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How Bad Is It?
And what does that question even mean?
I got a phone call last night, from a person I admire as much as anyone I know; she’s spent her life working, with great effectiveness, for a wide variety of progressive causes. I turn to her for guidance on dozens of questions. But last night she was turning to me, and with a simple, despairing question: “is it just all over for the climate?”
She’d been reading stories from the past week about the truly horrific flooding in Pakistan (watch this video, please—it’s the single best depiction I’ve seen of what the crisis feels like, and though it’s on CNN, the most mainstream of media, it does not shy away for a second from talking about the blame that falls on the global north for the climate crisis, and the need for reparations), and about the giant Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic retreating twice as fast as scientists had thought, and about a new study showing that even if we stopped emitting carbon now melting ice on Greenland would produce almost a foot of sea level rise.
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I heard from one of the co-authors of that study, Jason Box, a few days later. He sent me photos of a spot where we’d camped on the Greenland ice sheet a few years ago; he’d been back there over the weekend, he said, when his team had to decamp fast because an unprecedented melt was underway. September 1 is supposed to mark the end of the melt season on Greenland, but all of a sudden temperatures were soaring—above freezing even at the very summit of the ice sheet, which is almost always safely below zero. “While rushing down the ice sheet, we felt surprisingly warm pulses of air on our faces, like the Chinook winds I remember from Colorado,” he wrote. As a result of the anomalous warm weather, the Washington Post reported, As a result, “tens of billions of tons of ice were lost — an event that could further Greenland’s already significant contributions to rising sea levels.” As another researcher explained, “Greenland’s ice margin can’t tolerate the conditions that are becoming increasingly common for it. This event is typical of those destabilizing conditions.”
So. There’s an ongoing, sometimes acrid, debate in climate circles about ‘doomism’ versus ‘hopium,’ which I have no desire to join. (As usual, count me with Rebecca Solnit, who spends her time highlighting the fights we are winning: that seems to me entirely useful, because it motivates). I've been fighting this battle for so many years now that sometimes the largest-scale questions don’t even occur to me; but they occur to others, obviously, and they deserve answers. Given events like those of the past few weeks (I haven’t even mentioned what may be the most prolonged heatwave in human history that hit China this summer, nor the current raging heat in the American west) it is a fair question to ask: are we reaching the point where events are so far out of control that our efforts to stem the tide are pointless?
So let me just lay out my own sense, in case it’s helpful to anyone else
We are not getting out of this crisis unscathed, or anything like it. It’s been many years since “stopping global warming” was on the menu. We’ve raised the temperature a degree celsius already, and that’s way too much because—well, see above. A degree is a mess
It will get worse. Even if we do everything right at this point, there’s enough momentum in the system to take us near two degrees; that’s going to be far far worse. Not just twice as bad—damage increases exponentially, not linearly, as we head past various tipping points.
If we don’t do everything right, that “near to two degrees” will actually be nearer three degrees Celsius, which is five or six degrees Fahrenheit, which is a world where civilizations won’t be able to function in the ways we’re used to them functioning. That civilizational breakdown—a political and human phenomenon, not a scientific one—could come sooner; we don’t know where the civilizational red lines are, only that we’re close.
Which means: despair is not an option yet, at least if it’s that kind of despair that leads to inaction. But desperation is an option—indeed, it’s required. We have to move hard and fast.
The most obvious place we have to move is the energy transition. Physics means we have to go fast; economics means going fast will focus for now on sun, wind, and batteries because they are cheap and available. The fossil fuel industry, desperate to maintain its business model, is in the way; they must be fought.
But we also have to shore up civilizations in all the other ways we can imagine, especially by sharing resources and technologies. Our systems are too brittle now; places like Pakistan just lack the resilience to deal with a crisis they did not create. Global solidarity is not kindness; on a small world it’s a survival strategy.
I did not tell my friend: drop everything else you’re doing and work only on climate. But I did tell her: all our other dramas now play out on the stage of climate change. For the forseeable future—for as long as our lives last—the rapid rise of the temperature on the planet of our origin is the overriding human story.
In other climate and energy news:
+Today’s the day: big demonstration in DC trying to stop the dirty side deal that Joe Manchin is trying to extort from Congress. He wants a pipeline for his buddies; there’s no reason to give it to him. Livestream here; follow @powhr_coalition and @ThirdActVa on Twitter as the day progresses. At the American Prospect, David Dayen is optimistic we can win this fight. Oh, and that pipeline Manchin wants to build? The pipe has been sitting out in the weather for years now, corroding. If you want more background, including on the reasons that blue state residents actually have some power in this fight for once, here’s an interview I did yesterday with the remarkable Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on that effervescent radio show, Boston Public.
