Capitalism Won’t Fix the Climate Crisis. It Will Also Not Survive It.

Bill McGuireHe is a volcanologist and Emeritus professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. His main interests are in volcano instability and vertical collapse, the nature of global geophysical phenomena and the effects of climate change upon geological hazards. He’s written a few books on the coming catastrophes we face as a result of ignoring the root causes of the climate crisis. McGuire talks about his latest book in this interview. Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide (2022), why techno-fixes for the climate crisis are no solution at all, and why the climate and economy will never return to a previous “normal.”

John Hawkins You’ve written some books with seriously confronting titles in the past — The End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Learn; Global Catastrophes – A Very Short Introduction; Surviving Armageddon – Solutions for a Threatened Planet There’s almost a sardonic edge to the titles. Like you’re selling to people with short attention spans. Where is your new book? Hothouse EarthDo you fit in this oeuvre?

Bill McGuire:You’re right. Some of my books have a humorous tone to them. Drawing on my background in volcanology, and geophysical hazards in general, all these books deal with what we call low-frequency, high-impact events — things like asteroid impacts and volcanic super-eruptions. Because such phenomena are rare, the risk to a person’s life span is very small. I wanted to raise their awareness to people in order to create a frisson and cause concern, but not terror, so a hint was appropriate.

Hothouse EarthBut, it is very different. Global warming and climate breakdown are here now, rather than in the distant future. As we confront the greatest threat in human history, there is absolutely no room for whimsy, so the book’s subtitle — an “inhabitant’s guide” — signals that I am seeking, in all sincerity, to paint a picture — however grim — of what our future world is set to be like.

In simple terms, what’s causing the hothouse effect?

In the last few centuries, the atmosphere has seen the release of around 2.4 trillion tonnes worth of carbon dioxide. This acts as a blanket and keeps heat from escaping into space. This global heating has pushed up the average temperature of our world by around 1.2 degrees Celsius (1.2°C) as a result, although in places the rise is as great as 5°C. We are already seeing global heating translate into the collapse of our once stable climate with an explosion of extreme weather — drought, heat waves, floods, storms — that is causing widespread destruction and loss of life. This is only going to get worse as the planet heats up.

Can it be reduced?

A global average temperature rise of 1.5°C is widely regarded as a guardrail that separates us and our world from dangerous climate change. To keep this side of the guardrail, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to fall 45 percent by 2030 — just 90 months away. Although in theory this is possible, in practice I am pretty certain that it isn’t. It is now virtually impossible to avoid the perilous, all-pervasive climate collapse that will affect everyone and infiltrate every aspect of our lives.

But this doesn’t mean that action is futile — it actually makes it more critical. Hothouse Earth It is imperative that we act now to stop climate collapse from turning into a climate catastrophe. The near certainty of us shattering the 1.5°C guardrail also means that as well as doing everything we can to bring emissions down as fast as possible, we are also now going to have to work to adapt our infrastructure, lives and livelihoods to a world that is slated to be unrecognizable to the one our grandparents were born into.

The introduction of Hothouse EarthYou can write:

Some early post-COP26 modelling averred that, if pledges were all met and targets achieved, then we might be on track for ‘just’ a 1.9°C (3.4°F), or even 1.8°C (3.2°F), global average temperature rise. This is a huge if. Secondly, such predictions fly in the face of peer-reviewed research published pre-COP26, which argues that a rise of more than 2°C (3.6°F) is already ‘baked-in’ or, in plain language, certain.

There is some suggestion that, because of inertia in the climate system, the amount of carbon dioxide already emitted will ultimately translate to a global average temperature rise of 2°C or even a little more — a figure that is significantly above the 1.5°C threshold. It is possible that our situation could be even worse than we think, regardless of whether or not this is true.

In your chapter “Ground Zero,” you talk about the wigmaker Arkwright’s legacy. Can you tell us more about that and how it relates to today’s climate issues?

It would be disingenuous for me to suggest Sir Richard Arkwright was the sole responsible for the dire economic conditions we are in today. However, I believe his role is pivotal. The opening of the water-powered Cromford Mill in Derbyshire in 1771 saw the birth of mass production. It used cheap, semi-skilled labor for the manufacture of yarn. A few years later, steam power was introduced and mass production boomed across Britain. This led to the industrial revolution and the widespread plundering of the world. Arkwright opened his mill in a carbon dioxide concentration of 280 parts per million (ppm) when he opened it. It is currently at 419 ppm, and it is still rising fast.

