The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, arguably the largest scientific collaboration in human history, has produced its Sixth evaluation report on climate change. The science is complicated and the pile of evidence is immense, but the basic conclusion is quite simple: Scientists are increasingly certain that the global temperature is rising, that it is caused by humans, and that all kinds of events are happening. extreme weather is linked to this warming. As a pseudonymous physicist abstract, “It’s real, it’s us, there is a strong agreement between the experts concerned, the impacts could be really severe, we can still do things to limit the impact.”
The threat is terrible. Every part of the United States will be affected by uncontrolled global warming – some are hit harder than others, but nowhere is safe – while the poorest countries will be hit even harder. With only one degree Celsius of warming, America has experienced a summer of continuous climate disasters. At 1.5 degrees and above, the damage will be much worse.
And yet, there is no indication that the American political system is taking this threat seriously. This begs the question of whether climate change will be the thing that ultimately overthrows America’s already creaky constitutional system.
In Washington, most of the summer has been plagued by negotiations around a bipartisan infrastructure that includes petty climate policy. Democrats hope to pass a separate reconciliation bill with about $ 3.5 trillion in additional spending over 10 years (or about 1% of GDP, a modest bill), but even if it was all about things climate (only a small part is), it is perhaps a fifth the size of a serious attack on climate change.
Progress is being made, but it is simply a long way from the magnitude of the problem. Then, because Democrats are likely to lose control of the House of Representatives at least next year, and Republicans don’t believe in doing anything about the climate issue, that likely will be the case for the United States. climate policy for the rest of the decade, if not longer. . If the Conservatives are successful in their plot to destroy fair elections at all levels of government and build a one-party regime, that will be all for the indefinite future.
Traditionally, when a government fails to deal with a giant and imminent threat, it increases the chances of revolution. Now such an event is quite frightening, and conservative and moderate forces have spent generations stoking fear of the Jacobins and the guillotines. This leads to a common misconception, however – that revolutions are the result of people deciding to overthrow the government. As listeners to historian Mike Duncan’s excellent book Revolutions Podcast can tell you, this (most of the time) turns causality upside down. The actions of revolutionaries matter of course, but the main causative factor of virtually every revolution in history has been the decay and incompetence of the status quo political regime. If a government can ensure a minimum of economic prosperity and maintain a firm grip on the armed forces, revolutions almost never stand a chance.
For example, at the end of his reign, Tsar Nicholas II’s record of constant failures was so appalling that almost the entire Russian political spectrum, from communists to ultra-conservative monarchists, was united against him. His horrific mismanagement convinced even diehard autocrats that the country could not survive with an incompetent idiot at the top of power.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith made a similar observation on the failure of the elite of Ancien Régime France to prevent the revolution:
In 1774 [Turgot] became Comptroller General of France, and his immediate task was to curb the spending of the French court. He failed. A firm rule worked against him: privileged people almost always prefer to risk… total destruction rather than relinquish some of their privileges. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is one reason. There is also the invariable feeling that privilege, however blatant it is, is a fundamental right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a small thing compared to that of the rich. And it was the same under the Ancien Régime… when reform from above became impossible, then revolution from below became inevitable. [The Age of Uncertainty]
It follows that if one fears revolution, by far the most important thing to do is to make the existing political system work. This was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s main motivations for the New Deal – as historian Eric Rauchway writes in his book Winter war, FDR feared that if the Great Depression was not healed somehow, then the fascists or the communists could overthrow the government. “The millions of people in need will not remain silent indefinitely while the things to meet their needs are at hand,” he said in a 1932 campaign speech.
Now, I would be a fool to predict that a revolution is definitely going to happen, let alone when. But it’s also impossible to deny that Galbraith’s scheme could plausibly be applied to the utter failure of the United States to pursue climate policy on a reasonable scale. The Democratic Party does not pursue vigorous climate policy because America’s archaic constitutional system was deliberately designed to make anything nearly impossible, and because that would infuriate many well-heeled interest groups with whom the gone is in bed. Republicans, meanwhile, are doing all they can to increase greenhouse gas emissions and make the situation worse.
Like most people, I guess, I find it hard to imagine conditions getting so bad in America that people are rising up and overthrowing the basic structure of government. But I also suspect that not many people have really thought about how the coming years will stir up unrest and discredit the status quo.
Climate disasters regularly strike almost all states. California suffers from its second biggest forest fire in recorded history (and the record was only set last year), and its reservoirs are almost out of the water. Some 40 percent of the country is severe droughts, Again. It’s bad enough that great stories go unnoticed – for example, I wasn’t aware of the floods in Omaha a few days ago until I start writing this article.
And all of this is just a taste of what Americans are going to experience over the next few decades. When people are suffering horribly and their government does little to help them, it tends to fuel radicalization and extremism (like eco-terrorism). Revolution is a frightening prospect, of course – I wouldn’t be so confident that a better government would result from it, instead of chaos and war. But if the American elite make it the only option available to have a prayer to save the planet, some might decide it’s a chance.