The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What the Paris Climate Accord Tells Us About Our Future

Eiffel TowerThere are two ways to look at the Paris accords. The first way is that it is a step in the right direction: Countries have made promises to improve carbon emissions, report back every five years, and each five years promise to increase emissions reduction.

The emission reductions promised are substantial and will decrease warming substantially–if met.

The second way to look at it is that the emissions targets are not binding and are insufficient to avoid catastrophe in any case. Forests and oceans are still imperiled, the Pacific Islands are toast, and our coastal cities are goners. Because of self-reinforcing cycles which will see the release of vast amounts of methane stored in peat bogs, permafrost, and underwater, we were already probably past the point of no return some time ago. Far more drastic action was required; it was not taken.

Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye, in other words.

I tend towards the second view, which regular readers will find no surprise. However, it is interesting that Paris did include more substantial promises than have been included previously. Decision makers are far behind the curve, as usual, but they are beginning to take the problem seriously.

My default scenario indicates that by 2100, most coastal cities will have been flooded. A very few may survive with full dike systems. The default scenario used by the UN underestimates both sea-level and temperature increases, as it doesn’t properly account for vicious cycles releasing stored gases like methane, and those gases accelerate the process exponentially.

In addition, climate instability will increase. Rainfall patterns will change, there will be far more extreme weather events like hurricanes, and they will be more powerful. Parts of the world which are today inhabitable will become uninhabitable due to heat or lack of water. The amount of arable land will decrease significantly and we will have to convert to high-intensity agriculture techniques quite different from the ones we use today. Potable water will be a huge problem, and we will not have enough. Mass desalinzation and recycling will be the order of the day. We are going to lose most edible sea-life, and such seafood as we have will be mostly farmed, and quite a bit less healthy than wild seafood.

There are a vast number of knock-on social and economic affects of such a scenario, and we can expect to see mass migrations, a minimum of a billion incremental deaths (and I expect far more), which would not have occurred without climate change. There will be war and revolution, and so on.

Capitalism, as it exists now, is unlikely to survive these changes. It will be seen, and rightly so, to have been responsible for famines, genocides, and wars that will dwarf those of the 20th century. Collateral damage to other ideologies will occur, though it’s hard to say exactly how that will play out. Will “democracy” be discredited, or will it be reborn in a more robust form, for example?

I don’t, actually, think the Paris accords were the last chance. I think the last chance passed at Kyoto, years ago. The Paris accords are just another reminder of “too little, too late.” That said, whatever we do is worth doing, as it will reduce deaths and suffering. It is just not enough to stop the bulk of the damage.

If you are young, you will see much of this future. Be prepared. If you are older, your job is to prepare the world by changing existing ideas so that when real political and economic change happens (and it will, be sure of that), it changes in the best ways possible.

Because catastrophe will not be avoided, it is best to detach, mentally, and look upon the present and future as interesting times. Do what you can, know that there are billions of people, so your responsibility is only minor, and relax. History will wend its way.

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  1. subgenius

    Capitalism is unlikely to survive?

    It is a pretty straightforward case to show that capitalism is the rocket fuel to the degradation of the biosphere performed by mankind…

    Any solution is going to have to fundamentally rework notions of wealth and money in order to have any chance at success.

  2. S Brennan

    Perhaps because of my background, engineering, I find political agreements like this similar to arguing over how many angels can do cartwheels on the head of a pin.

    The reality is, the solution, [and I don’t want to waste my time arguing why solar/wind will lead to a great impoverishment of those who must work to earn a living], is in the development and implementation of technology. That requires a dramatic change in FISCAL POLICY.

    And for fiscal policy to change requires complete rejection of the ideological cult that has darkened the world, I speak, of course of the Satanic cult Neo-Liberalism [of which it is neither] that the demon Milton Friedman proselytized. Whatever way you cut it, the undertaking, while maintaining a society wide standard of living above destitution, is massive and intrusive. I don’t see that in the cards.

    I saw it possible in 2008, the deep state also saw it…and made sure to thwart it with an Obama. A man, who, in spite of his fan club’s silly claim to be one of the GREATEST PRESIDENTS EVER, did every thing in his power to ensure that the current system of unrestrained private wealth was maintained and enlarged through the ruthless crushing of dissidents, endless proxy wars of empire, welfare for the wealthiest and the final steps needed to create an all encompassing Stazi state. A Stazi state that that ensures that anyone who could challenge the oligarchs could be shuffled off, or better yet, be put to work through blackmail and prosecution.

