According to a leaked UN draft report, the globe has already warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, meaning the planet is teetering on the edge of further severe and more frequent extreme weather events and the havoc on society that ensues.
In late June, French news agency AFP reported on the contents of a draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which had come into their possession. The report being developed by the IPCC — a body of the United Nations founded in 1988 — describes severe impacts of the present rage of carbon emissions and climate change, including species extinction, widespread disease, fatal heat, ecological collapse, rising sea levels encroaching on coastal cities, and more. The report states that these impacts will be forcefully evident within the next 30 years.
The IPCC report — due for release in February 2022 — states we have already reached the halfway point of the current trend projection of a minimum of three degrees of warming.
A previous IPCC report, released in October 2018, stated that it was “necessary and even vital” to maintain global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees, arguing that temperature increase beyond this point would increase the frequency and degree of extreme weather events, and worsen the negative impact on natural resources, biodiversity, ecosystems, food security, and more.
Research published in 2020 estimates that one-third of plant, animal, and insect species may face extinction by 2070 due to climate change. In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells writes extensively about the ways human activity is rapidly, dramatically changing global ecology, with politics falling further away from addressing it.
“As recently as the 1997 signing of the landmark Kyoto Protocol, two degrees of global warming was considered the threshold of catastrophe; flooded cities, crippling droughts and heatwaves, a planet battered daily by hurricanes and monsoons we used to call natural disasters, but will soon normalize as simply ‘bad weather.’ More recently, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands offered another name for that level of warming: genocide. There is almost no chance we will avoid that scenario. The Kyoto Protocol achieved practically nothing. In the 20 years since, despite all our climate advocacy, and legislation, and progress on green energy, we have produced more emissions than in the 20 years before. In 2016, the Paris Accords established two degrees as a global goal, and to read our newspapers, that level of warming remains something like the scariest scenario it is responsible to consider. Just a few years later, with no single industrial nation on track to meets its Paris commitments, two degrees looks more like a best-case outcome, at present hard to credit, with an entire bell curve of more horrific possibilities extending beyond it, and yet shrouded, delicately, from public view.”
It is certain that these horrors won’t be felt equally. After all, nothing is. It was reported in early July that most people in poorer countries won’t have access to COVID vaccines until 2023. Thus far, more than 80 per cent of vaccines doses have been administered to people in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Just one per cent of people living in low-income countries have received at least a single dose.
It’s difficult to determine how to respond to this. It would be nice to think that the world will come together and prioritize the well-being of all life on this planet. It would be nice to think that the wealthy countries of world — pockets laden with ill-gotten gains, fingers and lips still wet with blood — would deploy their resources in service of all those they have robbed. But it is difficult to cite evidence with which to claim this is likely to occur. One can argue that the gravity of this crisis would compel the sort of co-operation that is required, but that’s an argument that will only be borne out by the events to come, and that is a costly wager.
To be absolutely clear, I am suggesting neither surrender nor nihilism. Rather, I’m arguing that if we can identify strategies for compelling political will for radical, co-operative action on climate which are not, to date, producing sufficient results — strategies such as reducing one’s own carbon footprint, “voting for the climate,” or attempting to persuade profiteering firms with purchasing decisions — we shouldn’t hold to them nonetheless, but seek more effective ones.
Put into words, this sort of comment is inevitably reductive. “Easier said than done,” after all. But, none of this means to trivialize the enormity of the task discussed. Rather, quite simply, is there another option? Failing to act on this crisis doesn’t just mean harm and suffering the likes of which arguably has not yet occurred on this planet — which is, itself, a profane thought.
Even worse, this harm will be meted out in the most inequitable ways, as all harm has been for centuries. Surely that cannot be allowed to occur. It cannot be the case that the poorest people, in greater numbers than ever before, pay for the crimes of the wealthy with their lives.
In 1951, German philosopher Theodor Adorno published a book of essays written between 1944 and 1949, entitled Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. In reductive summation, the book contends that the world is such that it prohibits the living of a good life — “good” meaning a life that is intrinsically rewarding and conducive to well-being, non-destructive to oneself or one’s social and ecological environment, and engages one meaningfully in the resonance available to living creatures; resonance experienced through community, through art, through creative expression, and more.
