“The only plots against us are within our own walls,—the danger is within,—the enemy is within. We must war with luxury, with madness, with wickedness.”



With the world on pause due to COVID-19, almost overnight greenhouse gas emissions, most notably NO2, dropped dramatically. Having campaigned tirelessly for change for decades, it seemed that environmentalists had finally got what they had been asking for, albeit thanks to fear of a killer virus rather than concerted action from governments worldwide to tackle the extinction event that is of our own making.

This sudden shift offers hope that change is indeed possible, but at the same time poses a problem: will we simply return to business as usual at some stage in the near future; or, worse still, double-down on emissions in a desperate bid to ‘save the economy’? “This bounce-back effect – which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions – is [called] ‘revenge pollution’,” says Li Shuo, senior climate policy advisor at Greenpeace.

Two decades ago, the international community agreed to stabilise the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however to date there has been little action: in the past five year, levels of carbon dioxide were 18 per cent higher than the previous five years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

And while the WMO welcomes the COVID-19-induced drop in CO2 emissions of six per cent, that’s unfortunately only “short-term good news”, said Professor Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General. Taalas echoed Shuo's concern about revenge pollution, saying that emissions are likely to return to normal and cautioning that “there might even be a boost in emissions”.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has shaken humans to the core, as we fight against an unknown enemy that is affecting our health, wealth, and wellbeing. But as Taalas points out, the climate crisis is of a different magnitude, one that will lead to “persistent health problems” and will have a “massive impact on economics”. In this case we needn't look too far for the cause of our ills: the enemy is within.

“We are the first generation that can put an end to poverty and we are the last generation that can put an end to climate change.”

Ban Ki-moon



We like to simplify complex systems down to everyday scales. Take national economies, which politicians love to compare to household budgets, giving us the comforting illusion of control. The everyday scale allows us to use common sense, and say things like: don’t spend more than you earn. The problem is that a national economy is far more complicated than any household. For one thing, government spending is so big it directly affects the economy as a whole. But bringing in all that complexity isn’t very comforting.

Another complex system that has been scaled down is the global climate. The US National Research Council, for instance, said in a 2015 report that “the climate system can be compared to a heating system with two knobs, either of which can be used to set the global mean temperature”. Once again, simplification creates an opening for common sense (which, as we’ll see, isn’t always very sensible). Here, common sense says: if we can’t turn down the heating by lowering emissions, maybe we can turn the cooling knob up. The cooling knob is the science fiction of solar geoengineering, the basic idea of which is to release a million tonnes of sulphate particles into the stratosphere every year to reflect back some sunlight.

The effects of such massive intervention into the climate are unknown, but possible consequences include depletion of the ozone layer, reduction in rainfall, and uneven distribution of any cooling effect. Still, as academic Jeremy Baskin has said in his recent book on the subject, solar geoengineering may be a “bad idea whose time has come”. Why? At least in part because of the scaling down of the climate to a manageable, controllable metaphor. As Baskin points out, engineering the climate is the logical endpoint of the so-called Anthropocene, an epoch in which the Earth, in all its complex and rich glory, is reduced to an object of human mastery.

“There is broad agreement within the scientific community that amplification of the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect by the build-up of various gases introduced by human activity has the potential to produce dramatic changes in climate. Only by taking action now can we ensure that future generations will not be put at risk.”

Statement by 49 Nobel Prize winners and 700 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 1990.



1965: “The part that remains in the atmosphere may have a significant effect on climate; carbon dioxide is nearly transparent to visible light, but it is a strong absorber and back radiator of infrared radiation, particularly in the wave lengths from 12 to 18 microns; consequently, an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air.”

Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, a report by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee

1968: “If the Earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis. [..] Revelle makes the point that man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.”

Study by the Stanford Research Institute for the American Petroleum Institute

1979: “It appears plausible that an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can contribute to a gradual warming of the lower atmosphere, especially at higher latitudes....It is possible that some effects on a regional and global scale may be detectable before the end of this century and become significant before the middle of the next century.

The World Climate Conference of the World Meteorological Organization

1979: When it is assumed that the CO2 content of the atmosphere is doubled and statistical thermal equilibrium is achieved, the more realistic of the modelling efforts predict a global surface warming of between 2°C and 3.5°C, with greater increases at high latitudes. … we have tried but have been unable to find any overlooked or underestimated physical effects that could reduce the currently estimated global warmings due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 to negligible proportions or reverse them altogether.

United States National Research Council


“Oh no! It’s War, Famine, Death, Pestilence, and Climate Change.”

“The danger is that global warming may become self-sustaining, if it has not done so already. The melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps reduces the fraction of solar energy reflected back into space, and so increases the temperature further. Climate change may kill off the Amazon and other rain forests, and so eliminate once one of the main ways in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. The rise in sea temperature may trigger the release of large quantities of carbon dioxide, trapped as hydrides on the ocean floor. Both these phenomena would increase the greenhouse effect, and so global warming further. We have to reverse global warming urgently, if we still can.”

Stephen Hawking



In his 2015 book The Conflict Shoreline, Israeli architect Eyal Weizman follows the so-called “aridity line”, the shifting boundary between desert and non-desert that runs through North Africa and the Middle East. On one side of the aridity line, the average annual rainfall is at least 200 millimetres per year. That is considered to be the minimum amount of water needed to grow cereal crops on a large scale without using irrigation. On the other side of the aridity line is desert, which means failing crops, water scarcity, and conflict. The aridity line runs, for example, through the Syrian town of Daraa, where Syria’s worst drought on record helped fuel the Syrian uprising in 2011. Even more strikingly, Weizman found that when he mapped western drone strikes in the region, “many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.”

Naomi Klein, in a memorial lecture for the late Edward Said, thought that Weizman’s work illustrated the “brutal landscape of the climate crisis”. Often, when we think of climate change, we think of overwhelming natural forces: sea levels rising, coral reefs bleaching, forests turning to desert. But the confluence between the aridity line and military violence shows another, openly bloody side to the crisis. As global warming intensifies, the aridity line will continue to move through formerly rich agricultural land. A brief look through history – from the ancient to the contemporary – shows time and again that hunger drives revolutions. Civil unrest, in turn, is more often than not violently repressed.

In her lecture, Klein said that we should pay attention to where this cycle of food insecurity, rebellion and repression – all driven by climate change – tends to play out. Her point was that Edward Said, who coined the term Orientalism to describe the way eastern lives are all too often reduced and devalued by the west, wouldn’t be surprised to see where the aridity line runs.

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