    I’d like to be hopeful, the challenges are not that hard, they would employ millions of idle hands with rewarding work. Work that would create wealth that goes beyond anything within the reptilian brains of our masters…and therein lies the problem. Oh, not slow incremental wealth creation, they can wrap their heads around that, but unbound wealth, a wealth whose contours are unknowable, a wealth that displaces and spills. That kind of wealth creation troubles the ruling reptiles…and so we must await a cleansing comet.

  3. Peter*

    I agree with most of your view on what will probably happen due to runaway GW but I doubt that it will end Capitalism unless it causes the total collapse of civilization.

    The end of unlimited growth is already rapidly approaching and the Technocrats and their business partners are very excited about the opportunities for profit that Climate Change offers now and in the future.

    Their most powerful representatives were at the Paris Exposition to sell the idea that governments are too slow and distracted to handle this problem and the Corporate world must take the lead in developing profitable remedies for the changes that are unstoppable now. Because no one is willing to demand what is actually required to even slow GW, massive reduction in consumption especially in the West, no one important would profit from that, they will sell the illusion of Big Green that may reduce co2 emissions sometime in the future while they develop the very profitable technological and industrial remediation programs they will sell to the countries who can afford to treat the effects of GW.

  4. Tom

    Only War in the future. I would say the war is already begun and breaking across borders.

    The war on terror has broken the borders wide open and mass migrations of Arabs into Europe is happening now.

    It is also more and more mobile with IS developing a fluid concept of a state that has no fixed borders and is a cell structure confederacy. Al-Qaeda to compete has done the same thing and is taking ground to stay relevant. Should Baghdadi die without a clear successor, chances are IS will jut fold right back into Al-Qaeda and nothing else changes.

    In addition the rag-tag terrorists of old are no longer rag-tag, they are actually growing stronger in military proficiency and developing a broad leadership base that can constantly regenerate and fight on.

    Just imagine the chaos that will occur when Egypt goes up next into civil war.

  5. madaha

    just to check – do you mean Kyoto?

  6. Lisa

    Yep, too little too late.

    The stupidity is compounded by the fact that a massive, worlwide investment in non fossil fuel power wouold generate vast numbers jobs.

    But we’d rather pour that money into meaningless (and damaging) speculation.

    The elites calculation is simple, it won’t affect them personally …they think.

  7. Chris

    Have you met the Near Term Extinction (NTE) folks? They’re a cheery lot.

    For some reason I can’t leave a link so search for Guy McPherson and he’ll darken your day with facts and citations.

    Shorter: We’re doomed.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Woops, yes, Kyoto. Fixed, thanks Madaha.

  9. Peter*

    The Big Green solar/renewables buildup will create jobs, mostly very low wage jobs in China and other developing nations with some good jobs in places like Germany but in the US it will produce relatively few low pay installer positions and even less jobs for electricians and engineers. Some of the high-pay, skilled workers who lose their oil and power plant industry jobs can take the jobs polishing solar panels for minimum wage and celebrate the Chinese getting rich and the Greening of Amerika.

    The only reason we are seeing the growing investment to build solar and wind power now is that it was made possible with cheap foreign production and industrial scale application, giant solar fields or wind farms that the power companies can profit from not the individual dispersed sources that benefit consumers.

    The renewable fuel schemes, such as palm oil, may be worse because much of the Asian and south American rainforests will continue to be burned to make way for palm plantations.

  10. HI to all,
    Capitalism is the ONLY economic system left, remember? ‘ We’ ended history, you’ll recall, with that victory. If we – as in humans, the species – don’t find ways to morph the only remaining economic system into sustainability, we are indeed doomed. We cannot save ourselves from ourselves without an economy.

    So: be heartened that the planet has agreed to impossible, but agreed (!) aspirational goals AS ONE. Whoever thought that was even remotely possible even two weeks ago, never mind two months ago?

    And now we are there (here). And now Maurice Strong is dead. So now it is our turn: to take the good from capitalism and reject the bad. Don’t worry, the opportunity is imminent. For tomorrow the Fed raises interest rates after 7 or 8 years of effectively zero. Watch the victims tumble and fall. Wait for the screaming and the agonizing.

    And poor ole Obama in his last year faces an economic crisis of, arguably, his own making. The bookend to the first one in his first year that he inherited from the hapless W. Will O give his QE to the banks and Wall Street this time? Or will he give it to real people, real people who need it, real people who will spend it, real people who will ‘save’ the economy with their QE spending, rather than hype the real estate and stock market markets?

