Climate Corner: Facing reality

May 20, 2023

Aaron Dunbar

“You need to be more realistic.”

Those of us advocating to prevent the collapse of human civilization caused by anthropogenic climate change have heard this line or some variation of it more times than you can possibly count.

“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the unanimous consensus of the world’s climate scientists is accurate, and that we really are heading for apocalyptic levels of global heating,” our critics might occasionally allow us, once they’ve decided that the evidence is too grim to go on denying that the problem of warming exists at all. “I agree that we need to do something, but the solutions you’re proposing are far too radical. We use fossil fuels in every single area of our lives, and we can’t survive without them. I agree that we need to stop polluting so much, but getting rid of fossil fuels just isn’t realistic.”

It is impossible to respond to such an argument without acknowledging a kind of deeply flawed calculus implicit in the minds of those who advocate for such middle-of-the-road thinking, and indeed most human beings in general. That is, put simply, the idea that everything will always work out for us in the end.

In some ways, it could be argued that our dogmatic adherence to this myth often serves as a kind of survival mechanism for humanity. This mentality can spur us on through hopelessness and adversity, leading us to persist through hardship no matter how bleak the circumstances may seem. All is not lost, we convince ourselves, and we somehow find the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other, assured that a path will eventually illuminate itself for us.

On the other hand, this level of perseverance, coupled with a lack of self-awareness and ignorance of our place in the sprawling complexities of our world, can easily creep into catastrophic levels of delusion.

“I need a habitable planet,” our thinking goes, “and I also need access to the fossil fuel resources that power my standard of living. But that’s okay, because somehow things always work out in the end. Therefore, it is inevitable that there must be some way that I can have both of these things, and nothing has to change.”

I’m strongly inclined to believe that Americans are particularly susceptible to this line of reason, as among a race of hairless apes which believes itself to be separate from and above the limitations of nature, we are a nation that believes itself to be an indomitable exception among the empires of the world, as per our longstanding mythology of manifest destiny.

We hold steadfast to the belief that the dealer always wins, and in our short-sighted arrogance we believe the unprecedented excesses of hypercapitalist extraction place us comfortably and eternally in the dealer’s chair.

And yet ultimately, the forces of nature, the laws of physics and chemistry, and the infinite complexity of interconnected ecological systems reign over us like an all-powerful dictator, however benevolent or malevolent its demeanor.

Sometimes things simply do not work out in the end, however unpleasant a fact this may be. Sometimes the equation does not balance. Sometimes people’s lives are destroyed, and they never recover. Sometimes entire species are erased from the Earth as though they were never really here, and sometimes life on our fragile planet is nearly eliminated altogether — as was the case some 250 million years ago, during the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which wiped out some 90% of Earth’s species.

Believing ourselves immune to such a fate, or that it can be avoided while maintaining our limitless consumption of Earth’s finite resources, in no way qualifies as “being more realistic” about the climate crisis, but instead constitutes a level of magical thinking of the most catastrophic order.

For those who call on us to “be more realistic” about the climate crisis, I have some hard and unfortunate truths for you. Realistically, we are on track to arrive somewhere around 3∂C of global heating within the coming decades. Realistically, the Earth’s carrying capacity, or “the maximum population size of a biological species that can be sustained by [a] specific environment,” is likely to be reduced to no more than 1 billion people once we arrive at 4C of warming, as predicted by Professor Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Given the difficulty of factoring in numerous future variables and feedback loops in our estimates of temperature rise, it is by no means an unrealistic prospect that heating should eventually reach this level.

And finally, the only realistic way for us to avoid the potential genocide of some 90% of the Earth’s human population through ecological collapse, is a widespread and immediate transition away from the fossil fuel economy.

You can be as angry as you want to about this. In fact, you should be angry. But the ones you should be angry at are the powerful elites and the fossil fuel executives who spent half a century lying to you about the deadly effects of their product as they deliberately made it indispensable to our everyday lives, viciously fighting against a global transition to renewable energy for fear that it might endanger their bottom line.

The longer these malicious actors keep you enraged at truth-tellers instead of the snake oil salesmen who brought us to this point, the more leverage elites gain in deciding who among us is expendable in their planet-killing crusade for profits.


Aaron Dunbar is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.