Climate Change is Speeding Up the Future
The effects of climate change are moving ever faster. It’s now a cliché, almost a punch line, to observe that the one thing no climate scientist has ever said is, “Gee, that took longer to happen than I thought it would.” Daily we encounter new reports of warming accelerating, more greenhouse gases accumulating, ice-melt increasing at rates higher than projected, and more extreme weather on the way. It’s unmistakable: climate change is speeding up.
Dr. Sean Munger
But what’s also speeding up is the pace of change in society, in the economy, and at all levels of civilization — in a very real sense, climate change is speeding up history. I wrote in my recent book The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History that climate change is an “engine” of large-scale societal-level transformation. Societies can and do sometimes change fundamentally very fast. Take, for example, the incredible transformation of the world between 1914 and 1918, the four years of the First World War. When the pace of change speeds up, the level of chaos usually rises.
That we are in such a phase now seems hard to ignore. It goes even beyond recent specifically climate-related disasters like the bizarre behavior of Hurricane Dorian or the unconscionable torching of the Amazon rainforest. This past weekend there was a drone attack, launched from Yemen, on oil facilities of the Aramco oil company in Saudi Arabia. The chaos of Brexit continues to ripple through the UK political system, which is facing constitutional crises on a scale not seen since the 17th century. And this coming weekend, the world is gearing up for mass strikes and demonstrations on the climate crisis — events which may prove to be even bigger than anticipated. All of these events are related in one way or another to climate change. Yes, even things that seem on the surface to have no connection, like Brexit, are in fact deeply tethered to climate change when you drill down into their historical causes.
But chaotic transitions in history are not necessarily all bad. When the pace of historical change speeds up, it opens up new avenues and changes what is possible. We know, for instance, that the global economy, based on fossil fuel consumption and the production of consumer goods, must change. As the speed of political and economic developments ramps up, it means that slow, incremental progress toward institutional change becomes inadequate, infeasible, and ultimately impossible. Those who retain confidence in such slow incremental change processes — like oil company executives reminding us that fossil fuels will still be a major part of our energy consumption in 2050, so don’t get all excited about renewables just yet — appear out of touch with reality. And they are. They’re used to a world in which the only way to change economic paradigms fundamentally is through a slow, steady, and incremental process. It’s patently obvious we don’t live in that world anymore.
Much of the defeatism in the realm of climate change stems from the basic argument that our world’s dominant political and economic structures — principally globalized capitalism and the modern (post-17th century) system of nation states — are inadequate to deal with a challenge as overwhelming as climate change. That argument is fundamentally correct; they are. But “Game over, then!” does not follow from that conclusion. History shows us that, when institutional structures are inadequate to deal with systemic challenges, those structures break down and are quickly replaced by something else. There are many people from history who can attest that this is how it works: Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of Rome, or Nicholas II, the final tsar of Imperial Russia, had particularly vivid lessons in this historical dynamic.
We live in a time of great change — not just climate change, but historical change. David Houle named it “The Shift Age.” Events have never in human history moved as fast as they are moving now. Yes, it’s scary, but don’t forget that the possibilities for positive change are in motion too.
Dr. Sean Munger is a historian, consultant, professional speaker, author and teacher. After practicing commercial law for many years, he earnned a Ph.D. in environmental history and became an expert on the history of climate change. His book, The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History, came out in August 2019. He is also the host of Second Decade, a historical podcast about the 1810s. He frequently speaks on climate and historical topics, and has taught students from middle school to senior citizens. His website is www.seanmunger.com.