Dr. Joseph Romm has mastered the scientific research on Climate Change. He has worked, studied, and written within the domain of climate science for many years. This book synthesizes his substantial knowledge and systematically describes our human situation in the light of the devastating future into which we are headed if we do not make drastic, immediate, worldwide reductions in the vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) we are pouring daily into the atmosphere.
I will lay out below some of the conclusions about our human situation in the light of climate science that Romm reviews in this book. They are absolutely important to all of us who care about humanity and its future. Then I will take note of the narrowness and ideological character of Dr. Romm’s background assumptions. These assumptions condition his ideas about how we can and must respond to the present and rapidly growing climate crisis within the same narrow framework that caused the crisis in the first place.
Romm worked for 15 years at the US Department of Energy advising businesses on how to become more energy efficient and reduce their carbon footprint. As of the year 2017, when he published the second edition of this book, he was working at the Center for American Progress which states on its website that it is a “nonpartisan policy institute” working “to improve the lives of all Americans.” In recent years he has been science advisor to the TV documentary “Years of Living Dangerously,” the first US documentary series on climate change. I will write more below about the narrow (and dangerous) set of assumptions that this work history implies. Success within the dominant US system, often requires that one spend one’s lifetime wearing a set of narrow ideological blinders.
Part One: Climate Change is Real and Serious
Climate science is a major, worldwide branch of science with many subdisciplines. Some climate scientists specialize in the oceans, others in meteorology. Other scientists specialize in ice fields and the polar regions. Still others are experts is atmospheric gases like CO2, hydrogen, and methane. Others study geology in relation to climate, or biology in relation to species extinction and the planetary environments necessary to support life. Some study astronomy in relation to climate, including the sun, the Earth’s orbit, and other external factors influencing climate. Still others are climate paleontologists who study the historical climate record over millions of years. Some climate scientists specialize in computer modeling of likely future climate conditions in relation to the CO2 concentrations and other gases in the atmosphere, the oceans, and on land.
Climate science embraces many thousands of scientific experts and institutes worldwide. It also includes a number of international organizations, like the huge UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC: https://www.ipcc.ch/), dedicated to coordinating and synthesizing the results of the research going on in all these areas. Its Fifth Assessment Report, which appeared in 2014, summarizing our worldwide knowledge of climate change to that date, paints a truly frightening picture of our future if we maintain business as usual. The fact is that we human beings possess a deep understanding of climate dynamics in terms of the paleontological record, worldwide symptoms in the present, and the range of possible futures. We also possess a deeply credible and scientifically corroborated knowledge of the ways that human activity since the industrial revolution is causing climate change.
In addition, we possess lesser known but easily available knowledge of the narrow political and economic forces (such as the big oil and fossil fuel companies) that have worked to cast doubt on the results of climate science by spending many millions of dollars funding misleading articles and propaganda designed to discredit the important knowledge that climate science has accumulated over multiple decades of systematic research. Like the tobacco companies, who knew that smoking causes lung cancer but promoted propaganda designed to cast doubt on this scientific knowledge, so the big fossil fuel companies have long known about the devastation they are causing but continue to engender doubt so as to maximize their short-term profits.
Human beings and most life on Earth are in great danger. We are already condemned to a drastically changed world in which our creativity and adaptability will be severely challenged within the next few decades as things get seriously worse and worse. But every year that we wait to take drastic CO2 reduction measures (that is, stop burning fossil fuels), determines a future which is significantly more horrible by magnitudes of destruction. It is not an incremental worsening. Every year that we delay now means increasing magnitudes of suffering and horror for our children and future generations.
This is because climate is very sensitive to a number of positive (amplifying) feedback mechanisms (with no known counteracting negative or seriously diminishing feedback loops). A central positive feedback mechanism for warming is the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (predominately CO2). From the preindustrial average of 280 parts per million (ppm) we are now at the level of about 412 ppm and steadily climbing year after year at about 2 ppm per year. This in turn generates hotter, dryer summers (droughts, desertification), ever more superstorms (because warm air holds more water and warm-moist air is a key ingredient in the generating thunderstorms, hurricanes, and cyclones), the melting of the polar caps and glaciers, the acidification of the oceans, etc.
We have been passing “tipping points” (irreversible points of no return) in which additional positive (amplifying) feedbacks kick in. For example, melting of sea ice (which reflects nearly all of the sunlight that falls on it back into space) becomes dark blue ocean water (which absorbs nearly all the sunlight hitting it, thereby becoming another irreversible source of warming). The more sea ice that melts, the more the planet absorbs the sun’s heat.
