A Tale of Two Crises

Climate crisis far more threatening than economic crisis
April 1, 2009

Most of us have become preoccupied with the deepening economic slump that has spread like a pandemic across the globe. Whether it can be controlled before morphing into a full-blown depression is the question preying on our minds. This concern is understandable, since few of us have been entirely shielded from the financial fallout of shuttered factories, soaring unemployment, investment fund losses, and rising debt. Most of the articles in this issue grapple with the ongoing recession in some way.

As devastating as this economic downturn may be, however, it is still not the worst crisis that confronts us. That remains the threat of horrendously damaging climate change.

The difference between the two calamities, of course, apart from their relative impacts, is that the economic crisis is already upon us, full-blown, while the climate crisis, although worsening, is still far from inflicting its worst devastation. So it has yet to register high on humankind’s priority list of disasters. (Those so unfortunate as to live in the planet’s drought, flood, or typhoon ravaged regions, or on the Pacific atolls sinking under the rising waves, are much more worried about global warming, of course, but they are still not numerous enough—or influential enough—to have their troubles spur an effective political response.)

There is a profound ecological lesson, however, that the entire human race—even those so far indifferent to global warming--can learn from the economic crisis. It is that, just as the financial meltdown could have been averted if the necessary preventive measures had been taken, so could the impending environmental collapse. It’s too late to avert the economic slump, but there may still be time—barely--to avoid the climate catastrophe.

The difference between the two crises is that we have a good chance of recovering from the economic downturn eventually, regardless of how bad it gets, and even regaining a good level of prosperity. But if we fail to avert the looming climatic disaster, global economies will join most of the world’s nations, peoples, societies, and civilizations in a planetary obliteration. There may be a few million survivors left to scratch out a precarious existence in a new Stone Age, but bailing out the banks or General Motors will not be among the challenges facing them.

Humans have many flaws, but the one that may prove fatal for us as a species is an inability to look and plan farther ahead than the next few weeks or months. All the signs were there for the inevitable collapse of a financial system built on a flimsy and unsustainable housing bubble and fuelled by runaway greed. The financiers and speculators and politicians and economists (and non-existent regulators) all ignored the signs and let the crisis erupt.

The same collective myopia is rampant on the climate change front, and with even less excuse because the warning signs are even more evident and frightening. Climatologists, ecologists, biologists, and other scientists in their thousands have been sounding the alarm about global warming for the past 20 years. Their calls for quick, firm, and effective action to prevent a global environmental cataclysm have been widely publicized, but have drawn little more than token measures and broken promises. Most political and business leaders have failed to meet the challenge, and many have even dismissed the threat of global warming as little more than a fantasy.

We have published most of the scientists’ warnings and dire predictions in The Monitor—more than 800 of them since the mid-1990s—and their appeals have become increasingly desperate as the years of inaction roll by. On the front page of our November 2000 issue, we featured an open letter from 200 scientists in countries around the globe to their governments and corporations.

“We, the undersigned,” they wrote, “call upon the world’s political and corporate leaders to take immediate action to prevent seriously disruptive climate change. Evidence of human impact on Earth’s climate is now irrefutable. If we carry on as we are, we could find ourselves in a situation of catastrophic climate destabilization... A crash program is imperative. We need political action now.”

That letter was written nearly nine years ago, and the detailed action plan the scientists said was urgently needed then is still not even on the drawing boards. Back in 2000, they put much of the blame for inaction up to that time on the corporations. “We deplore attempts by many large corporations to block meaningful change,” they wrote. “For short-term gain, they seem willing to jeopardize the welfare—indeed, the survival—of a large part of humanity.”

With corporations still polluting and governments still dithering, little wonder that many of these scientists have now given up hope that a global climate disaster can be prevented.

The irony of the panicky response to an economic crisis that could and should have been averted is that any eventual recovery from it will necessarily be a short-term one. Any prospect for lasting economic stability will be dashed by a failure to confront the far worse impending climate crisis.

It’s a crisis that could be met and survived by an intelligent species with the ability to think and plan far enough ahead. With that aptitude lacking in the people chosen to run our governments and business firms, we are confined to dealing only with the problems of the present, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the coming ecological apocalypse.


(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)