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Rising Temperatures And Rising Authoritarianism — Two Trends That Are Intertwined

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The Earth is getting warmer, there’s no doubt about that and those rising temperatures are not due to cow farts or sunspots but rather human activity. A report by Berkeley Earth in January, 2024 said,

2023 was the warmest year on Earth since 1850, exceeding the previous record set in 2016 by a clear and definitive margin. The global annual average for 2023 in our dataset was estimated as 1.54 ± 0.06 °C (2.77 ± 0.11 °F) above the average during the period 1850 to 1900, which is traditionally used a reference for the pre-industrial period. This is the first time that any year has exceeded the key 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) threshold. The last nine years have included all nine of the warmest years observed in the instrumental record.

Berkeley Earth acknowledges that other researchers may claim the talismanic “1.5º C above pre-industrial levels” target has not been exceeded because the Earth is still a few hundredths of a degree below the limit by their reckoning. But the barrier will surely be broken in 2024. Current global climate policies have the world on a path for temperatures to increase to about 2.7º C by 2100, which would threaten modern human civilization within the lifespan of children born today.

As Earth’s annual average temperatures push against the 1.5º C limit, social scientists warn that we may be about to move into a dangerous new era in human history. Research shows the increasing climate shocks could trigger more social unrest and authoritarian backlashes.

However, the situation is barely registering with people who are being bombarded with inaccurate climate propaganda and distracted by the rising cost of living and regional wars, Reinhard Steurer, a climate researcher at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna told Inside Climate News.

The real danger is that there are so many other crises around us that there is no effort left for the climate crisis. We will find all kinds of reasons not to put more effort into climate protection, because we are overburdened with other things like inflation and wars all around us. I think most scientists recognize that 1.5 is gone. We’ll be doing this for a very long time — not accepting facts, pretending that we are doing a good job, pretending that it’s not going to be that bad.

Steurer says that choosing 1.5º C as the key metric of whether climate action was working to limit warmer temperatures may have been a bad idea. “It’s language nobody really understands, unfortunately, outside of science. You always have to explain that 1.5 means a climate we can adapt to and manage the consequences, 2 degrees of heating is really dangerous, and 3 means collapse of civilization.”

He hopes more scientists will begin to talk publicly about worst case outcomes. “It would really make a difference if scientists talked more about societal collapse and how to prepare for that because it would signal that now it’s getting real. It’s much more tangible than 1.5º.”

Recently, public climate discourse has been dominated by feel good announcements about how COP28 kept the 1.5º C goal alive, he added. “This is classic performative politics. If the fossil fuel industry can celebrate the outcome of the COP, that’s not a good sign.”

Like many social scientists, Steurer is worried that the increasingly severe climate shocks will reverberate politically as people reach for easy answers. “That is usually denial, in particular when it comes to right wing parties. That’s the easiest answer you can find. Global warming will be catastrophic sooner or later, but for now, denial works. And that’s all that matters for the next election.” Steurer must be prescient. Just the past week, Adolph DeSantis, the Fuhrer of Florida, ordered the removal of sociology from the curriculum of public schools and colleges in that stare.

Rising Temperatures Lead To Fear, Terror, and Anxiety

Social policy researcher Paul Hoggett, professor emeritus at the University of the West of England in Bristol, said the scientific roots of the 1.5º C target for global temperatures date back to research twenty years ago. “I think it’s still seen very much that key marker of where we move from something which is incremental perhaps to something which ceases to be incremental,” he said. “But there’s a second reality, which is the reality of politics and policymaking.”

The first reality is “profoundly disturbing,” but in the political world, 1.5º C is a symbolic marker, he said. “It’s more rhetorical; it’s a narrative of 1.5º. You almost just shrug your shoulders. As the first reality worsens, the political and cultural response becomes more perverse.”

A major announcement about temperatures above 1.5º C in today’s political and social climate could be met with extreme denial in a political climate marked by “a remorseless rise of authoritarian forms of nationalism. Even an announcement from the Pope himself would be taken as just another sign of a global elite trying to pull the wool over our eyes.” An increasing number of right wing narratives simply see this as a set of lies, he added.

“I think this is a huge issue that is going to become more and more important in the coming years. We’re going backwards to where we were 20 years ago when there was a real attempt to portray climate science as misinformation. More and more right wing commentators will portray what comes out of the IPCC, for example, as just a pack of lies.” The climate crisis has no obvious solution, he says.

“At times of such huge uncertainty, a veritable plague of toxic public feelings can be unleashed, which provide the effective underpinning for political movements such as populism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. When climate reality starts to get tough, you secure your borders, you secure your own sources of food and energy, and you keep out the rest of them. That’s the politics of the armed lifeboat,” he says.

Rising Temperatures And The Emotional Climate

“I don’t think people like facing things they can’t affect,” said psycho-therapist Rebecca Weston, co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America. “ After a trauma, people do everything that they possibly can to stop feeling what is unbearable to feel.” That may be one reason temperatures increasing beyond the 1.5º limit may not stir the public, she said.

“We protect ourselves from fear, we protect ourselves from deep grief on behalf of future generations and we protect ourselves from guilt and shame. And I think that the fossil fuel industry knows that. We can be told something over and over and over again, but if we have an identity and a sense of ourselves tied up in something else, we will almost always refer to that, even if it’s at the cost of pretending that something that is true is not true.”

Such deep disavowal is part of an elaborate psychological system for coping with the unbearable. “It’s not something we can just snap our fingers and get ourselves out of,” she said. People who point out the importance of the 1.5º C limit are resented because they are intruding on peoples’ psychological safety and become pariahs. “The way societies enforce this emotionally is really very striking,” she added.