Another example is the melting of permafrost in northern regions from Canada to northern Europe to Siberia, constituting vast tracts of land. Permafrost (which has remained frozen throughout recorded human history) is now melting at unprecedented rates, releasing not only CO2 but great quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane (CO4) is 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, (p. 85). As with melted sea ice, this passes an irreversible tipping point: it is impossible to refreeze the permafrost. Therefore, continued warming is unstoppable. The only question we face is: how much can we do to mitigate the disasters ahead?
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in its 2009 report, stated that “the climate change that is taking place because of increases of C02 concentration is largely irreversible for 1000 years after emissions stop…. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric CO2 concentrations increase from current levels … are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise” (in Romm, p. 29).
Romm’s book describes in detail these and more consequences of global warming. All of these will happen and are unstoppable. What human beings can do is mitigate these effects. If we take serious action now (worldwide), we can limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade and thereby mitigate these consequences to the point of making life tolerable and possible through the next century and beyond.
This means keeping CO2 concentrations well below 450 ppm from the year 2050 through the end of the century and beyond. If we continue with business as usual in the burning of fossil fuels, and fail to limit the rise in temperature before the year 2100 to 2 degrees centigrade, we will be making life a hell on Earth for subsequent generations, with massive starvation, disease, and death for the majority of people on the planet and for its other living creatures. Here is a list of some of the main consequences of climate change described by Joseph Romm.
- Dust-bowl conditions and disappearance of agricultural lands. From the southwest of the US to sub-Sahara Africa to the breadbasket regions of China and India, global warming will be ending productive agriculture in these areas and turning them into uninhabitable deserts. Already in the last few decades the world has experienced extreme prolonged droughts in these areas that have led to massive crop failures. Based on scientific studies, Romm concludes: “the coming multidecadal megadroughts will be … worse than anything seen within the last 2000 years…. They will be the kind of megadroughts that in the past destroyed entire civilizations” (p. 103). Areas where there are now forests will dry out to the extent that forest fires will regularly ravage them, adding even more carbon to the atmosphere. Again, forest fires have become more frequent and widespread in the past few decades.
- Sea level rise and flooding of coastal lands. Much of the increased heating of the Earth is absorbed by the oceans. Heat expands the volume of water thereby inducing sea-level rise. Secondly the melting of the world’s glaciers (happening rapidly everywhere) is adding vast amounts of water to the oceans. There are also massive amounts of water stored in the Greenland ice sheet (two miles thick) and vastly more water stored on the Antarctic continent (again, some two miles thick). Both the Greenland ice sheet and portions of the Antarctic ice sheet are considered “unstable” are have been found to be melting at unprecedented rates.
As of 2015 scientists have been predicting a best case scenario of 3 to 5 feet increase in ocean levels by the year 2100. This alone will mean that many major coastal cities will have to be moved or abandoned on every continent. A business as usual scenario (without drastic reduction of the use of fossil fuels) could mean a 1 foot per decade rise in sea level through the year 2100, which would put much of the habitable, coastal areas of the Earth under water. Billions of people would be displaced and a great portion of the world’s agricultural lands would be submerged or ruined because of ever-increasing salt-water intrusion (p. 100).
- Acidification of oceans and death of fisheries. “The oceans are now acidifying faster than they ever have in the last 300 million years, during which time there were four major extinctions driven by natural bursts of carbon” (p. 123). Most of the carbon we are emitting into the atmosphere gets absorbed in the oceans. Since ocean creatures are evolved in connection with certain “normal” carbon concentrations, this acidification accelerates massive extinctions and die offs.
This carbon can deplete the amount of oxygen dissolved in ocean and suffocate many species, creating so-called “dead zones” like the huge area in the Gulf of Mexico where few creatures can live. Today a large portion of humanity receives a substantial amount of their food from the oceans. As agricultural lands disappear because of rising oceans, so the source of the oceans as food diminishes. Our CO2 emissions are killing the oceans as well as the lands.
- Disappearance of agricultural lands. Agricultural lands are disappearing through rising oceans, salt-water intrusion into crop lands, and also through the process of desertification caused by the heating up of the land. Much of the agricultural land worldwide is drying out due to lack of moisture and rainfall, is experiencing serious droughts, and is destined to become useless as a major source of food for human beings. All the while the Earth’s population continues to soar well beyond 7 billion people. This is happening today, and the best we can do is make radical changes in our emissions of CO2 in order to mitigate these disastrous consequences, which will surely include starvation for a good portion of humanity.