    We’ll see, soon enough. If he gets this one right, O will have saved capitalism so we can all get on with saving the planet from ourselves with the only remaining economic system we have.

    Thanks Ian for another awesome post. You rock…


    PS I have just launched “Morphing Capitalism into an Economy for Humanity?” which provides the context for this line of reasoning … but more importantly channels what Jonathan Nitzan and Co have shown us: How Capitalism Works. My book is available at the University of Toronto Bookstore online.

  11. Tom

    @Lee Doran

    We’re fucked because Capitalism doesn’t work and destroyed us.

    Capitalism is unworkable because it violates the laws of thermodynamics and thus can’t be made to work.

  12. breed

    Capitalism didn’t fail us, or capitalism as in the ownership of private property didn’t fail us. Perhaps you mean modern day capitalism or the oligarchic form of the nation-state? Perhaps the `iron rule of oligarchy` that is plaguing the developed countries now failed us? It’s probably more simple then that – technology has advanced faster then evolutionary adaptation can adapt to, and if the world is smart it will create a world wide system that uses our relic biological adaptations as a tool in new ways to achieve success. Because we aren’t overcoming our biological urges anytime within the pace technology change dictates. One World nationalism will need to be instilled to work together to save our One World.

  13. V. Arnold

    This is well worth a listen;
    Roy wrote the book; Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization…
    Illargi (TAE) coined the term CON 21, and it was in fact a dog and pony show.
    There is so much pollutant’s already in the “pipeline”; that even if tomorrow it all stopped, 3°c is likely unavoidable (maybe more).
    We ate the poison more than two decades ago and are now in full tilt denial…

  14. José Madeira

    Thanks for posting another great commentary, Ian.

    I have one small point of disagreement: I think Kyoto itself was way too late. With the 30-year lag between CO2 release and atmospheric changes, the last real opportunity was much earlier, at the first (1992) Rio Conference.

    You may recall that Papa Bush said “The American Way of Life is not negotiable.” (It’s since been repeated by many, and is often attributed to Darth Cheney.) Of course, he thought he was negotiating with Little People, darkies from the global South and longhair environmentalists. But it turns out that the Second Law of Thermodynamics and biophysical reality were not intimidated by his economic and military might.

    And now we’re here.

  15. Paul

    Capitalism Socialism Communism Democracy Facism Tribalism – and whatever other ism we use to describe the way we try to live, all fail.
    Why’s that? What’s the common denominator?
    Of course, it’s us that fail. But we can’t talk about that, can we.

  16. Hugh

    I figure we have until 2030 to have programs fully implemented to deal with both global climate disruption and overpopulation. After that, everything is on automatic pilot to a 90% die off of humanity by 2100. Before we can even begin to move toward sustainable green economies and societies, however, we must remove the kleptocratic forms of government which dominate us worldwide, as well as the elites who run them, and the rich who own them. You have only to look at the current Presidential cycle with its chorus line of grotesques, including the silly, unserious “Bernie”, to see how far we are from even this preliminary step.

    I mean that we are up to the 21st annual conference on climate change and the principals are still talking and not doing really says it all. What people don’t get about kleptocracy is that there are no brakes or stops, no mitigating factors to it. Kleptocrats don’t do humanitarianism. They don’t think about the future or things like consequences. It is all IBG YBG: I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone. They will loot to a crash and then loot the crash. Hannah Arendt once wrote of totalitarianism that the mistake we made in trying to understand it was that we tried to understand it in terms of the normal world when totalitarianism was fundamentally alien to that world. Much the same can be said about kleptocracy. People think that kleptocrats will at some point realize that they are harming the goose that lays the golden eggs, and as a result pull back, if only to make possible future looting. They think this because it is what they tell themselves they would do if they were kleptocrats. But this completely misunderstands the nature of the beast. What a kleptocrat will do is steal the golden eggs and then eat the goose which laid them for lunch. These conferences of the parties (COP) are just kayfabe and distraction for us rubes while they do it.

    We have too little time to wait for others to act. It all goes back to the saying, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” The rich absolutely don’t care that they are making what will be an ultimately self-destructive war on us. Our elites have betrayed us. If there is to be change, it must come from us, and us alone.

  17. I think capitalism is still a viable economic system but it must work under a practical social democratic umbrella rather than be the engine that controls our legislative process.

