Sean Munger on climate change and our future.
You’ve already chosen a radical response to the climate crisis. You just don’t know it yet.
I read a tweet last week that I really should have screenshotted; that I didn’t is why I can’t tell you who said it. It was something to the effect of, ‘“Today’s politicians are acting as if the people they’re governing aren’t someday going to put them in the dock.” It was specifically related to the issue of the climate crisis. This is a chilling but, I think, prescient thought. It encapsulates in a few words the short-sightedness, cluelessness and hubris of our political, economic and cultural leaders who have utterly failed to take any substantive action to deal with the climate crisis—even as the area around Lake Tahoe burns, 120° heat waves sear the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf Coast is getting ripped to shreds by another climate-fueled hurricane, and Germany recovers from epic and unprecedented flooding. If they were going to do anything about climate change, they would have at least started by now. Consequently, they—and we as a society—have unwittingly chosen the most radical, chaotic and unpleasant means of dealing with the climate crisis. Those means haven’t really begun in earnest yet. But when they do, we aren’t going to like them one little bit.
Basically it comes down to this. Human civilization will step up and deal with climate change. In that I’m a firm believer: the alternative is the voluntary suicide of humankind. But handling climate change, and making the planet even marginally habitable going forward, will necessarily require a major change in global institutions, particularly economic ones. History shows us that institutions like governments and economies change in one of two ways. They either change themselves through reforms, planning, effort, hard work and consensus. This typically takes a long time, sometimes generations. Or else they change in a very short period of time, through radical and often violent upheaval—war, revolution or societal collapse. With regard to the climate crisis, we don’t have generations. We’re basically out of time already. If we recognize this, it’s easy to see where things are going.
Those people who work toward and create long-term institutional change in society are usually heroes we respect and admire, or at least we should. They’re builders, scientists, teachers, bureaucrats, occasionally well-meaning politicians; they have vision and drive and can see the big picture, and they work within the system to harness it to do the most good, however imperfectly. They’re likely to be regarded as centrists, moderates and consensus-builders. A good example of this kind of person is Franklin D. Roosevelt. By contrast, the drivers of short-term, radical institutional change tend to be the kind of people we fear and disdain. They are revolutionaries, autocrats, ideologues, demagogues, opportunists and military leaders. They too have long-term vision, but they also want short-term results, and they generally don’t care who they have to crush to get them. Vladimir Lenin was this sort of change agent. To effect change, they usually have to wreck something else first. Most of the villains of history—and a few of the heroes—have fallen into this category.
Climate change has now advanced to a stage, and to a degree of severity, that gradualist, institutional, within-the-system responses are now largely off the table. Thirty or forty years ago, there was a course open to us, as a global society, on dealing with the emergency. We could have begun a large-scale effort to transition our economies and societies over to renewable energy. We could have phased out fossil fuels, gradually and with sensible management of the economic pain, through measures like a mandated price on carbon, special taxes, or incentive programs. We could have begun major programs of afforestation and reforestation, changing land use patterns, greening cities, weaning ourselves off carbon-intensive food supplies, and encouraging ethical behavior from large companies and industries. We could’ve started electing climate-forward politicians and our judges could’ve started deciding cases that prioritized the rights of humans and the environment instead of ephemeral economic rights that benefit only a few. In short, we could have crafted solutions, within our existing systems and institutions, that had a real chance of averting climate disaster. A Franklin D. Roosevelt-type leader, or a lot of Franklin D. Roosevelts, would’ve made all the difference. And it could have worked.
But that didn’t happen, and we no longer have the time for gradualist, institutional solutions. No Franklin D. Roosevelts rose to tackle the challenge of climate change. Unfortunately—I hate to tell you this—it’s pretty much inevitable that the kind of people who will rise to this challenge are the Vladimir Lenin sort of change agents. Somebody, somewhere, will eventually—fairly soon, I think—decide that ending our society’s fossil fuel addiction by revolutionary and radical means is preferable to the commission of suicide as a species. And that revolutionary, autocrat, ideologue, demagogue, opportunist or military leader will have an entirely rational argument for why the masses should follow him: “Everything else failed. This is the final extremity. We either do this, right now, or we all die.”
My identification of this agent or party as the “Lenin of climate change” is not intended as an ideological analogue. Whether this person’s ideology is Communism or something else is almost irrelevant. It’s probably more likely to be left-wing authoritarian than right-wing, because today’s fascists generally don’t care about the environment. But whatever the ideology is, it will be repressive, you can be certain of that.
Let me be very clear on this: I do not like, wish for, or relish this result. I have no desire to follow the Vladimir Lenin of climate change. But as a historian, I have to tell you that I think he’s coming. Our institutions have demonstrated themselves incapable of the fundamental change needed in the short amount of time necessary to deal with climate catastrophe. Therefore, those institutions will be changed not from within by consensus, but from without by force—just as the ossified monarchy of imperial Russia was changed in 1917.
