‘Cheer up, kiddo, it might never happen.’
This is not a sentiment with which Clive Hamilton is likely to have much truck. And that’s not just because Hamilton, as a fiftysomething professor of public ethics at the Australian National University, would resent being called kiddo. It’s because he can see it is already too late. It has happened. For Hamilton, you see, the world in which we have lived too comfortably, too complacently, unduly secure in our mastery of nature and unjustifiably confident in our ability to overcome that which discomforts us… well, this world will soon be no more. Its condition is terminal. While it might look okay on its subtly warming surface, all that we – as grasping, clawing moderns – have created, from our dirty, growth-obsessed economies to our dirty, consumption-obsessed lifestyles; all of this will see us off. Inexorably and Finally.
Hamilton’s postcard from the apocalypse, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, begins, predictably enough, with The Science. But, as opposed to environmentalists of a more hopeful bent, his particular set of climate forecasts is not designed to show us why we must change our ways; it’s designed to show us why our ways already mean it is too late to change. To his pessimism of the intellect he adds an enormous dose of pessimism of the will. Which would be entertaining if he didn’t take himself so seriously.
So, just to show why worst-case climate change is virtually unavoidable, he looks at what he calls the optimistic scenario. Let’s say that by 2020, deforestation will have stopped, emissions of greenhouse gases will have been halved, and global CO2 emissions will just have peaked before they begin falling by three per cent a year for a few decades. Unfortunately, such a good-case scenario would still see greenhouse emissions rise to 650ppm by 2020, a rise which would sail past the tipping points, setting in motion immeasurably complex feedback processes, and leading to at least a four-degree Celsius warming by 2100. Or as Hamilton enthusiastically puts it: ‘The Earth’s climate would enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually re-establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point.’ And, he chirrups triumphantly, he hasn’t even taken into account the effect of aerosols! Ha, screw you, optimism!
Though he starts out stat-heavy, Hamilton’s not really interested in The Science itself. His main focus is why humanity, given all that he asserts we know of our End-of-Cold-Days future, has singularly failed to do very much to avert it. In fact, as Hamilton informs us, since 2001, global greenhouse gas emissions have actually been rising by three per cent each year. What follows, then, takes the form of a jeremiad against modern society, against what he sees as our Enlightenment-inspired delusions. ‘Humanity’s determination to transform the planet for its own material benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way’, he writes, ‘so that the climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one’.