+You know that thing Herschel Walker said about trees? Bay area arborist (and superb activist) Joe Lamb provides a mighty riposte from a few branches up.
+Too often the media has turned AOC into a caricature, but this profile from GQ reminds us once again that she’s a remarkably supple political thinker.
“This generational tension has existed among virtually every single social movement in American history, in labor, in suffrage, in civil rights, in marriage equality,” the congresswoman said. “And it is a tension between history and the present moment. It’s a tension between inside and outside. It’s a tension between what we can learn and what we don’t know. Any sort of criticism of the Democratic Party is immediately cast as helping the right or ‘You’re disrespectful’ or ‘Don’t you know everything that these people have done?’ And we do, but we are also allowed to learn from the outcomes of those victories and the unique dynamics of the present moment, to also say that we have to change tack and we can’t just do the same thing for 30 years.
+Who’d a thunk it? The electric utility industry gleefully joined their fossil fuel brethren in the devastating climate denial campaigns, as this new study makes painfully clear.
Before 1980, electric utilities' messaging was generally in-line with the scientific understanding of climate change. However, from 1990 to 2000, utility organizations founded and funded front groups that promoted climate doubt and denial. After 2000, these front groups were largely shut down, and utility organizations shifted to arguing for delayed action on climate change, by highlighting the responsibility of other sectors and promoting actions other than cleaning up the electricity system.
+Excellent news: The batteries in electric cars are lasting far longer than predicted (or warrantied). Most outlive the cars they’re in, with plenty of life left to be used as backup storage in big solar arrays. “At the end of the vehicle’s life—15 or 20 years down the road—you take the battery out of the car, and it’s still healthy, with perhaps 60 or 70% of usable charge,” one expert explained.
+Americans are continuing to move to the hottest, driest places. This will make the inevitable counter-migration all the more intense when it comes.
+From Hannah Laga Abram, a great account of an under-appreciated aspect of the climate crisis: what happens when heavy rains fall on land scarred by fresh forest fires? (Floods and slides, since there’s nothing to hold the water back)
The last two months forced brothers Zack and Marck Romero to become professional weathermen.
From the moment the rain starts falling in the mountains — and it's fallen almost daily — they know it will take the flood between 45 and 48 minutes to reach their creekside land in this small town near Las Vegas.
First, they hear a roaring. Then, for two to three hours, their driveway transforms into a churn of dark water and tangled debris. No one can get in or out. When the water level drops enough, the brothers attach a chain with a tire on the end to their tractor and drag it through the creek bed to clear out the culvert in preparation for the next day’s deluge.
+Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, has a very-worth-the-read column in the Financial Times on the planet’s current energy woes post Putin’s invasion. Money graf:
I talk to energy policymakers all the time and none of them complains of relying too much on clean energy. On the contrary, they wish they had more. They regret not moving faster to build solar and wind plants, to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and vehicles or to extend the lifetime of nuclear plants. More low-carbon energy would have helped ease the crisis — and a faster transition from fossil fuels towards clean energy represents the best way out of it.
+Odd Canadian philosopher (and hugely influential social media presence) Jordan Peterson turns out to be a climate denier too. Why is this always a part of the package?
+To understand how we got so deep into the climate crisis without acting, it’s worthwhile understanding just how dysfunctional the economics profession was in the early days of the fight. A great account in the New York Times points out that the most widely used model model from the beginning
was drawing criticism for underestimating the havoc that climate change would wreak. Like other models, it has been revised several times, but it still relies on broad assumptions and places less value on harm to future generations than it places on harm to those today. It also doesn’t fully incorporate the risk of less likely but substantially worse trajectories of warming.
+Farmers are getting much better at working around solar panels.
+Abrahm Lustgarten at Pro Publica interviews Jay Famiglietti, the executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security, about water in the west. He’s not hopeful.
I don’t think we’re talking about sustainability. I think we’re talking about managed depletion. Because it’s impossible to keep growing the food that we grow in California. It’s agriculture that uses most of the groundwater. The math just isn’t there to have sustainable groundwater management. If you think of sustainability as input equals output — don’t withdraw more than is being replenished on an annual basis — that’s impossible in most of California.
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