When historians look back at the extraordinary changes that transformed life in the twenty-first century, they may well see 2019 as the pivotal year. This is because 2019 looks like being the year when humanity in general realises that global warming is a profoundly existential threat and it must be faced up to.
The ongoing rise in global temperature records and the crazy weather events around the world confirm that the globe is warming, and at an accelerating rate. The last five years have been the hottest on record with new records being set all over the world. Meanwhile catastrophic storms, floods, fires, snowfalls and other such disruptive weather events increasingly dominate the headlines.
That the world is warming is now beyond dispute, but the main cause is still contested. The main explanation supported by almost all the relevant climate scientists is that warming is caused by so-called greenhouse gases generated by modern industrial society. Alternatively some people claim it is due to solar variation, but the proponents of anthropogenic warming assert that they have taken solar factors into consideration.
The evidence, accruing for decades now, seems to support the anthropogenic theory. Indeed, the main failing has been that the predictions of the science have underestimated the degree of warming. This may be due to political interference with the science as governments tried to ignore the problem.
Certainly, there have been plenty of conferences and some agreements, notably Kyoto and Paris, but the proposed cutbacks in greenhouse gas pollutants are nothing like what is required even if they could be enforced.
Whatever the cause, we are now almost 1.5 degrees above industrial levels and on track to reach 4 degrees or more by 2100. This would be an unmitigated disaster with death and destruction levels ultimately exceeding those of the 'long war' from 1914 to 1945, and perhaps even the Black Death toll. If possible tipping points occur and runaway warming happens, the climate impact would mean the end of civilisation and possibly the species. It is dire stuff.
The changes required to deal with global warming will be transformational. Most fundamentally we will see a shift from a growth orientated economy and society to a survival economy and society. The change in material, social, economic, cultural and political conditions will be profound. Ultimately, the change may well be of the same order as the shift from medieval to industrial civilisation.
It did not have to be this way: the threat of global warming has been known since the 1960s and most clearly since the late 1980s. If we had responded then and shifted from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources the necessary changes would have been difficult but not nearly so radical, and we would not face disaster now.
The big problem was that the dominant economic system was based on continual growth. Specifically, capitalism, which became dominated by increasingly large corporations, tended to falter as a system of resource allocation and employment when growth rates declined. The main promoters of capitalism – politicians, corporate executives, bankers, academics, etc – fought against any attempts to diminish economic growth for any reason (except, of course, war).
There have always been alternatives to growth-oriented economics, but the sheer power of industro-capitalist economics in generating material goods and services, not to mention sophisticated weapons, gave it the advantage. It won out over pre-industrial systems as colonialism spread around the world, over fascism (which was not anti-capitalist anyway) and communism (which was) and by the 1990s it was the only game in town, especially as China became capitalist in practice.
To stop global warming we must radically decrease greenhouse gas emissions which means we must decrease use of fossil fuels, and although the connection been growth and energy usage has been weakening, it is not nearly enough to save our bacon. The introduction of new energy sources and techno-fixes like electric cars are important, but given the lack of time left they are nowhere near enough. In effect, we have to downsize the whole global economy or make it operate much more efficiently.
First, we have to reprioritise how we live. Necessities like food, shelter and health have to be given priority over luxuries. Second, we have to find the huge levels of resources necessary to deal with the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, storms, flora and fauna die offs, crop failures and disease.