Blame and Confusion on a Hothouse Earth

Two eye-catching publications on climate change in the last couple of weeks have generated a storm of reactions. A Northern hemisphere summer filled with fire, death, and heat means nobody is contesting the broad contours of either piece. There has, however, been quite a lot dispute about the details.

Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article “Losing Earth” spent 30,000 words explaining just how close the world had come to addressing the danger of fossil fuel emissions in the nineteen-eighties.

Close, but not close enough. The problem, it turns out, was “us.” Human nature, Rich contends, led “us” to neglect what everybody knew needed to be done.

Jeremy ThomasReaders welcomed the attention to climate change but took issue with some of the content. The main complaint was that Rich’s diagnosis of what went wrong – namely, that when crunch-time came humanity simply could not motivate themselves – was erroneous in important ways. As both Naomi Klein and Kate Aronoff persuasively argued in reply, it was not humanity in general but American fossil fuel interests in particular (abetted by the U.S. Republican Party) that acted deliberately to thwart the public will on climate. Rather than a failure rooted in human nature, it was a failure of a particular segment of the economic and international elite who put their own enrichment above the good of the planet.

The second article, published a few days after the first drilled home the likely costs of the failure Rich describes. A group of highly-respected earth systems scientists suggested in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that a number of feedback loops built into the system (e.g. permafrost melt, carbon sink failure) could make a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius far more dangerous than most people have assumed. A so-called “Hothouse Earth” in which millions of people would be displaced and life would become unlivable in large portions of the globe could be far closer to reality than the thinking underlying efforts like the 2015 Paris Agreement assumes. The best hope the authors offered was a slim possibility of a slightly hotter but “Stabilized Earth” under constant and pro-active human management.

The pushback against this article was more on scientific grounds than on its portrayal of political history. Professor of earth and planetary sciences Bob Kopp pointed out that, while the conclusions are reasonable, there was no new science in the paper and most of the points about feedback loops had been anticipated in the fourth US National Climate Assessment released in 2017. Climate scientist Michael Mann was more dismissive, declaring the paper to be “as much in the domain of ‘opinion’ as ‘fact.’” Others thought the authors strayed too much from the science in order to make social and political points about the path forward.

Tracking both the papers and their reception in the media has been both provocative and informative. Strong claims really should be followed by robust counter-claims. This kind of cut and thrust is immensely valuable for big and difficult topics such as….um…. the future of the planet. We are all the better for it.

USDAThe response that caught my eye the most, however, was one in The Guardian about how to react when panic about the reality of climate change starts to really set in. It was a timely  piece. If full-on panic is not yet called for, growing unease is increasingly appropriate.

What struck me about the article was how, for many people living comfortably in the developed world, the best response to the question of what to do now things are getting serious is to be flippant. The author related a conversation taking place in a part of Brooklyn that “will be underwater when all this comes to pass.” Nobody had any good answers to the question of what to do. Moving to Canada and buying a compound, hoping the scientists or the military figure something out, or making sure you could sweet-talk your way onto a lifeboat were all floated as options.

As far as getting more politically motivated, the author of The Guardian piece suggested that one of the best – though still inadequate – motivations for action is to contemplate the smugness of the rich who will have the resources to dodge the on-coming floods and heat. But the actual response of the group to the panic caused by the Nathaniel Rich article was an uneasy blend of silence, jokes, and more gin and tonic.

Environmental philosopher Stephen Gardiner called climate change the “perfect moral storm” because of the conceptual and motivational barriers that stand in the way of responding rationally to the challenge. Even though Aronoff and Klein might add something about capitalism to Gardiner’s list of barriers, the climate ethicist is surely right that the problem comes with the temptation to procrastinate built in.

If climate change does represent the “perfect moral storm,” the response most in evidence among the wealthy is the confused stillness found in the eye of the hurricane. I’m not talking primarily about inaction here, either personal or political, but about people really not knowing what to think or say.

For decades, humanity could hardly believe it was changing the climate because the skies, as Simon Donner put it, were thought to be the “domain of the Gods.” Now it is clear how naive that view was, confusion abounds. The reality of climate change is painful, expensive, and life-threatening for sure. But it is also awkward and embarrassing. When something is too big to contemplate or fully take on board, the best response is often to mumble a weak joke and then to fall silent. Donna Haraway has called something along these lines “the great dithering.”

It is not a good strategy.

This week’s climate news – the past failures, the future reality – is almost too big to contemplate.

Let’s hope that the time for cracking weak jokes and changing the subject is soon over.


First image by Jeremy Thomas via Unsplash
Firefighter image by USDA


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