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A Pyrrhic Climate

A Pyrrhic Climate

What does it mean to fight and win an impossible war?

Battle of Chancellorsville, by Kurz and Allison, 1889

Arecent debate in twitter’s climate community illuminated a schism between those arguing that mitigating climate change is impossible and those exhorting others to continue to “fight” climate change. While the debate yielded no definitive answers, it brought up important questions for those who’ve focused their life on addressing this issue.

What does it mean to “fight” climate change today? Is mitigation really impossible? How would we know? If we want any chance of winning the fight, we have to confront which parts of it may be “impossible” to win and we have to have a sense of what it really means to “fight climate change.”

Let’s start with what’s impossible. Take one sector of the economy that needs to be decarbonized: food. Food is heavily petroleum dependent in growing, processing, and in its complex supply chains. Basically every single calorie consumed by someone in the Global North (and much of the South) is derived from petroleum, either at the point of production or by being moved around in planes, trains, and ships. What would it take to decarbonize industrial agriculture?

First, we would have to stop using petroleum-based fertilizers and petroleum-derived pesticides. The implication of that is: we’ll have a lot less food in the world. That’s just a reality of farming. High, dense food production relies on lots of petroleum inputs. I’ve worked on farms. There’s lots of pests and an increasing number due to climate change, and the soil is now weak thanks to industrial ag. For all the talk of agroecology (which is great!), we can’t get around those realities easily. It also means food will be regionally and seasonally dependent. E.g., no more avocados in most of the Global North. Millennials’ one consolation in the world, gone.

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