- Uninhabitable regions of the world. The world of the past five decades has been experiencing a series of unprecedented heat waves that have resulted in the heat related deaths of many people and the destruction of crops. These include the terrible waves in France in 2003, Moscow in 2010, and Texas in 2011 (p. 43). These of course are related to droughts and the general warming of the globe. One team of researchers found that “absent strong climate action, we are headed toward levels of warming by 2100 that will expose as much as three fourths of the world’s population to a deadly combination of temperature and humidity for at least 20 days a year” (pp. 109-10). As the warming patterns settle in, there will regions of the Earth that are so hot as to be uninhabitable. People will not be able to be outdoors without special protective gear.
- The unprecedented spread of insect pests and tropical-like human diseases. Because of warmer, shorter winters, for example, the forests of the US and Canada have lost some 70,000 square miles of trees to the Bark Beetle and the Pine Beetle, destructive insects whose spread is no longer controlled by harsh winter conditions (p. 49). Similarly, diseases like Zika virus and Dengue fever are on the rise in the world in part because of warmer conditions everywhere (p. 112).
- Massive extinctions of existing species. We are already living in a period of unprecedented species extinction. The United Kingdom Royal Society (Academy of Sciences) wrote in 2010: “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record” (in Romm, p. 126). Since all life on Earth is an interconnected web, extensive die-off of species reduces the long-term chances of survival for those that remain (p. 128). Anthropogenic global warming is devastating the rich web of life that evolved on the Earth for the past 3.8 billion years.
Even though “new technologies and strategies make it easier for humans to protect endangered species” (p. 128), the key to preserving as many species as possible requires drastic measures to limit CO2 emissions and the global warming process. As Errol E. Harris points out, what a paradox it is that one species on our planet, supposedly the most intelligent, becomes the source of the possible destruction of nearly all life, including its own. (Harris, 2014, Chap. 1).
- More frequent and devastating superstorms. All around the world, there will be massive flooding, devastating winds, and billions of dollars in damages on a regular basis. Life will be much less predictable and secure everywhere on Earth. Warmer oceans with moisture-laden atmosphere form the breeding grounds for hurricanes, cyclones, and other extreme weather events. Warming induced changes in the jet stream and other factors produce “blocking patterns” in which storms get stuck in a single location rather than moving on. This greatly magnifies the wind and flooding damage from the storm. Coastal lands and cities, already subject to devastating storm surges due to rising ocean levels, will suffer even greater damages from frequent superstorms.
These conclusions are all the result of an overwhelming consensus on the part of scientists and scientific societies and institutions worldwide. It is both an absolute moral and practical imperative that we make radical immediate changes in the way we live and use energy. Romm recognizes this. Yet his narrow ideological framework skews the immense potential that human beings have for effectively dealing with climate change through addressing the entire nexus of human problems by way of fundamental system change.
Part Two: Climate Change or System Change
Without ever making an argument for his “market-based framework,” Romm simply assumes that all solutions to global climate change must be market based. Do human beings have a right to a decent, life supporting environment? Do other species have a right to exist? Romm places the need for “free market” solutions prior to these rights. Hence, the entire world may be destroyed if global warming cannot be mitigated through the market. For Romm, this appears to be our only option.
Hence, for Romm, it is “consumers” who need to be convinced of the seriousness of climate change and alter their buying habits accordingly. Any innovations in efficiency or development of climate preserving technology needs to be economically marketable. Businesses need to be profitable. Innovations must be inexpensive enough to be competitive. Indeed, this is happening now with solar panels as well as with wind power, but not with hydrogen fuel cell cars (p. 274).
The marketable solar panels and windmills, of course, are a good thing and give us hope. But what is strange here is that if there is a technology that could make a substantial difference for the well-being of future generations, that well-being must be sacrificed if the technology is not marketable. What appears to come first as an inviolable framework (like the law of gravity) is the market, even if this means the destruction of civilization.
Governments (which he recognizes as absolutely essential for any credible future) apparently have only the ability to regulate inviolable markets. They cannot solve our problems by imposing climate saving measures that are not marketable. Romm primarily considers two main initiatives that governments can take (and have taken): a carbon tax on fossil fuels and a cap and trade system. Carbon taxes have been used in a number of countries or regions (Sweden, Norway, Australia, British Columbia) with some success at reducing fossil fuel consumption (p. 177).
In a cap-and-trade system, a cap is a limit set on the amount of pollutant (such as carbon-based fuel emissions). Companies coming under their quota or cap can sell their permits to other companies (p. 178). “A cap-and-trade system lets the market set the price for carbon dioxide, whereas in a tax, the government sets the price” (p. 179). The cap-and-trade has been the most popular option for businesses and has been widely used.
