just passed the most comprehensive climate legislation in American history aimed at accelerating the path to a non-fossil fuel economy — not insignificantly redefining “pollution” to include greenhouse gases within the realm of regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, thus nullifying a recent Supreme Court ruling that would have set back the capacity for robust action. This month, regulators in California have boldly charted an even faster transition track to electric cars and trucks, prohibiting the sale of combustion engine vehicles after 2035.

China has pledged a seven-fold increase in solar energy and a nearly five-fold increase in nuclear power generation to reach the goal of net carbon neutrality by 2060. The European Union has committed in law to reducing carbon emissions to 55% of what they were in 1990 by 2030.

A panoply of lesser measures add to cumulative change. In response to the high cost and tight supply of energy incurred by the Russia-Ukraine war as well as an incentive to cut auto emissions, Germany has put in place a highly popular and widely used 9 euro bargain ticket for local rail travel across the country.

Prompted by a citizens’ assembly on climate in the wake of the 2018 Yellow Jacket uprising, France is implementing a slew of ambitious measures from banning single-use plastic packaging for perishable products to banning short-haul flights where a train or bus trip of two and a half hours or less in an alternative. Even Japan, where even individual pieces of fruit are often packaged, is aiming to become a plastic-free society by 2050. To secure non-carbon energy supplies and meet climate goals, the nation that experienced one of the most dangerous nuclear disasters ever, at Fukushima, has reversed course and is planning a new generation of nuclear reactors.

As the sense of urgency over climate grows, issues heretofore buried in generalities, such as class, are now on the table. Banning the use of private jets is already under discussion in France, where there is a latent recognition, as Genevieve Guenther has written in Noema, that the richest 10% are responsible for 52% of cumulative global emissions.

From Complacency To Conundrum

The same political will that has moved the needle beyond complacency now faces new conundrums that only emerge as newfound climate awareness clashes with the carbon infrastructure upon which growth and prosperity still largely rests.

Examples abound. To compensate for the lost generation capacity from hydroelectric dams due to the drought in Sichuan, China looks to plug the gap in demand with new coal-fired power that will only worsen the warming that causes drought in the first place. As gas supplies from Russia to Germany dwindle, one of the otherwise greenest polities in the world is compelled to bring mothballed coal-fired plants back online to warm winter homes and turn the faltering turbines of industry.

Resolving these quandaries in favor of sustainability is where the rubber meets the road, where political will meets political skill. Balancing the interests of present constituencies against future repercussions is the key challenge on the immediate horizon, when time has become an ethical dimension as the window to avoid an irreparable cascade of climate consequences is closing.

From Simultaneity to Synchronicity

Similar ecological catastrophes erupting in far flung locales across the globe at the same time are fostering efforts everywhere to keep the lights on and wheels spinning by means that don’t generate more heat. A race is on that is not about besting others, but about arriving collectively before it is too late at the finishing line of an energy transition that can fuel human endeavor without destroying the conditions of its existence.

Despite the present obstacles and so far unresolved conundrums, the globally simultaneous experience we are living through today would seem to inexorably precipitate synchronous cooperation around convergent imperatives shared by all. It has been said so often that it would be an empty cliché if each successive climate event did not make it more true: What binds the inhabitants of Earth going forward is infinitely greater than whatever divided them in the past.

As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk put it in an interview with Noema, “From a macro-historical viewpoint… the Earth has been recognized as a finite, planetary ecosystem that must be managed through a global environmental policy. … This implies that many cultures must understand that, while looking back at a mainly separate past, they will experience a primarily common future. This leads to the emergence of a global situationism — that inherent traits do not exist but are shaped by our environment — which places the single Earth in the forefront as a common site for all cultures.”

From each of our distinct vantage points here on the ground, the whole planet is now coming into focus just as it did for the Apollo crew gazing down from outer space half a century ago.

Correction: On Sept. 12, 2022, this essay was edited to make clear that the author is referring to the “Blue Marble” photograph taken in 1972, not the first-ever photograph of the Earth.