Monday Morning Thoughts: The Real National Emergency


President Trump may be on the verge of attempting to declare a national emergency on our borders, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.  At the same time, he is ignoring what appears to be the real national emergency – climate change, which is not only a national emergency but an existential threat.

In yesterday’s NY Times, David Wallace-Wells argues that it’s “Time to Panic.”  He argues: “The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.”

This was the point I made last week when we were talking about the Green New Deal.  The time for incremental and half-measures is over.  While the GND is a radical solution, the reality is itself radical.

Mr. Wallace-Wells argues: “We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.”

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).  That’s two to three times more than what we have already seen.

David Attenborough of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” at a UN conference put it like this: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

But this is alarmist talk.  We are Chicken Little screaming of the sky falling when we just got hit in the head with an acorn.

The acorns keep falling – day by day, year by year, and we keep ignoring the warning signs.  Is it now too late?  It may be.

David Wallace-Wells writes: “Scientists have felt this way for awhile. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than ‘alarmism’ among those studying climate change.”

He points out this is a bit strange.  He writes: “You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance.”

But there is a political phenomenon here.  Climate science, for whatever reason, has seen pushback that has not existed for other sciences.  It is not that carcinogens for instance, a good example, don’t suffer from the same sort of long-term diffusion of causation that carbon emissions to global warming to global catastrophe suffer from.

Mr. Wallace-Wells cites the warning of climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988.  He called the reluctance of the scientists to sound the warning “scientific reticence.”  He would chastise his colleagues for it, accusing them of “editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was.”

This has continued even as the research grew more bleak, the outcome more certain.

He writes: “So for years the publication of every major paper, essay or book would be attended by a cloud of commentary debating its precise calibration of perspective and tone, with many of those articles seen by scientists as lacking an appropriate balance between bad news and optimism, and labeled ‘fatalistic’ as a result.”

What he says changed with the UN report was “it did offer a new form of permission to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.”

He argues that “this to me, is progress.”  He writes, “Panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable.”

He offers several reasons for this.

First that “climate change is a crisis precisely because it is a looming catastrophe that demands an aggressive global response, now. In other words, it is right to be alarmed. The emissions path we are on today is likely to take us to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040, two degrees Celsius within decades after that and perhaps four degrees Celsius by 2100.”

He agrees that there are reasons to believe we won’t get to four degrees, but, given that “globally, emissions are still growing, and the time we have to avert what is now thought to be catastrophic warming — two degrees Celsius — is shrinking by the day.”

To avert catastrophe “we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, according to the United Nations report. Instead, they are still rising. So being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand. Perhaps the only logical response.”

Second, he argues: “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.”

For years, we saw two degrees as perhaps a worst-case scenario – today, we know that “it is almost certainly a floor.”

He writes, “By far the likeliest outcomes for the end of this century fall between two and four degrees of warming.”

Third, he argues that “complacency remains a much bigger political problem than fatalism.”

He adds, “In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.”

I have a theory on this.  When you talk about 2050 and you talk about 2100, most people making decisions and voting are not going to live to those years.

Heck, as I pointed out last week, in 2050, I will be 77 years old.  I’m fairly young in my 40s.  Even my daughter, who will be 41 in 2050, would only have a remote chance of living to 2100.  She would be 90.

The younger generation is clearly more engaged in this because it is their future.  However, us older folks, old enough to remember that the climate wasn’t always like this, need to be the ones leading the way.

This problem, I think, is that the solutions at this point are no longer small and incremental, but big and radical.  That’s why the Green New Deal is having appeal.

This relates to Mr. Wallace-Wells’ fourth argument for embracing catastrophic thinking: history shows that “fear can mobilize” and “even change the world.”

He writes: “When Rachel Carson published her landmark anti-pesticide polemic ‘Silent Spring,’ Life Magazine said she had ‘overstated her case,’ and The Saturday Evening Post dismissed the book as ‘alarmist.’ But it almost single-handedly led to a nationwide ban on DDT.”

He adds: “Throughout the Cold War, foes of nuclear weapons did not shy away from warning of the horrors of mutually assured destruction, and in the 1980s and 1990s, campaigners against drunken driving did not feel obligated to make their case simply by celebrating sobriety. In its ‘Doomsday’ report, the United Nations climate-change panel offered a very clear analogy for the mobilization required to avert catastrophic warming: World War II, which President Franklin Roosevelt called a ‘challenge to life, liberty and civilization.’ That war was not waged on hope alone.”

Finally he argues that “the strongest argument for the wisdom of catastrophic thinking is that all of our mental reflexes run in the opposite direction, toward disbelief about the possibility of very bad outcomes.”

He acknowledges that he knows “the science is true” and the threat “is all-encompassing” and “terrifying,” and yet, he says, “when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades from now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself.”

And he’s right.  And yet that’s not enough.  And this time, we might destroy ourselves before we wake up.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

13 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: The Real National Emergency”

  1. Janet Krovoza16

    I completely agree with Wallace-Wells that panic is justified and may be our only way to save ourselves at this point. I happened to attend a small seminar with Professor Paul Erlich at Stanford in the mid-1980s on the topic of climate change — yes, some 30 years ago. He commented that humans are biologically wired to escape acute danger, e.g., a sabertooth tiger, not a gradual threat such as global warming.  His observation is certainly playing out.  Hoping that Garamendi will get on board with GND.  Given the number of children and grandchildren in his life, and his professed concern for the environment, I expect he will.