Mainstream economists often say that the best way to deal with fossil fuel reduction is to include the costs (to the public and the environment) in the price of the commodity, whereas traditionally these costs were externalized into the air, water, and land, and not included in the cost of doing business. But some environmentalists, like Romm, appear to lack awareness that there was a reason why capitalism polluted the environment so badly: the system is based on maximizing profits through exploitation of workers, consumers, and the environment (Chase-Dunn 1998). If you take away these methods of maximizing profits for the few at the expense of the many, you also take way capitalism as we have always known it. You cannot possibly save the planet for future generations by embracing a system based solely on profit maximization (Kovel 2007).
If you really want to include true costs for a commodity in the cost of doing business, then you have to bring in values: the value of protecting the environment or of not exploiting workers or of not ripping off the consumer. If you bring values into market relationships, then you have some form of market socialism, not capitalism. Market socialism understands that producing food, clothing, shelter, and a decent environment include a morally based set of activities, and if this is the case, the reduction of fossil fuel use and other necessary changes do not pose insurmountable problems. Within an institutionalized profit-maximizing framework, you can never prevent climate destruction, for the system itself promotes externalization and exploitation. That is precisely why so many companies fund climate denial propaganda as well as circumvent environmental regulations (for example, by moving their production to countries with lax environmental standards).
Romm does urge us to base our consumption patterns on values. We should be willing to sacrifice some things for the benefit of future generations, but for businesses it can only be “marketability,” since businesses need to make a profit, and there needs to be (Romm assumes) continual economic “growth.” But you cannot have perpetual growth on a finite planet. The law of entropy (a true natural law) prohibits this. Neither profit maximization, nor growth, are inviolable laws of economics. They are human designed institutions and need to change.
We are going to need markets where things are produced according to the following three principles: (1) they are produced as necessities (not billions of tons of useless, extraneous junk); (2) all things must be built to be recycled (no more single use plastics or throw away cheap crap), and (3) things must be made for durability (no more made to fail one week after the short warranty period expires, in other words, designed to break down and be thrown away). Romm never mentions these three absolute requirements for addressing the climate crisis, perhaps because they each require ending profit maximization and producing for use-value and true human welfare, something the ideology of pure capitalism prohibits.
Romm ends his book by citing the value-based appeal of Pope Francis: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for ourselves and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (p. 282). But he is not willing to examine the immoral and sociopathic nature of the capitalist system based on maximizing profit for its own sake, regardless of its consequences for society or nature. This makes him a perfect employee for the US government and a natural fit for a think tank like the Center for American Progress, both institutions religiously devoted to the dogmas of profit maximization.
Legitimate government is and should be based on values. A constitution for any legitimate government should specify rights for citizens, and it should protect them through due process of law. It should base itself on freedom, dignity, equality, and justice, not on the domination of the rich, or the military, or some king or a dictator. Government regulates business and the market for the common good, and today this necessarily includes conversion away from fossil fuels. Rights are moral principles deriving from human dignity. They form the basis for both legitimate government and decent economics.
By contrast, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an ideal only, not part of a binding constitution, and the UN itself is merely a treaty of sovereign nations, not a government in any way, shape, or form. The world today is a fragmented collection of militarized, sovereign states, and many of its governments are either “failed states” or undemocratic in the extreme. How are they going to unite to protect our right to a healthy environment?
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth (written by hundreds of world citizens working together from 1968 to 1991) correctly asserts that every human being has the right to clean air, water, food, and a healthy environment in which to live (Martin 2010a). The Earth Federation Government has the authority, the mandate, the economic and technical knowhow, and the worldwide scope to regulate business and human interactions to achieve these moral ends. It is this system change alone that can truly address the climate crisis (Martin 2013).
Nor should it be left up to some legislature to decide whether to pursue climate mitigation. The Republican Party in the US (many of whose representatives in Congress are climate deniers) has no right to condemn the people of Earth to perdition by blocking effective climate legislation. Neither does US President Trump have this right. This is not “democracy,” for in a democracy government acts for the common good.
If some technical invention (for example, hydrogen fuel cell cars) is deemed essential to climate preservation, then these need to be produced, and the Earth Federation government would most certainly do so, using its unlimited public banking and money creation functions. Our future and our survival should not and cannot be dependent on the whims of the stock market, nor the consumer market, nor on the whims of political parties or oligarchs. The Earth Constitution makes a protected environment a framework right, not a contingent political issue.
The Center for “American” progress? Not global progress, global human rights, or global integrity, not world citizenship, not Earth Federation? Here we come to the second contradiction in Romm’s set of assumptions. Everywhere he recognizes that the world needs to be addressing climate change in a unified and coordinated way because our collective future depends on this. Yet his unspoken assumption is a system of sovereign nation states toward which, as with his view of capitalism, Romm shows little or no critical awareness. This fragmented framework of some 193 sovereign nations appears as what we must accept as a fait accompli. Like capitalism, it is assumed as an unchangeable fact of nature, not as the flawed and arbitrary human creation that it is.