In one such essay, “Timetable,” Adorno argues that this fact is demonstrated through society’s absolute separation of work from recreation, and its valorizing a notion of work which, to be deemed legitimate, must “first inflict on the subject all the evil that it is afterwards to inflict on others.” This he contrasts with a notion of productive activity which is simultaneously both work and recreation, which is “pleasure even in its despairing effort.”
Adorno presents life as encouraged by society as a kind of non-living, arguing that a truer experience is only available when pleasure and work are interwoven, but that society increasingly prohibits this.
In his view, this isolation of work and pleasure (which he refers to as “atomization”) leads to people reproducing the separations, both within their own lives and within themselves. Not only do we grow more distant from one another, the different parts of our selves grow distant from one another as well. Adorno presents this as a necessary state; if work offered meaning or self-actualization, it could promote agency, which of course must be quelled; if recreation provoked existential reflection, those reflections could end up analyzing one’s job, which cannot lead anywhere good.
“Atomization is advancing not only between [people], but within each individual, between the spheres of [their] life. No fulfillment may be attached to work, which would otherwise lose its functional modesty in the totality of purposes, no spark of reflection is allowed to fall into leisure time, since it might otherwise leap across to the workday world and set it on fire.”
Seventy years on from publication, the conditions Adorno mentions have only worsened. And, while I have all the time in the world for denouncing the anti-life equation we call society, I cite these passages for a particular reason. The world Adorno writes of is the one that brought about the climate crisis — not simply in that it hosts the corporations and governments which have slashed and burned and spilled and polluted to no end, but also in that its foundational separation of “work” and “life” allows for and justifies their conduct.
Trudeau recently announced his government’s intention to provide $420 million of public funds to Algoma Steel, to support the company’s transition away from coal-powered steel production. Since 2007, Algoma steel had been owned by India-based multinational construction conglomerate Essar Group, until being taken over by New York-based acquisition firm Legato in May 2021 in advance of a return to Algoma shares being publicly traded. The takeover gave Algoma’s current owners over U.S. $1.1 billion in new shares. Legato themselves had an initial public offering earlier this year as well, raising $236 million in acquisitions. So, why does Algoma need $420 million in public money to fund their transition?
My best guess? It’s a hostage situation. If they don’t get public money, the company would either delay or stop transitioning away from coal power, terminate great numbers of their more than 3,500 employees, threaten to leave Canada, or all three. What makes it even more garish is that they don’t even have to be willing to do any of it — and they don’t even have to convince the government they’re willing to either. All they have to do is convince the government that stating they are planning to x, y, and/or z would cost the government the next election. And, in our first-past-the-post electoral system, corporations can identify the ridings parties need and set up offices and operations accordingly.
It could be argued that there is a reason Algoma absolutely needs that $420 million, and it is in fact to the benefit of the public that they receive it. There is another, more definitive case to be considered. In early July, Greenpeace UK secretly recorded ExxonMobil lobbyists in conversations that the lobbyists thought were interviews. In the interviews, both lobbyists stated the company opposes action on climate change in its lobbying efforts, and that it’s stated support for carbon pricing is part of their strategy, an “easy talking point.” In 2015, it was reported in Scientific American that, as early as 1977, Exxon had internal research confirming the impact on global climate of carbon emissions from human activity, and spent billions in the years following to gather more data. Nonetheless, in the decades since the company has since spent more than U.S. $30 million contesting and disputing claims its executives know to be accurate.
Such behaviour is not only accepted by our society; it’s encouraged, for every state of pleasure endorsed by our government requires supporting structural violence. Prosperity in Canada means staking your claim in land seized by Europeans through genocide — a prospect which conflicts with any meaningful notion of well-being.
Surely, a good life cannot require that one participate in such harm. Similarly, a good life cannot require propelling all of human society toward cataclysm, exterminating plant, animal and insect life along the way. A good life also cannot require that one’s prosperity be built through others’ suffering, dispossession, or exploitation. But that is the only life this world offers, and it’s now quite evident that life seeks to kill us all.
Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. He focuses on political and economic inequity and inequality, both within Canada and as produced by Canadian policy.
Editor’s note, August 9, 2021: A previous version of this story stated the federal government “granted” Algoma Steel $420 million of public funds. According to an Algoma Steel spokesperson, the funding is “in the form of loans which are subject to a number of conditions.” The language has been updated accordingly.