What will people do once they realize temperatures have passed the 1.5º C milestone? “I do think it revolves around the question of agency and the question of meaning in one’s life, And I think that’s competing with so many other things that are going on in the world at the same time, not coincidentally, like the political crises that are happening globally, the shift to the far right in Europe, the shift to the far right in the US, and the shift in Argentina.”

Those are not unrelated, she said, because a lack of agency produces a yearning for false, exclusionary solutions and authoritarianism. “If there’s going to be something that keeps me up at night, it’s not 1.5º C. It’s the political implications of that feeling of helplessness. People will do an awful lot to avoid feeling helpless. That can mean they deny the problem in the first place. Or it could mean that they blame people who are easier targets, and there is plenty of that to witness happening in the world. Or it can be utter and total despair, and a turning inward and into a defeatist place.”

She said if temperatures exceed the 1.5º C limit, it will trigger questions about addressing the problem politically and socially. “I don’t think most people who are really tracking climate change believe it’s a question of technology or science. The people who are in the know, know deeply that these are political and social and emotional questions. And my sense is that it will deepen a sense of cynicism and rage, and intensify the polarization.”

Unimpressed By Science

Watching global temperatures surge past the 1.5º C mark without much reaction from the public reinforces the idea that the focus on the physical science of climate change in recent decades came at the expense of studying how people and communities will be affected and react to global warming. That’s according to Dana Fisher, a professor in the School of International Service at American University and director of its Center for Environment, Community, and Equity.

“It’s a fool’s errand to continue down that road right now,” she said. “It’s been an abysmal ratio of funds that are going to understand the social conflict that’s going to come from climate shocks, the climate migration and the ways that social processes will have to shift. None of that has been done.”

It will “add fuel to the fire of the vanguard of the climate movement. Groups that are calling for systemic change, that are railing against incremental policy making and against business as usual are going to be empowered by this information, and we’re going to see those people get more involved and be more confrontational.” Based on the historical record, a rise in climate activism is likely to trigger a backlash, a dangerous chain reaction, she said. “When you see a big cycle of activism growing, you get a rise in counter-movements, particularly as activism becomes more confrontational, even if it’s nonviolent, like we saw during the Civil Rights period and it will lead to clashes.”

Looking at the historic record, she said, shows that repressive crackdowns on civil disobedience are often where the violence starts. There are signs that pattern will repeat, with police raids and even pre-emptive arrests of climate activists in Germany, and similar repressive measures in the United Kingdom and other countries.

“I think that’s an important story to talk about, that people are going to push back against climate action just as much as they’re going to push for it,” she said. “There are those that are going to feel like they’re losing privileged access to resources and funding and subsidies. There will be more places where you can’t go outside during certain times of the year because of either smoke from fires, or extreme heat, or flooding, or all the other things that we know are coming,” she said. “That’s just going to empower more people to get off their couches and become activists.”

A Life or Death Task For Humanity

Public ignorance of the fact that temperatures have exceeded the 1.5º C mark depends on “how long the powers-that-be can get away with throwing up smokescreens and pretending that they are doing something significant,” said famed climate researcher James Hansen, who recently co-authored a paper showing that warming is accelerating at a pace that will result in 2 degrees of warming within a couple of decades.

“As long as they can maintain the 1.5C fiction, they can claim that they are doing their job,” he said. “They will keep faking it as long as the scientific community lets them get away with it.” But even once the realization of passing 1.5º C is widespread, it might not change the social and political responses much, said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist and activist in California. “Not enough people care,” he said. “I’ve been a climate activist since 2006. I’ve tried so many things, I’ve had so many conversations and I still don’t know what it will take for people to care. Maybe they never will.”

He adds, “No one really knows for sure, but it may still be just physically possible for Earth to stay under 1.5º C if humanity magically stopped burning fossil fuels today. But we can’t stop fossil fuels that fast even if everyone wanted to. People would die. The transition takes preparation.” And there are a lot of people who just don’t want to make that transition, he said.

We have a few people with inordinate power who actively want to continue expanding fossil fuels. They are the main beneficiaries of extractive capitalism; billionaires, politicians, CEOs, lobbyists and bankers. And the few people who want to stop those powerful people haven’t figured out how to get enough power to do so.

“There is no upper bound, until either we choose to end fossil fuels or until we simply aren’t organized enough anymore as a civilization to burn much fossil fuel. I think it’s time for the movement to get even more radical. Stopping fossil fueled global heating is a life or death task for humanity and the planet, just most people haven’t realized it yet.”

The Takeaway

The people at Inside Climate News have done an excellent job of explaining how and why average global temperatures are rising and what some of the likely consequences of that heating might be. What to do about it is the question. We know the former president running for that office again is salivating at the prospect of extracting more fossil fuels due to some misguided notion that the country that produces a lot of cola, oil, and gas can claim bragging rights on the world stage.

We have seen the politics of rage play out on January 6, 2021 and that may be just a foretaste of what lies in store for  America and the world if a culture of willful stupidity gains ascendancy. Perhaps the solution is to trust in the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead who said, “Never underestimate the power of a group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

CleanTechnica is blessed with just such a group of committed people — our readers. We strive to give you the tools and information you need to make a difference, even in the overheated cauldron of local, national, and world politics we are experiencing today. Rising global temperatures will be the final exam for humanity. It’s going to take all of us working together to pass it.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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