In this critical year for climate, the United States has just obtained a superior information and action tool in UNPRECEDENTED: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? David Ray Griffin spent almost three years researching and compiling this excellent summary of climate disruption and what people can do about it.
Read UNPRECEDENTED, and you will discover the most complete, up-to-date news about effective kinds of clean energy, the reasons why we need to transition very quickly from fossil-fuel power to deep decarbonization, and how the US and the world may be able to achieve 70% clean energy by 2035 and 100% before 2050.
The book is up to date as of six weeks ago, January 1, 2015. Its central question is whether humans can keep climate disruption from obliterating civilization as we know it. These times involve world instability perilous enough without a global danger. We’re feeling upsets in the Middle East and north Africa, growing pains elsewhere, serious stress in the European Union, sparking and rekindling of conflict in Ukraine, and ISIS, with its bloody Nouveau-Inquisition tactics.
However, Griffin has very good reason for arguing that the climate crisis eclipses all these events. The author, a philosopher, theologian, anthologist, and longtime professor at California’s Claremont think tank, has considerable expertise in researching profoundly disturbing history. If you’ve followed international news, listened to last year’s all-nighter in Congress about the risks the US faces, or seen the award-winning documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, you already have some idea of what you’ll find in his wide-ranging book.
Griffin brings to the topic cardinal abilities to digest and order masses of relevant information. Influential for his microscopic though controversial analysis of the 9/11 World Trade Center destruction, as well as the more mainstream academic assemblage of SUNY’s 31-volume Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought, Griffin describes this almost three-year effort as his personal tour de force. It covers “a much more important issue than any of my previous ones.”
UNPRECEDENTED presents up-to-the-minute science of climate disruption and its likely effects on world ecosystems and human life as we know it. It’s one of the most extensive treatments of climate change phenomena I have seen in decades of covering the topic. As well as the science, Griffin touches on many of the social obstacles involved, including industry-funded denialism, media failure, abysmal political misjudgment, and moral, religious, and economic challenges.
Dr. Griffin also pointedly discusses mobilization. In that Griffin is not a scientist (heard that line before?), his treatment of technology does have occasional gaps. Too, rapid technological discoveries in future will quickly outpace it. However, his dissection of the consequences of climate change should remain sound over at least five or ten years, if not until the 2050 benchmark.
Fast readers can absorb UNPRECEDENTED‘s 450+ pages at a gallop. Those who spend more time at a book will find it very comfortable reading, and anyone with special interests can easily scan the contents table and pick out individual sections to explore. Though we now live in an infographic and multimedia world, and this manuscript was produced with speed in mind over illustrations, Griffin’s prose consistently entertains. It wouldn’t take much effort to compile a brief multimedia treatment of major discussion points.
Griffin arranges the book sensibly along these three lines of thought:
- The nature of the threat posed by climate disruption,
- How and why humanity has so far failed to act and embraced indefensible complacency, and
- What needs to be done from here on out.
Each chapter of Part I, “Unprecedented Threats,” highlights an unprecedented hazard and three possible responses: Plan A (business as usual), Plan B (mobilization), and Plan C (wait and see). The winning strategy in most cases goes without saying. The threats:
- Extreme weather
- Heat waves
- Drought and wildfire
- Severe storms (rain, snow, hurricanes, and tornadoes)
- Rising sea level
- Fresh water crises
- Refugee migration
- Climate wars, and ultimately,
- Ecosystem collapses (including the present sixth mass extinction, which may or may not come to include humans).
In Part II, Griffin addresses the ticklish question of why, after decades of warnings from the best scientists around the world and repeated international meetings, we have chosen to turn our backs on the problem—or worse. The “or worse” section focuses on the role of fossil fuel companies, which dominate the world’s top ten, and on sumo-wrestling politics in the US.
Briefly, the author believes that we’re dealing here with the least-precedented ever challenge to human intelligence and the largest mass deception our human flock has experienced in recorded history. Griffin points his finger directly at climate change denial. He does not relent until he has compiled an exhaustive catalog of unrepented sins.
Scientists and some thoughtful segments of the media, including this blog, have exposed palliation and disinformation about climate disruption for years. We’ve been roundly vilified for it. The roar of vested interests with unfathomably deep pockets has drowned out a strong and growing body of evidence about climate disruption. It has also diffused attempts proposed by the brave to mitigate and adapt to the phenomenon. UNPRECEDENTED is not a “get-you-back” effort, however; it’s an attempt to clear the board and present cogent strategies for near-term action.
The middle section of Griffin’s work examines cons that the fossil-fuel industry, its dependent downstream corporations (more than meet the eye), and compromised politicians have used to blunt and divert public opinion from the near-unanimous scientific conclusion that coal, oil, and natural gas are changing the face of our planet, ultimately not for the better.
Alongside the subterfuges corporations have used to discredit top scientists like Dr. Michael Mann, trip up leaders such as Vice-President Al Gore, and derail promising international efforts—the 2009 UN Copenhagen summit comes to mind immediately—Griffin takes the media to task. Its thoughtless embrace of shallow arguments and its overall inattention to the imminence and vastness of potential climate change, with false balance as a major weapon, have put civilized humanity in danger.
