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A home is engulfed in flames as the Dixie fire rages on in Greenville, California on August 5, 2021. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Letting the World Burn: The Question of Governance

The primary cause of the worsening situation is not the combustion of fossil fuels, but the massive political dereliction that has allowed the bonfire to go on after we knew that it posed a potentially lethal threat to humankind.

David Orr

The sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that we are rapidly destabilizing the climate and making the earth a more dangerous and biologically impoverished planet. No surprise; we've known this since the 1970s. The primary cause of the worsening situation, however, is not the combustion of fossil fuels, but the massive political dereliction that has allowed the bonfire to go on after we knew that it posed a potentially lethal threat to humankind. We have no precedent for malfeasance at this scale therefore we have no law, no accountability—and so far—no remedy.

Without rapid and coordinated global action to stabilize the climate below some all-too-near threshold the human experiment is in jeopardy.

No one is in jail for complicity in ecocide. The burning part is just a symptom of a half-century long political failure attributable in large part to the power of unprincipled and unaccountable money to override the public interest, including that in our own survival. As a result, the worst "worst case" scenarios are beginning to play out before our eyes. Commensurate to the scale of the problem, our leaders did not lead, public institutions did not act, media did not inform, social media pedaled lies, and conservative Courts protected power and wealth, ironically contributing to the most radical outcomes. All along our questions have been "too puny for our circumstances;" our ideas inadequate to the systemic challenges posed by a de-stabilizing climate and deteriorating ecosystems. Let's start with government and the broader subject of governance and political culture. 

Governing is a perennial human problem. As difficult as it has always been, however, it is about to become much harder in the transition from the Holocene to a different and more hostile planet. From the first tribal councils to the present, rulers everywhere could safely assume that—whatever the weather—the climate was a constant even if they knew nothing about how the planet functioned or even that they lived on a planet. That assumption no longer holds. Climate stability is declining, forcing weather patterns everywhere into chaos. Without rapid and coordinated global action to stabilize the climate below some all-too-near threshold the human experiment is in jeopardy. The change from the stable climate of the past 12,000 years to a less predictable and more capricious climate, will require significant changes in government and governing. The reasons are becoming clearer.

First, the rate of planetary change is accelerating much faster than once predicted. The biogeochemical cycles of earth, particularly the carbon cycle, now set both the speed and the agenda for what governments will have to do to avoid calamity, preserve civilization, and adapt to hotter, drier, stormier conditions, rising seas, stressed ecosystems, and their social, political, and economic collateral effects. 

Second, a destabilizing climate is "an everything issue" affecting the full range of what governments at every level have been expected to do and more. Things long taken for granted, however, are now in jeopardy. Full shelves at the supermarket, electricity at the flip of a switch, clean water at the tap, economic growth, dependable supply chains, ecosystem services like pollination, relative safety in the streets, medical care, and someone to answer 911 calls. Accustomed to incremental solutions to smaller problems, governments will increasingly face cascading and interlinked large-scale problems. Success—whatever that may mean—will require designing systemic solutions, at all levels of government, that solve multiple problems without causing new ones. Security, for one, has meant spending trillions on weapons to fend off external threats, sometimes conjured by our own behavior as "blowback." Climate change, however, will jeopardize the security of everyone closer to home as larger, more destructive storms, longer droughts, larger fires, declining farm productivity, pandemics in changing ecologies, societal breakdown, and so forth. The occurrence of multiple crises could stress our response capacity to the breaking point.  

Third, because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere and the massive amount of latent heat now stored in the oceans—matters of physics and chemistry—this is not a short-term crisis, but a "long-emergency" measured in the time required to re-stabilize the climate system and restore Earth's energy balance. Geoengineering the atmosphere would be, at best, a planetary version of Russian roulette. The upshot is that we must now become students of longevity: how to build institutions that are durable under prolonged stress and have the capacity for self-repair. The examples are few: Chinese Civilization, the Catholic Church, Oxford University, the U.S. Constitution, and ecosystems.

Fourth, as the chaos caused by a destabilizing climate grows, so too the tendency for violence. Fleeing uninhabitable homelands, a rising tide of climate refugees will stress international agencies and the stability of nations that may or may not be welcoming. The potential for international conflict will grow over the control of water and arable lands. Violence, insurrection, guerilla warfare, random killings are likely to increase. Despair will mount as well. The combination of violence and hopelessness will feed the appeal of authoritarian/Fascist governments promising quick and improbable solutions to problems solvable only with systemic changes.

The most important question we now face is whether we can quickly muster and then sustain the political will to govern wisely and well enough to prevent Earth's climate from spiraling out of control. 

Fifth, in a more chaotic climate the tools and machinery of governance, designed for simpler times and different conditions will not work as they once did. The use of subsidies, taxes, regulation, fiscal tools as well as public administration and agencies will have to be adapted to changing circumstances. In other words, the metrics by which government performance have been measured must now include the effects of public policies on climate stability and ecological resilience, including the damage we inflict on future generations. A significant fraction of the costs and burdens on central governments can be reduced by designing more robust, self-reliant, walkable and bikeable cities with community owned solar energy systems, local farming/food networks, and post-car transportation systems; cities becoming more like, say, Copenhagen than Los Angeles. 

Sixth, in a destabilizing climate many of the presumed beliefs and attitudes from the industrial era, including the imperative of economic growth and extreme individualism, are not well suited for conditions of climate chaos. For example, because we did not pay the full (external) costs of growth powered by fossil fuels, we were never as rich as we presumed ourselves to be. Instead, we offloaded costs on others elsewhere or at some other time. The unavoidable conclusion is that economies, domestic and global, must be redesigned to meet more rigorous standards including full-cost pricing, fairness within and between nations and generations, and sustainability within the limits of the earth, i.e. carrying capacity. 

A safe transition through the long emergency ahead requires growth in human solidarity summarized as a change of pronouns and outlook from "I," "me," and "mine" to "we," "ours," and "us," including future generations and other species. The most important question we now face is whether we can quickly muster and then sustain the political will to govern wisely and well enough to prevent Earth's climate from spiraling out of control. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
David W. Orr

David Orr

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. He is the author of numerous books, including "Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse" (Oxford, 2009). And is co-editor of "Democracy Unchained" (The New Press, 2020).

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