    And I find it bewildering why people like Peter are so sure that renewables will produce low paying jobs. They sure as hell won’t initially as things gear up. Spread out over time their wages may not be a s great but by then there will be other variables in play the expand the economy, WITHOUT the need for fossil fuels

  18. Tom


    “Renewables,” are not actually renewable and can’t replace fossil fuels as they require fossil fuels to make.

    Thermodynamics dictates everything, we blew our chance in the 60s by not throwing everything into space exploration and colonization instead of war in Vietnam. Now entrophy has us.

    Its too late. Nothing you can do will stop it. All you have is a choice as to the manner of your death and whether you want to take the Elites with you.

  19. subgenius

    Talk of how thermodynamics is centre, and then off into the lost possibilities of space exploration?

    There is a distinct lack of connected thinking in that.

  20. Peter*


    I don’t think you really understand how Capitalism works, in reality not some ideal artificial construct where it serves the masses. The last fifty years have shown, although earlier eras also showed, that capitalists are not motivated to produce good jobs for workers, just the opposite, they have successfully destroyed the ‘social democratic umbrella’ that offered some protections from its excesses so they could capture most of the gains from increasing productivity that was also responsible for many jobs being lost. The starting wage for an auto worker in Detroit today is comparable to what I earned there in 1967 and the welding job I performed was long ago automated and is done by a robot who receives no benefits. When I worked for INTEL, where much of the workforce was paid minimum wage, the management were salivating when they saw pictures of a Fab in Japan that had no production workers, complete automation.

    We are already seeing the results of this end stage of Capitalism with a huge segment of the working age population who are no longer needed for low wage and even higher paid work. Some researchers are predicting that this accelerating automation trend will eliminate most manual labor within thirty years, have you talked with the human sounding computer entity phone-sales human replacement lately? A few humans will be needed to oversee and repair the robots until they take over those positions and then even polishing the solar panels will not require the human touch.

  21. S Brennan

    Tom, I am a space advocate, indeed without NASA’s contributions done on $0.05/1.00 of the US Budget, none of this would even be a conversation. And when compared to the 200 – 300 Billion the National “Security” State* work costs to deliver welfare, [because they haven’t got shit to show for their budget], NASA’s 17.85 Billion is a heck of a deal.

    However, NASA is not now, nor was it ever the solution for this problem. That said, DoE does have a significant portion of the answer, having already successfully built and operated a LFTR in the 60’s, we could do so again. But as I said above…

    “The reality is, the solution…is in the development and implementation of technology. That requires a dramatic change in FISCAL POLICY.

    And for fiscal policy to change requires complete rejection of the ideological cult that has darkened the world, I speak, of course of the Satanic cult Neo-Liberalism [of which it is neither] that the demon Milton Friedman proselytized. Whatever way you cut it, the undertaking, while maintaining a society wide standard of living above destitution, is massive and intrusive. I don’t see that in the cards.”


    Even if a “Wilbur & Orville” showed up on the scene…with an operating fusion engine the size of a Mini, that ran on a gallon of water to light Southern California for a decade. The oil & coal companies would throw money at their operatives** in the green movement and prevent wide-scale implementation until…their investments in carbon-based fuels had been exhausted…and that includes the dramatic price spikes in the death throws of a petroleum world. That’s the shit that happens when a generation is lulled into believing that greed is actually good policy and hand the reigns of THEIR NATION back over to corporations they had just finished wresting them from.

    *This does not count military.

    **It well known that Coal/Oil pays “green” organizations to be anti-nuclear and pro-solar/wind. E/I..What few understand, both pro-solar/wind require their output to have an equivalent back-up of fossil fuels, which until a “magical battery” comes into existence, increase the carbon footprint…not diminishes it.

  22. Tom

    Nice… Half the Republican Candidates want to start a war with Russia, China, and North Korea…


  23. sdcds

    I imagine a few people here grew up watching this.

    It’s eerie watching it now, it even mentions Limits to Growth. I remember my mother inveighing against doomsayers, but never made the connection until now…

  24. sdcds

    Il etait une fois, l’Homme… et la Terre… FUT

    If only people had listened to the “doomsayers” back then in the late ’70s, instead of doubling down with four decades of “Morning in America”.

    And now sure is looking like we’re all going to be FUT.

  25. different clue

    America contains millions of people who are either called global warming “skeptics” or global warming “deniers”, depending on who is discussing them. Here is an example of global warming “skepticality”, if one may call it that. I will just offer the link, without any further commentary of my own.

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