An odd silence
at the end of humanity's hottest year...yet
The world—its politics, its economy, and its journalism—has trouble coping with the scale of the climate crisis. We can’t quite wrap our collective head around it, which has never been clearer to me than in these waning days of 2023.
Because the most important thing that happened this year was the heat. By far. It was hotter than it has been in at least 125,000 years on this planet. Every month since May was the hottest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures set a new all-time mark, over 100 degrees. Canada burned, filling the air above our cities with smoke.
And yet you really wouldn’t know it from reading the wrap-ups of the year’s news now appearing on one website after another.
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Earlier today, for instance, the Times published an essay by investment banker and Obama consigliere Steven Rattner on “ten charts that mattered in 2023.” That’s the most establishment voice imaginable, in the most establishment spot. And the global temperature curve did make the list—at #10, well behind graphs about the fall in inflation, the president’s approval levels, the number of Trump indictments, the surge in immigrants, and the speed with with the GOP defenestrated Kevin McCarthy.
Indeed, yesterday the Times and the Post both published fine stories about 2023’s record temperatures, but they were odd: in each case, they centered on whether the year was enough to show that the climate crisis was “accelerating.” It’s an interesting question, drawing mainly on a powerful new paper by James Hansen (one that readers of this newsletter found out about last winter), but the premise of the reporting, if you take a step back, is kind of wild. Because the climate crisis is already crashing down on us. It doesn’t require “acceleration” to be the biggest—by orders of magnitude—dilemma facing our species.
In a sense, though, that’s the problem. Those stories in the Times and Post were a way to search for a new angle to a story that doesn’t change quite fast enough to count as news. (In geological terms, we’re warming at hellish pace; but that’s not how the 24/7 news cycle works.) It’s been record-global-hot every day for months now: the first few of those days got some coverage, but at a certain point editors, and then readers, begin to tune out. We’re programmed—by evolution, doubtless, and in the case of journalism by counting clicks—to look for novelty and for conflict. Climate change seems inexorable, which is the opposite of how we think about news.
The war in Gaza, by contrast, fits our defintions perfectly. It is an extraordinary tragedy, it changes day by day, and it is the definition of conflict. And perhaps there’s something we can do about it (which is why many of us have been trying to build support for a ceasefire). So, rightly, it commands our attention. But in a sense, it is the very familiarity of the war that makes it easy for us to focus on it; “mideast conflict,” like “inflation” or “presidential elections,” is an easily-accessed template in our minds. The images of the horror make us, as they should, feel uncomfortable—but it’s a familiar discomfort. The despair, and the resolve, we feel are familiar too; even the subparts of the story fit into familiar grooves (a New York Times reader would be forgiven for thinking the main front of the war is being played out in Harvard Yard, between free speech advocates and cancel culture warriors). Next year seems likely to be another orgy of familiarity: Joe Biden and Donald Trump, yet again.
Climate change has its own familiar grooves—above all the fight with the fossil fuel industry, which played out again at COP 28 in Dubai. But so much of the story is actually brand new: as this year showed, we’re literally in uncharted territory, dealing with temperatures no human society has ever dealt with before. And to head off the worst, we are going to require an industrial transition on a scale we’ve never seen before: there were signs this year that that transition has begun (by midsummer we were installing a gigawatt worth of solar panels a day) but it will have to go much much faster.
These changes—the physical ones, and the political and economic ones—are almost inconceivable to us. That’s my point; they don’t fit our easy templates.
And the point of this newsletter, now and in the years to come, is to try and explain the speed of our crisis, and explain what it dictates about the speed of our response. It’s a story I’ve been trying to put into perspective for 35 years now (the End of Nature was published in 1989, the first book about this crisis) and I’ll keep looking for new ways in. As the climate scientist Andrew Dessler put it in one year-end account, "The only really important question is, 'How many more years like this we have to have before the reality of how bad climate change is breaks into the public's consciousness?'"
Thank you for being part of this ongoing effort to break into that consciouness, and—well, happy new year. It’s coming at us, we might as well make it count.
In other energy and climate news:
+The LNG export fight has finally broken through into the big papers. The Times assigned three reporters to the story, and they published a long-awaited account the day after Christmas, under the headline “A Natural Gas Project Is Biden’s Next Big Climate Test.”
The decision forces the Biden administration to confront a central contradiction within its energy policies: It wants nations to stop burning the fossil fuels that are dangerously heating the planet and has heralded a global agreement reached in Dubai earlier this month to transition away from fossil fuels. But at the same time, the United States is producing record amounts of crude oil, is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas and may approve an additional 17 export facilities, including CP2.
Since early September, activists have lit up TikTok and Instagram, delivered petitions to the Biden administration and met directly with senior White House climate officials to urge Mr. Biden to reject CP2. Jane Fonda recorded a video for Greenpeace calling on the public to work against the project.
“We have enough gas and export terminals to supply everything in the world right now,” said Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, one of many local groups working to stop the construction of new natural gas infrastructure in the area. “There is no need for additional facilities.”
+A favorite video to end the year. The New York City Labor Chorus, with Jeffrey Vogel doing much of the work, has redrafted the Hallelujah Chorus to be about our beautiful if troubled earth. Enjoy
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