UNPRECEDENTED goes on to expose the history of political failures to address global warming successfully. There’s also a wonderful discussion of environmental decisionmaking by US presidents since Lyndon Baines Johnson and a welcome inclusion of ethics and religious culture coming direct from a prominent 21st-century theologian and philosopher.
Griffin points out how fundamentalist ideologies based on the omnipotence of a supreme being often result in climate complacency: the world can only be destroyed by global warming if God wants it to happen, and humans who profess otherwise exhibit ungodly arrogance of the worst kind.
The author parallels his hopes for political outcomes with past campaigns for global justice that have succeeded, like the abolition of slavery and termination of apartheid. Intergenerational justice may be the bottom line in the case of climate disruption—whether the adults of today can act effectively enough to save earth’s current bounty for our children and grandchildren.
False economic ideas undermine our ability to cope with global warming, Griffin says. He starts with the complacency of Yale’s William Nordhaus and continues through the thinking of Oxford’s Lord Nicholas Stern and Harvard’s Martin Weitzman. Those familiar with economic thought will likely applaud the author’s conclusion that we need to tax carbon immediately and eliminate all fossil-fuel subsidies.
In Part III, “What Is To Be Done” (the shortest section), UNPRECEDENTED refutes fossil industry red herrings that clean energy costs too much and lacks the capability to power modern power civilization. That may have been true in 25 or even 15 years ago, but it’s hardly the case today, particularly in light of abundant supply, open-tap economics, increasingly iffy hydraulic fracturing, and other costly efforts to get at previously inaccessible hydrocarbons or sequester their byproducts.
I would have liked to see more on kinder, smaller-scale hydro projects like run-of-river generation and use of streams and constructed waterways. The transportation section excels in describing fuels and noting electric vehicle, high-speed rail, and air travel efficiencies, including the popular topic of Mach 4 transcontinental journeys. Griffin also discusses modification and transformation of electricity transmission.
Very importantly, UNPRECEDENTED covers needed change and modernization of our existing power grids. However, distributed energy, minigrids, and off-grid technologies—so game-changing for rural areas, isolated industrial operations, and less-developed countries—receive comparatively little attention.
Nuclear energy—as either zero-carbon or environmentally hazardous, and traditional or small-scale—is not covered, even in the index. However, Griffin does detail carbon budgeting and debunk the “bridge fuel” argument for natural gas as potentially harmful, especially considering the now evident and emerging risks of fracking. He also notes the increased danger of working with bitumen and other extraheavy crude, “tough” oil not anticipated in existing pipeline, railcar, or infrastructure design.
Like other recent analysts, the author concludes that clean power can provide far more than enough energy to support civilization at its current or foreseeable levels. Bottom-line figures: the planet’s energy could be 70% clean by 2035, and 100% clean by 2050. Now that we have numerous alternative power sources, Griffin argues, we should have no compunctions about phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
In just the past six weeks since completion of this extraordinary book, new lights have started shining on the climate struggle where before there were only glimmers. Narendra Modi’s White House visit, the Pope’s trip to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines, and Norway’s huge divestment of coal holdings have all occurred during this brief timeframe.
Lester Brown, author of Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, says that deep decarbonization “will take a massive mobilization—at wartime speed.” Griffin predicates the success of slowing climate disruption on US leadership, proposing that President Obama should declare a national climate emergency and implement related policies on an appropriate scale.
Having just returned from the UN’s Lima COP20 conference last December (right), I differ with Griffin’s position somewhat. President Obama has shown executive leadership at home with the multifaceted EPA Clean Power Plan and initiatives from the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Defense, and other Cabinet agencies. However, internal American politics and continued Congressional stonewalling will likely hamper legislative efforts and limit our power to lead by example.
On the other hand, the president has recently propelled the international dialogue with alacrity. His collusion last fall on environmental goals with President Xi Jinping of China (our partner in almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions) and his recent exchanges with Prime Minister Modi of India, the third major contributor to worldwide emissions, bode well for the world’s atmosphere.
Secretary of State John Kerry rightly points out that challenging climate disruption is not an appropriate or attainable task for any single nation. In fact, the true world debate centers on the ability of developed and developing nations to negotiate common ground. Lima restated goals, recognized plurality, and clearly laid out the options proposed by all parties. It remains for nations to prepare realistic commitments (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) and make some tough compromises within the coming year.
Dr. Griffin concludes the way he started, with the concept that the world is facing an unprecedented challenge. His final chapter drives home the need for Americans—and all nationals—to devote ourselves to shifting energy modes in coming decades until we achieve deep decarbonization and a true clean-energy world economy. The editor of CleanTechnica, Zachary Shahan, and this writer must praise Griffin for producing “a great service to humanity.”
UNPRECEDENTED is a must for government regulators and groups and organizations working to protect the earth. Highly recommended for high school level through graduate and professional study, business leaders, community groups, and book clubs. It was released as an ebook on January 1, 2015. You can purchase the ebook (ISBN: 978-9-9860769-1-6) from Amazon and other online venues, and paperback shelf copies debut on February 15 (ISBN: 978-0-9860769-0-9, 506 pp.) for $34.95. Bulk orders of 10 copies or more are also available. In this reviewer’s mind, they should be utilized widely.