When he came to the throne in 1894, Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, had one overarching goal of his reign: to pass all of his autocratic powers, as intact as possible, to a male heir. He and his wife, the Empress Alexandra, spoke of his goal obsessively in their many letters to each other, especially after the male heir, the tsarevich Alexis, was born in 1904. They referred to him as “Baby” regardless of his age. The goal of passing the powers of the tsar to “Baby” without diminution was why Nicholas resisted even the tepid and largely cosmetic changes of the 1905 revolution, which forced him to share power with a centrist parliament, the Duma. But the institution of the monarchy, in total control of Russia, couldn’t change itself from within enough to withstand the new pressures of an industrialized, increasingly globalized society and the war that arose out of those stresses. By the time of the second revolution—the big one—in 1917, Nicholas and Alexandra still assumed Nicholas’s power would devolve to “Baby,” despite the fact that Alexis, being an infirm hemophiliac, was unlikely to reach adulthood and even his own ministers were warning him that revolution was imminent. Nicholas had no inkling that his real successor as the ruler of Russia would be not “Baby,” but Vladimir Lenin, who broke the system that could not change.
This is where our leaders and our economic institutions are right now. Like Tsar Nicholas, hampered by the unfortunate Duma, they know on some level that there’s a desperate need to change, but they’re capable of imagining only a limited menu of centrist, institutional fixes that might sound good but will never make a real difference, at least not in the time we have left. This is why we’re talking about climate “solutions” like a carbon tax, “net zero emissions” pledges and climate treaties like the weaksauce Paris Accords despite the fact that the time to be discussing them was not 2021, but 1980 or even 1970. The Lenin of climate change will sneer at these proposals. He will use the Paris Accords as toilet paper, mocking it as another example of why the system that produced it must be violently shattered.
This is also why the fretting about the impending end of American democracy is, for all its genuine and troubling concerns, somewhat short-sighted. Yes, it is true that right-wing authoritarians are trying to end America’s experiment with representative democracy and supplant it with fascism. Whether they succeed is on some level immaterial. If a right-wing authoritarian government came to power in the U.S. in, say, 2025, it probably wouldn’t last very long. The kind of right-wing authoritarians who are trying to take power now have no plans to use that power, if they get it, to do anything about climate change. Their contribution to history will be to break the system and pave the way for the Lenin of climate change, who is probably much more likely to be a left-wing authoritarian for whom climate change is his or her path to power. An American fascist government headed by Lauren Bobert, Tucker Carlson or the mummified remains of Trump 2024®™ is likely to be the equivalent of the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky in Russia between March and November 1917—a short interregnum between the collapse of the old system and its terrible counterreaction.
If a Lenin of climate change comes to power, it will not be fun times for all. The economic dislocation of stamping on the emergency brake of the global fossil fuel economy will bring our entire industrial civilization to a screeching halt. War, on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1940s, is one likely result. The chaos will probably be far greater than even a dictatorial leader can harness or control. The Lenin of climate change may lose his own head in the process, a sort of Robespierre of the 21st century. We have no idea where the chips will fall. There will be some positives, but how many, and for who, no one can say. I don’t want to be around for this, but I may well be spending my retirement years watching it unfold.
In a sense, Nicholas and the rest of the imperial Russian system chose Lenin as the radical solution to the problems he and they would not and could not mobilize themselves to solve—they just didn’t know it until it was too late. Similarly, our institutions and our leaders have already chosen some future radical(s), however odious they turn out to be, as the leaders who will deal with climate change, because no one else will. ExxonMobil chose the Lenin of climate change when it decided to embrace denial instead of facing honestly the consequences of its actions. The voters of the United States chose the Lenin of climate change when in 1988 they elected George H.W. Bush, the President who ensconced denialism as official U.S. policy. The Chinese Communist Party chose the Lenin of climate change when it decided to power most of China’s sudden burst of economic growth through dirty fossil energies.
This is a historical truth I wish did not exist, a prediction I wish I didn’t have to make. As I said, I don’t want, like or relish this result. This essay doesn’t have a hopeful ending or a call to action. I’m not going to tell you to write your Congressman or buy a Prius or switch to a vegan diet because this is our last chance to stop the Lenin of climate change, because I don’t believe that. Our last chance to stop him was maybe about 15 or 20 years ago. He’s coming. I hope you look good in red.
Please check out more of Sean Mungers shockingly intelligent posts on history, climate, and more
Sean Munger’s History and Culture Dispatches –https://seanmungerhistory.substack.com/