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