Will Natural Resilience Leave Humans Behind On The Escalator To Extinction?

The Glasgow climate summit will tell.

Zach Meyer for Noema Magazine

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

While our species, unique in its capacity to envision a future and plan its behavior, stumbles toward climate action in the misty precincts of Scotland this week, the rest of nature can’t wait. It is moving on in evolutionary resilience, one organism at a time, flexibly adapting to human-induced planetary warming.

This capacity to conjoin “urgency” with “agency,” biologist Thor Hanson writes in Noema, is a lesson humankind needs to learn sooner rather than later if it is going to either avoid the tipping point of no return in despoiling our only livable biosphere, or figure out how to survive after the fact.

“In nature, the responses of individual organisms determine the fate of populations, species and entire ecological communities,” he writes. “The same pattern applies to society. Addressing climate change requires a fundamental cultural shift in our relationship with energy, from how we produce it to how much of it our lifestyles demand. That makes individual action more important, not less so, because it is the collective behaviors and attitudes of individuals that define and change a culture. Yes, we need stronger climate policies and strong leadership to carry them forward, but those things will be the results of cultural change, not the cause of it.”

In the end, it is not summits of nation-states that will drive a path that aligns human civilization with natural resilience, but the evolutionary imperative that activates each and every member of the species from below.

“Plants and animals are already changing their habits and behaviors to adapt to a warming world,” Hanson observes, “often with a resourcefulness and flexibility we can learn from as we formulate our own response. When faced with a climate challenge, species don’t simply give up — they do all that they can to adjust.”

He cites the example of sea butterflies hardening their shells to survive in ever-more acidic oceans, or brown bears turning from salmon to red elderberries, ripening much earlier in the warming climes, to obtain the fat reserves they once got from fish.

This “plasticity” that gives a species its edge is common in all successful evolutionary shifts. Yet, Hanson also warns that not all species can survive a warming world when there is no place to escape to. He notes the case of both plants and birds that move up mountain slopes to escape the heat. But, “if entire habitat zones and the creatures within them migrate upslope, then those at the peak are at risk of being pushed out, a scenario dubbed ‘the escalator to extinction.’” In other words, no Planet B.

While the fossil-fuel powers of Russia, China, India and Australia — plus U.S. Senator Joe Manchin’s West Virginia — are stalling any leap forward in the midst of a global energy crunch, smaller nations like Denmark have shown how consensus can be reached between idealism and realism. 

“Over the past decade, Denmark’s climate policies have been ambitious and successful,” Fabrizio Tassinari writes in Noema. “The country first reached its targets of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 30% share of renewable energy in 2020, and is now aiming for a 40% reduction in emissions and 55% share of renewables by the end of this decade. A broad cross-party coalition has ensured progress toward the goal of phasing out all fossil fuel production by mid-century. And Copenhagen aims to become the first carbon-neutral capital in the world by 2025. Officials have no qualms in admitting that meeting these objectives is taking heavy public investment.”

The key to Denmark’s success is precisely the kind of innovative flexibility Hanson calls for, bringing civil society, business and government together so that urgency is met with agency.

There are the familiar policies behind its advances, such as improving efficiency and extending financial incentives for investment in renewable energy technology. “But,” Tassinari emphasizes, “Denmark is also seeking ways to stimulate innovation and to make green investments attractive for companies. Together with South Korea and Mexico, in 2011 Denmark launched the Global Green Growth Forum (3GF) to marry bottom-up ideas from corporate and research actors with top-down government support. Companies such as Samsung, Siemens and General Electric joined forces with the likes of UC Berkeley, aided by governments that pledge to create a stable environment for green investments. Civil society, businesses and the media were part of the endeavor.

“Since 2018, the 3GF has become the P4G (Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030), which has 12 partner countries, six international organizational partners and over 240 business and civil society partners, all working on more than 50 concrete partnerships aimed at ‘pioneering market-based partnerships to build sustainable and resilient economies’ on everything from Africa’s renewable energy markets to cutting food waste.” 

What underlay all these innovations is the kind of cultural consensus that Hanson spoke of as a precondition to a species shift among humans. That is the good news. The daunting reality is that it is a long road to “get to Denmark” from West Virginia or the coal-producing Shanxi region of China.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow this week will offer a window into whether humans will join with the rest of nature in evolutionary resilience, or be left behind on the escalator to extinction.