Unprecedented: David Ray Griffin paints bleak picture of our climate crisis


  • Books
  • Friday, 22 May 2015

David Ray Griffin's Unprecedented is a study on the current climate change crisis. Photo: Unsplash.com/Lauren Livingston

Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive The CO2 Crisis?

Author: David Ray Griffin

Publisher: Clarity Press

A retired American professor of philosophy of religion and theology who taught at the Claremont School Of Theology and Claremont Graduate University in the US for more than 30 years, David Ray Griffin has produced one of the most comprehensive studies on the current climate crisis to appear in recent years. Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive The C02 Crisis? is rich in detail, deep in analysis, persuasive, and eloquently argued.

The 515-page book is divided into three parts. The first part describes the threats facing contemporary civilisation. The Earth’s average temperature is becoming warmer because the planet’s energy is out of balance. This unprecedented increase is due to the rapid rise in fossil fuel emissions in the 20th century.

Griffin points out that in the six years between 2008 and 2014, the planet’s carbon dioxide (CO2) level had increased from 386 parts per million (ppm) to almost 400 ppm of the atmosphere. By mid-2014, it had risen to 401.30 ppm.

Through meticulous research he delves into the consequences of this change, reflected in extreme weather, heat waves, droughts and wildfires, sea-level rise, fresh-water shortage, food shortage, increase in climate refugees, climate wars, ecological collapse and extinction. In facing these severe challenges, humankind can adopt a “business as usual” approach or a “wait-and-see” attitude, or act with a sense of urgency by harnessing our collective energies. This last option. which Griffin terms Plan B, is in fact the only option available to us if we want to ensure the survival of our civilisation.

Our failure

In the book’s second part, Griffin laments humankind’s failure to respond to this grave crisis that threatens our very existence. The principal reason for this are the tremendous power and influence of the fossil fuel industries.

With the wealth they command, they have been able to ensure, for instance, that the media does not champion the cause of those fighting the CO2 emitters. They also exercise enormous influence over politicians – no American president has been able to address the challenge of climate change adequately. This is partly because of vested interests linked to the fossil fuel industries and the clout they wield over the US Congress.

In the case of US President Barack Obama, his enthusiastic endorsement of natural gas fracking, according to Griffin, reveals that he is not on the side of the advocates of climate justice because fracking “puts more carbon – with its combination of CO2 and methane – into the atmosphere than coal...”.

The failure of the media and political leaders has been compounded by the lukewarm response of conservative religious forces in America who, because of their religious orientation, do not see the CO2 crisis as a fundamental challenge to our survival, sometimes dismissing it as the preoccupation of those wedded to scientific rationality.

These religious conservatives do not support the argument advanced by advocates of climate justice that it is morally wrong to wreck the energy equilibrium. They have no sympathy for the view that those who damage the environment through the emission of greenhouse gases should pay the price. Ideas such as a global carbon tax (which Griffin, among others, have proposed) do not strike a chord with them.

Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive The CO2 Crisis? by David Ray Griffin
Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive The CO2 Crisis? by David Ray Griffin.

In the third and final part of his work, Griffin reflects on “What is to be done?” to overcome the climate change crisis. There has to be a rapid transition to clean or green energy. Armed with an impressive array of data from different countries, he makes a convincing case for the transition to solar, wind, ocean (both wave and tidal) and geothermal energies. He also looks at energy derived from biomass, waste and sewage. In each and every instance, he takes cognisance of both the potential and the problems posed by these alternative sources.

At the same time, Griffin argues forcefully for the abolition of dirty energy derived from coal, oil, fracking and so on. This will only be possible through mass mobilisation of the people, akin to the way people were mobilised to “fight the enemy” during World War II, he says. Leadership will be critical to this, and it will have to come from not only politicians and the media, but also the academic and scientific communities, professional economists, religious personalities and celebrities. Women and youth too, will have to be at the forefront.

This clarion call for action received a shot in the arm, as it were, from the climate deal struck between the US and China on Nov 11 last year. According to the agreement between Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping, “the US will by 2025 reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels...”. On China’s side, “it pledged to peak its carbon emissions no later than 2030 and raise clean energy to 20 percent of the country’s energy sources (compared with 9.8 percent in 2013).”

While the agreement is not sufficient to overcome the crisis as such, Griffin thinks it will build some momentum for the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held later this year in Paris, “at which it is hoped that a global agreement might finally be reached.” It is significant that the European Council has also proposed “a law requiring the European Union to reduce greenhouse emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.”

This expression of cautious hope about the future is one of this book’s strengths. That, coupled with a concrete call for action, makes it a unique contribution to the expanding literature on climate change – one that carries tremendous weight because it is backed by facts and figures and is, on the whole, a sober, objective assessment of the current situation.

All said and done, Unprecedented is an unprecedented book. It is, as Princeton University’s Professor Emeritus of international law Richard Falk (the person who introduced me to Griffin many years ago) says, “If you can read only one book on climate change, make it be Unprecedented. ...If reading this book does not change your life, nothing will.”


Dr Chandra Muzaffar is president of the International Movement For A Just World (JUST).

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