Perhaps the greatest political failure in global history is the lack of teeth at the UN, a body that should be ready to override intra-governmental emergency decisions for the world’s benefit. Do you agree? And how can we change this calculus?

The UN has played a remarkable role in highlighting the enormous threat of global warming and climate breakdown. This includes launching the Conference of the Parties and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The problem, as ever with the UN, is that it doesn’t have teeth. It can only act with the consent of its members, who almost all have their own agendas. Many, including the United States would prefer that the organization didn’t exist. Or, if it did, only in the limited sense that it complies with the U.S. will. The bottom line is that we must support the UN as much as possible and ensure that their work bears fruits.

Not too many lay people consider the sub-plots involved with climate change, like what’s happening in Greenland and the Arctic region. Greenland’s ice is melting fast and the Gulf Stream is slowing, with unpredictable consequences for future patterns. You’d think folks would be in grief mode, but instead they keenly observe how that melting will open up more oil fields — if we can fight off the Russians, you know?

Yes, it is amazing that some see climate change as a chance. Fossil fuel corporations and governments are ready to exploit the melting Arctic ice and any hidden oil, gas, or mineral resources that become available. This assumes that the world will function the same way tomorrow as yesterday. This is false.

It is possible that the global economy and society will collapse by the middle of the century. The climate crisis will make it even more likely. Corporations of all sizes and shapes may not be experiencing a new golden age in exploration. Instead, they will struggle to survive while national governments will have too many domestic problems to look further.

You can write:

Gaia is the problem [Mother Earth]Is now getting worse. While taking ice ages and other natural climate shocks in its stride, widespread environmental damage and diversity loss has meant that Gaia is struggling to handle the vast quantities of carbon being pumped out by humankind’s activities at a rate unprecedented in Earth history. [The scientist credited with inventing Gaia theory James]Lovelock is pessimistic about Gaia’s ability to stabilize the situation in the short-term. He also expressed concern that civilisation would be unable to survive the ongoing destruction of our climate.

What could happen to the planet and us?

The worst-case scenario, or even end-game scenario, envisages a cascade feedback effects driving irreversible, rapid warming, which could double the world’s average temperature. Currently, this figure is around 15°C, so this would be hiked to 30°C. This is the average. In places, temperatures could exceed 60°C, perhaps even 70°C. This would signal the end to civilization and could result in an extinction-level event for humanity. However, small numbers might survive at higher latitudes. I am still hopeful that this won’t happen, but it cannot be completely ruled out.

What’s your scale of despair looking like?

I must confess, I am quite gloomy. Despite incredible scenes on TV this summer of wildfires destroying entire streets and villages in England, there are still some who refuse to believe that global warming is real. These people are called climate skeptics but they are deniers straight and center. Climate breakdown is an offense to their worldview. They view it as a threat against the free-market capitalist framework they worship as a God. It is a threat and capitalism will not deal with it. No system built on greed or short-term profit will be able to withstand the storm that is coming. And, in the end, all will be lost. This makes me marginally happier.

Please tell us more about the big questions that your book answers.

There is no greater question than: How bad can it get?As I said in the book, the question could equally be: How long is a string piece?The answer is that nobody knows. Everything will depend on what we do over the next 10 years. If we act now to make a serious dent in emissions — and the recent U.S. climate bill is one bit of good news in this respect — then we could limit the global average temperature rise to around 2°C. The world will still see huge changes and society and economy will struggle to adapt, particularly as temperatures would take many decades, if not centuries to return to “normal.” If we do nothing, or not enough, then we could be headed for a climate apocalypse, with global average temperatures up by anywhere north of 4°C, and the progressive tearing apart of human civilization as a result.

There are increasing calls — supported by tech billionaires and fossil fuel corporations — to “engineer” our way out of the climate emergency, by one means or another; the current favorite is to block out the sun by mimicking a volcanic eruption, but there is a long list of reasons why this is a very bad idea. It only addresses a symptom of global warming, and not the cause. This also detracts attention from efforts to reduce emissions. Many would agree that messing with an already chaotic climate is not a good idea, especially since such a scheme would invariably violate the legal and human rights for a large portion of global society.

Frankly, there is only one question that we must ask. It is: Are we going do all that is possible to make the world safe for our children and their children’s children? And the answer is certain to be yes.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity, length, and clarity.