He says that climate change endangers “national security.” Not human security, planetary security, or universal personal security, but national security. He quotes the US Department of Defense which declares “Climate change . . . poses immediate risks to US national security” (p. 133). It becomes clear that although the fate of humanity is threatened by climate change, the bottom line will be protecting Americans as the world descends ever further into calamity and chaos. All the world must work together closely to address the crisis of climate change, but, when push comes to shove, the Department of Defense will ensure that Americans emerge better off than the rest of humanity.
As with capitalism, Romm appears oblivious to the inability of sovereign nation-states to work together holistically to deal with the climate crisis. Any nation can withdraw from climate treaties at any time. Various nations are in perpetual conflict and struggle with their neighbors. Big nations have imperial ambitions. The US has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries since World War Two and continues to interfere around the globe, today threatening or occupying Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, as well as calling Russia and China its “enemies,” much of this in violation of international laws.
Romm never mentions the fact, cited by a number of sources, that the US military is the single largest organization in the world in terms of polluting the environment. He never mentions that not only is its immense fossil fuel machinery a major source of global warming emissions, but the production and deployment of its bombs, missiles, and military equipment is a toxic nightmare for our planet (Sanders and Davis, 2009). He never considers that you cannot fly B52s, or power huge warships with solar or wind power.
A green military would mean little or no military, something that can only happen under an Earth Federation served by the Earth Constitution. Romm never mentions the fact that the nations of the world spend three quarters of a trillion annually on weapons and war, an immense financial resource that could effectively address the climate crisis if it were directed there. He never links mitigating climate crisis with ending wars and militarism.
Without ending the system of sovereign nation-states and the world’s war system, the results of on-going climate destruction will mean death and misery for populations of the poor and weak countries of the world, and the grabbing of the Earth’s remaining resources and survivable areas by the rich and powerful countries (see Martin 2010b, Part Two). It is just pie in the sky naiveté to think it will be any different. Romm wants to whole world to work together to deal with climate destruction, but the spoils will to go to the USA and not to the poor who also help to save the planet.
One final flaw in Romm’s circumscribed world view is his view of population. He takes it as given that the Earth’s population will continue to explode, requiring a future planet to feed 9 or 10 billion people with diminished agricultural lands and depleted fisheries. Why assume this? If we are capable of the serious changes necessary to eliminate fossil fuel emissions, why are we not capable of curtailing the global population? In fact, many environmentalists, such as Errol E. Harris (2014, Chap. 1) point to population curtailment and reduction and a fundamental key to dealing with global climate change. Fewer people need fewer resources and produce fewer emissions and waste products. It is as simple as that.
Romm is excellent on the science of climate change and the serious challenges that humanity faces today and everyday from the present moment to at least through the end of this century. But his narrow ideological assumptions allow him to propose no credible solutions. We need worldwide efforts to educate women and provide them with the options for birth control that, if only this is done, will seriously reduce the population explosion and make a major contribution to mitigating the effects of global warming.
Second, we need to overcome the capitalist dogma that human beings can only economically relate to one another through a profit-maximizing set of institutions. This is simply naive, and climate change is much more easily addressed through a market socialism in which values (supervised by government representing the common good) determine much of investment and funding, not unmitigated greed.
Finally, climate change can only be effectively addressed by ratifying the Constitution for the Federation of Earth and ending the insane military competition among sovereign nation-states. This will truly unite the world and allow everyone, not just the rich and the powerful, to bear the burdens and reap the benefits of ending fossil fuel emissions and creating a sustainable, just and fulfilling world system. Everything necessary to effectively deal with the climate crisis is built into the Earth Constitution. Ratifying that Constitution is the most effective thing we can do to save our planet’s environment.
Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World Economy. Updated Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Harris, Errol E. (2014). Earth Federation Now! Tomorrow is Too Late. Second Edition. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Kovel, Joel (2007). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed Books.
Martin, Glen T., ed. (2010a). A Constitution for the Federation of Earth. With Historical Introduction, Commentary and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2010b). Triumph of Civilization: Democracy, Nonviolence, and the Piloting of Spaceship Earth. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Martin, Glen T. (2013). The Anatomy of a Sustainable World: Our Choice Between Climate Change or System Change. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
Sanders, Barry and Mike Davis (2009). The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Romm, Joseph (2018). Climate Change: What Everybody Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.