The IPCC Report & Exceptionalism
The August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not a flippant document. It is based on the contributions of 230 of the world’s leading climate scientists and was eight years in the writing. Nearly 4,000 pages in length it was approved by 196 national governments. Its key deduction is clear and unequivocal: humankind, which is you and me, our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours are responsible for climate breakdown.
Among the report’s findings is that if the present level of emission of greenhouse gases continues unabated the average global temperature will rise above the critical level of 1.50C by 2040, as against the pre-industrial level. This we are told will be catastrophic for humanity and the life forms we share the planet with. The day-to-day circumstances of our lives will be so changed that few will find any joy in living. What should serve as a wake-up call is that the two decades left before the planet warms to 1.50C is within the life-span of most people alive today.
The year 2040 is not a bold white line at a road junction marking pre and post 1.50 C for as the average global temperature rises so will the magnitude of ecological disasters and human suffering. This year with the temperature at 1.10 C above the pre-industrial level many people living in temperate climatic zones directly experienced the consequences of global warming.
A combination of drought and high temperatures turned forests into ash. The fires destroyed towns, killed hundreds of people, displaced hundreds of thousands and subjected tens of millions to toxic smoke. The fire in British Colombia killed at least a billion creatures, mostly marine life living close to the shore. The Dixie Fire in California, which started on 13 July, has to date burnt over 1,167 square miles of forest destroying public facilities and family homes. This July and August fires in California burnt 2,500 square miles of forest.
We know from our newspapers and TV screens of the terrible forest fires in Algeria, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Siberia. The fires in Siberia are ominous as it is normally one of the coldest regions of the world. Floods washed away villages in central Europe killing in excess of 200 people, while over 300 people died in floods in China. The intensity of Hurricane Ida, which swept through Louisiana and Mississippi in late August, was likely heightened by climate beak down. In Armagh the temperature reached 31.40 C on 22 July, which is the highest temperature in Ireland since records began.
Giving voice to the seriousness of climate breakdown the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, described the report’s findings as “code red for humanity”. We have as it were been given our orders, which is to radically reduce our emission of global warming gases through changing every aspect of how we live.
Contrary to the negative clichés, the outcome of the necessary changes will likely mean improved physical and emotional wellbeing. Cycling for example will make us healthier and fitter, prolong our expected life-span whilst saving us money. Travelling by public transport and car sharing should lead to greater social cohesion. Buying local produce will contribute to the local economy. Some people will have to make what they might initially consider sacrifices. These include significantly reducing their consumption of meat and dairy and flying less frequently. The former will lead to better health and the latter can mean we get to know and enjoy the world on our own doorstep. We will also be required to devote some of our time to petitioning public bodies, financial institutions and large corporations to play their part in reducing global warming emissions and protecting biodiversity.
If we really are the ‘wise ape’ we like to think ourselves as we can make the world a more liveable place through having a clear understanding of how we see our place in the world. An inherited view, one so embedded in our psyche we for the most part are unaware of it, is that we are exceptional. We for example consider ourselves the exception among all the species that have ever existed, so exceptional that we think of ourselves as immortal, destined for an eternity in either Heaven or Hell. This belief allows us to claim moral licence to commit ecocide and in any particular year incarcerate 70 billion sentient creatures in horrendous conditions for our culinary gratification.
For many the idea of exceptionalism encompasses the belief that Aboriginal peoples have no soul and thus can be exterminated and their possessions and lands taken at will. The papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 provided European colonialists with the rationale to regard Indigenous people as soulless whilst giving them the legal authority to invade their lands, steal all they owned and subjugate them. In 1835 the Reverend William Yates expressed the view that Australian Aborigines “were nothing better than dogs and it was no more harm to shoot them than it would be to shoot a dog when he barked at you.” (*1) In 1902 the politician and businessman King O’Malley told the Australian Parliament that: “There is no scientific evidence that the aboriginal is a human being at all.” (*2) In our own time Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, told an audience that: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” (*3)
This is the language of genocide. Taking other peoples’ land is theft. Obliterating nonhuman nature is ecocide. Destroying the entire biosphere for convenience is madness. From the exceptionalism perspective all this is nought against the belief most commonly held by religious people that “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John: 18:36) We not only think of ourselves as the exceptional species but also as the exceptional generation as we diligently disabuse the biosphere at the expense of all future human beings.
We almost certainly won’t accomplish what is required of us in regard to caring for the Earth unless there is a change in our collective mindset and we regard ourselves as Nature, without exceptions. Then we should be able to apply the golden rule of “do unto others as you would them do onto you” to the life forms, bar certain viruses, for whom Earth is also home.
(*1) The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, 2009, p. 151
(*2) The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, 2009, p. 151.
(*3) Ernest Londono, The New York Times, 10 November 2018.