  2. Tia Will

    There are a number of ways one could approach environmental concerns. One could accept the concept of climate change fully and promote the New Green Deal. One could take an agnostic approach but recognize the wisdom of prudent conservation and green energy measures. One could disbelieve that there is such a thing as climate change. But even the deniers cannot deny the adverse effects of pollution and environmental degradation. I really do not care which camp one falls into as long as we are all supportive of environmental protection and willing to take steps to mitigate the known adverse consequences of human endeavors on the environment.

    1. Bill Marshall

      So many other options, Tia…

      one can fully accept the concept of climate change, and not agree fully with the cause, and/or effective reactions to any cause…

      one can fully accept the concept of climate change, and believe it is human caused and can be mitigated, and fully reject the New Green Deal as to non-climate issues…

      one can fully accept the New Green Deal, without giving much a damn about the climate… for its economic provisions… looks a lot like UBI…

      Climate change is real… has been happening for eons… cause and cure (if any) are “squishy”, particularly as to economics/social justice… climate will continue to change, no matter what we do… called “nature”…

      Environmental protection is a common goal, but how, and what will be required beyond past actions, as to future actions, not so much… should the US commit to zero carbon, with all its ramifications (particularly financially), while the rest of the planet either stays the course or adds to carbon, using the US as a justifiable “offset”?

      Your posits are over-simplifications, in my view.


        1. Bill Marshall

          We’re cool…

          The subject, and perceptions of it go far beyond ‘rocket science’ (easy, in comparison)… too many variables for someone to claim, with authority, that they fully grasp the problem, and certainly, given that, not the “answer”…

          Single volcanic eruptions affected climate, globally, for years… same for meteor strikes… things run in cycles (in nature, and in human reactions)… haven’t seen anything, one way or the other about TFC and the health of the ozone layer for years!  Reduction/loss of ozone layer was the cause celebre for years… now, ‘crickets’… was it good to reduce/eliminate use of TFC’s?  Probably yes… demonstrably man-made.  Is it good to not “upset” natural processes?  Yes.  Should we be in panic/urgency mode as to “carbon”?  Probably not. We are, after all, carbon-based organisms… see how close C, N, and O are on the periodic table…

          Great Smokey mountains… the ‘pollution’ comes from nature… “This fog is caused by the vegetation exhaling volatile organic compounds, chemicals that have a high vapor pressure and easily form vapors at normal temperature and pressure.”  [Wikipedia, citing basic scientific sources]

  3. Don Shor

    David Wallace-Wells is selling a book. He is not a climate scientist. Even Michael Mann thinks his alarmism is excessively alarmist and insufficiently scientific. I suggest that writing an essay on this author’s theories is not very balanced or informative.

    Unless the non-climate parts of the GND are stripped out, it should be avoided by serious candidates for public office unless they are just seeking to run on a Green Party/Sanders base — which isn’t likely to be a successful strategy outside of a few very liberal districts.

      1. Don Shor

        “I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing,” Mann said. “It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.”

        It’s not a journalist’s job to serve up a healthy dose of hope in every story. However, it is our job to be accurate, and according to Mann and others, Wallace-Wells’ piece falls short in this regard, too.

        In his post, Mann says the story fails to back up its claims that parts of the Earth will be uninhabitable by the end of the century.

        “The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it,” he says.

        “The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science. It exaggerates for example, the near-term threat of climate ‘feedbacks’ involving the release of frozen methane (the science on this is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming:…/2012/01/much-ado-about-methane/).”

        Mann also pointed out other factual errors in the piece, including the claim that satellite data shows the globe has been warming more than twice as fast as scientists thought since 1998.

        “The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own,” Mann said. “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness. I’m afraid this latest article does that.”

        Andrew Dessler, a climate researcher at Texas A&M University, also faults the piece for being overly pessimistic and containing a few factual inaccuracies.

        “I think the picture painted by the author is probably a worst, worst, worst case scenario that combines the strongest response of the climate system to carbon dioxide, combined with zero effort by the world to reduce emissions,” he said in an email.

        “While that could happen, I think a more likely scenario is not as bleak. And as someone who talks to climate scientists a lot, I’ve never heard anyone tell me that they think this is a likely scenario for the planet.”

      2. Bill Marshall

        David… whether it is natural cyclic, or man-made, unless the whole damn planet acts in a way that actually affects the man-made piece (if any), it won’t matter… you say you don’t think he’s wrong… do you say “you think he’s right”?  Nuance.

        Remember even a stopped clock (in this case, an uninformed conjecturer) is right twice a day.

  4. Tia Will

    Mann says the story fails to back up its claims that parts of the Earth will be uninhabitable by the end of the century.”

    Since there are “parts of the Earth” that are uninhabitable as I write, I do not see a claim of uninhabitability of additional areas to be so great a stretch. However, not having read the piece, specific claims may or may not be justified by the evidence presented.

        1. Alan Miller

          So in a worst case scenario, sea level will rise two feet by the time babies born today are quite elderly.  Gives us a little time to firm up the levees.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for