Patrick Bresnihan on The Day the Earth Caught Fire
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a strangely prophetic British film made in 1961, a year before the Cuban missile crisis. At a time of mounting fear about the prospect of nuclear apocalypse, the plot centers on an accidental event in which two nuclear tests are set off simultaneously at the two poles – one by the Russians, and one by the Americans. The impact of the two explosions shifts the earth's axis, bringing on extreme weather events and forcing the earth towards the Sun.
We follow the main protagonist, a hard-drinking journalist, over a few weeks in London as these changes unfold. Torrential downpours are followed by one of the hottest summers on record. A strange sea fog then rolls in, blanketing the city for days, causing major traffic disruption. Finally, the temperatures start to rise and the Thames dries out. Water rationing begins and people flee the city. Bands of people roam the streets, looting and reveling in the hysterical knowledge that only days remain. Only then, with society on the brink, do world leaders admit that there is a problem and that it has been caused by the two nuclear bomb explosions. A decision is taken to set off another, bigger bomb in the hope of shifting the earth back into a regular orbit around the sun. The film ends with a sombre countdown: each number called out in a different language, each number accompanied by a scene of devastation. Two newspaper headlines are prepared for the following day: 'World Saved' and 'World doomed'.
The film is eerily resonant today, a time when it has become impossible to avoid news of the weather. In November, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded, hit the Philippines and killed over six thousand people in a few hours. A month later, some of the coldest weather to hit North America was explained in terms of the 'polar vortex' as arctic weather systems shifted south to the central and eastern states of America. Around the same time, California recorded its worst drought since 1851. In Ireland and the UK, the worst winter storms in living memory thrashed the coastlines, leaving thousands without electricity, washing away roads and flooding the homes of people who never thought this would happen to them.
While this weather is understood to be erratic and unusually intense, it remain, for the most part, a series of disconnected events. The connections between unprecedented storms or cold spells and the burning of fossil fuels continues to be marginalized. Discussions focus on emergency funds and the immediate effects of the extreme weather, but no government wants to deal with the underlying causes and the dramatic transformations that are necessary if we are going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
In The Day the Earth Caught Fire the government and scientists deny at first that the heavy rains and sudden droughts are anything other than 'strange' phenomena. Only after the journalists persist in prying open the official records, piecing together different bits of information, does the truth begin to unfold. Even then, as the evidence becomes overwhelming, the government is more concerned with keeping the public calm than finding a way to address the situation. It is only when London has become all but abandoned, and many parts of the world uninhabitable, that world leaders take it upon themselves to try and stop the destruction.
Political apathy in the face of global crisis - nothing new there. In the midst of all the weather-related news, it was easy to miss the nineteenth session of the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 19), which took place in Warsaw, Poland, in November. This meeting involves the 194 countries who have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Established in 1992, the objective of this convention is to limit the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. So far no binding agreements have been made and 'dangerous anthropogenic interference' intensifies.
Last November things might have been different. In October, the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated: "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." The IPCC is the highest standard of scientific advice and these are its most decisive findings yet. To add dramatic and tangible support to the scientific data, the meeting took place four days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. Naderev Sano, a delegate of the Philippines Climate Change Commission, opened the conference with an emotive account of the damage that had been done and the lives that had been lost. He also began a hunger strike that lasted the duration of the twelve day conference, “in solidarity with my countrymen who are now struggling for food back home." He called for concrete commitments by the conference of parties to stop the 'climate madness'.
Nothing conclusive came out of a meeting that was widely criticized for excluding civil society groups and facilitating the powerful interests of the fossil fuel industry. Indicative of the whole charade was the response by the Polish Minister of the Environment to a protest by the inhabitants of the Polish village of Zurawlow. They were protesting against shale gas exploration being carried out by Chevron. The Minister dismissed their valid fears of water and soil contamination as being too 'emotional'. Shale gas, he said, was an important national economic asset and needed to be exploited for the benefit of the Polish people.
While heads of state, even the head of the IMF, may talk boldly about climate change and the need for 'urgent action', the bottom line is that the burning of fossil fuels, the principal cause of climate change, undergirds the entire global economy. Since 2000, almost 100 billion tons of carbon have been pumped into the atmosphere - about a quarter of all CO2 emissions since 1750. As oil, coal and gas have become so central to our lives, institutional and physical infrastructure has expanded around the globe. Energy companies and governments have invested billions in 'sunk capital' for extracting, transporting, refining and selling fossil-fuels. Getting away from this energy economy, one that has insinuated itself into nearly all aspects of industrialized social and economic life, is not simply a moral or ethical question. There are too many vested interests with hands firmly clasped on the pipelines.
In The Day the Earth Caught Fire a risky, last minute technical solution is sought to avert solar apocalypse. While climate engineering has some support - it was one of the few proposals offered in the IPCC report from last year - we haven't yet reached the point where quick fix technical solutions such as populating the stratosphere with reflective balloons, or filling the atmosphere with sulphur, are necessary, or even possible. The use of market mechanisms to reduce and manage greenhouse gas emissions has been the central pillar of the Kyoto Protocol since 1997. The near utopian faith in markets to regulate global emissions of CO2 and other gases has been shown to be just that. The absence of any 'cap' to ensure the artificial scarcity required for markets to function has been an obvious stumbling block. As elsewhere, the neoliberal fantasy stumbles on as yet more market mechanisms tied to financial instruments have been promoted at the Warsaw Conference. Countries in the South, including Brazil, India, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador, remain skeptical of emissions trading and a broad coalition of NGOs have stated that ‘given the urgent need to reduce emissions, the centrality of the markets discussion under the UNFCCC is distracting, dangerous and irrelevant at this critical moment.'
The only way out of the climate crisis is a political response. Dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2, can be brought about through political interventions in the energy economy, shifting from coal, oil and gas to wind, solar and geothermal. Injections of state money into these areas - in R & D, the building of new infrastructure, smart electricity grids and cities - could even function as a green 'New Deal', akin to the infrastructure projects of the 1930s or reconstruction after the war. The need for adaptation also requires strong, public interventions in the distribution of resources. The provision of capital investment for flood defenses in towns and cities that are inundated each winter, for example. This is not going to come about without popular movements from below and a reclaiming of public resources for public needs. In terms of climate justice, this means extending the principal of social justice and re-distribution to a global scale. AT COP19, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the setting up of an international disaster relief fund was one the few, modest outcomes to emerge. But this will not be enough to help the countries in the south deal with the consequences of a climate crisis caused by industrial production in the north.
As well as needing to develop alternative energy resources, more radical movements from below are calling into question the assumptions of growth, development and productivity on which our energy-dependent economy lies. De-growth, buen vivir and the commons have become new practical and imaginative horizons around which new forms of social reproduction are gathering. In the current context where imaginative and organizational tools from the past seem to be incapable of releasing new emancipatory projects, any progressive path beyond the crisis is going to require more than macro-scale state intervention. If we want to ensure social reproduction for everyone, we are going to need new ways of producing and managing land, water and energy. These new ways of living and producing have the potential to create radically new relations between human and natural life, transforming the planet from a reserve of finite resources and exchange values, into an abundant ecology of use-values.