The climate apocalypse is coming and we can’t prevent it

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“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.”

This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.

The climate apocalypse is coming, and to prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.

This excellent article by Jonathan Franzen, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the author of, most recently, the novel “Purity,” discuss the fact that the climate apocalypse is coming and the different ways we are destabilizing and thus killing life on Earth.

The article in The New Yorker continues as is:

I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

If you care about the planet, and
about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think
about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and
feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you
can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means
to have hope.

Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic
hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading
that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the
problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective
will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the
science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in
the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of
industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays
the same.

Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the
outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present,
not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death)
and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers
to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact,
still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming,
new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to
wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether
religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary
neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s
gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take
the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until
civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too
soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.

Some of the
denial, however, is more willful. The evil of the Republican Party’s
position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in
progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric. The Green New Deal,
the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on
the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and
save the planet, by way of gargantuan renewable-energy projects. Many of
the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of
“stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent
it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to
climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is
theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening
carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.

Our
atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate
change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of
control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll
pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by
more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a
little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not
only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to
approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.

This
is, to say the least, a tall order. It also assumes that you trust the
I.P.C.C.’s calculations. New research, described last month in Scientific American,
demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat
of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity. To project
the rise in the global mean temperature, scientists rely on complicated
atmospheric modelling. They take a host of variables and run them
through supercomputers to generate, say, ten thousand different
simulations for the coming century, in order to make a “best” prediction
of the rise in temperature. When a scientist predicts a rise of two
degrees Celsius, she’s merely naming a number about which she’s very
confident: the rise will be at least two degrees. The rise might, in fact, be far higher.

As
a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future
scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology
and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy
consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy
have been more than offset by consumer
demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts
catastrophe. The scenarios, which I draw from the prescriptions of
policy-makers and activists, share certain necessary conditions.

The
first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting
countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of
its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its
economy. According to a recent paper in Nature,
the carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated
through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions
“allowance”—the further gigatons of carbon that can be released without
crossing the threshold of catastrophe. (This estimate does not include
the thousands of new energy and transportation projects already planned
or under construction.) To stay within that allowance, a top-down
intervention needs to happen not only in every country but throughout every country. Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.

The
actions taken by these countries must also be the right ones. Vast sums
of government money must be spent without wasting it and without lining
the wrong pockets. Here it’s useful to recall the Kafkaesque joke of
the European Union’s biofuel mandate, which served to accelerate the
deforestation of Indonesia for palm-oil plantations, and the American
subsidy of ethanol fuel, which turned out to benefit no one but corn
farmers.

Finally, overwhelming numbers of human beings, including
millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and
severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They
must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme
measures taken to combat it. They can’t dismiss news they dislike as
fake. They have to set aside nationalism and class and racial
resentments. They have to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations
and distant future generations. They have to be permanently terrified
by hotter summers and more frequent natural disasters, rather than just
getting used to them. Every day, instead of thinking about breakfast,
they have to think about death.

Call
me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature
fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios
through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target
being met.

To judge from recent opinion polls, which show that a
majority of Americans (many of them Republican) are pessimistic about
the planet’s future, and from the success of a book like David
Wallace-Wells’s harrowing “The Uninhabitable Earth,”
which was released this year, I’m not alone in having reached this
conclusion. But there continues to be a reluctance to broadcast it. Some
climate activists argue that if we publicly admit that the problem
can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking any ameliorative
action at all. This seems to me not only a patronizing calculation but
an ineffectual one, given how little progress we have to show for it to
date. The activists who make it remind me of the religious leaders who
fear that, without the promise of eternal salvation, people won’t bother
to behave well. In my experience, nonbelievers are no less loving of
their neighbors than believers. And so I wonder what might happen if,
instead of denying reality, we told ourselves the truth.

First of
all, even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of
warming, there’s still a strong practical and ethical case for reducing
carbon emissions. In the long run, it probably makes no difference how
badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed,
the world will become self-transforming. In the shorter term, however,
half measures are better than no measures. Halfway cutting our emissions
would make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe, and
it would somewhat postpone the point of no return. The most terrifying
thing about climate change is the speed at which it’s advancing, the
almost monthly shattering of temperature records. If collective action
resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra
years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.

In
fact, it would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all. To
fail to conserve a finite resource when conservation measures are
available, to needlessly add carbon to the atmosphere when we know very
well what carbon is doing to it, is simply wrong. Although the actions
of one individual have zero effect on the climate, this doesn’t mean
that they’re meaningless. Each of us has an ethical choice to make.
During the Protestant Reformation, when “end times” was merely an idea,
not the horribly concrete thing it is today, a key doctrinal question
was whether you should perform good works because it will get you into
Heaven, or whether you should perform them simply because they’re
good—because, while Heaven is a question mark, you know that this
world would be better if everyone performed them. I can respect the
planet, and care about the people with whom I share it, without
believing that it will save me.

More than that, a false hope of
salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that
catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so
immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One
result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting
for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel,
you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing
worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will
soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole
lot more you should be doing.

Our resources aren’t infinite. Even
if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon
emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of
them. Every billion dollars spent on high-speed trains, which may or
may not be suitable for North America, is a billion not banked for
disaster preparedness, reparations to inundated countries, or future
humanitarian relief. Every renewable-energy mega-project that destroys a
living ecosystem—the “green” energy development now occurring in Kenya’s national parks,
the giant hydroelectric projects in Brazil, the construction of solar
farms in open spaces, rather than in settled areas—erodes the resilience
of a natural world already fighting for its life. Soil and water
depletion, overuse of pesticides, the devastation of world
fisheries—collective will is needed for these problems, too, and, unlike
the problem of carbon, they’re within our power to solve. As a bonus,
many low-tech conservation actions (restoring forests, preserving
grasslands, eating less meat) can reduce our carbon footprint as
effectively as massive industrial changes.

All-out war on climate
change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that
we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing
for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But
the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any
world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek
protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law,
and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain
functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning
communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil
society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair
elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a
climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a
climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for
racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their
enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the
country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To
survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world
or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can
make it.

And then there’s the matter of hope. If your hope for the
future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten
years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory?
Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial
planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of
them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against
the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s
to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles
that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right
thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a
community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in
trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do
now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really
meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something
to love, you have something to hope for.

In Santa Cruz, where I live, there’s an organization called the Homeless Garden Project.
On a small working farm at the west end of town, it offers employment,
training, support, and a sense of community to members of the city’s
homeless population. It can’t “solve” the problem of homelessness, but
it’s been changing lives, one at a time, for nearly thirty years.
Supporting itself in part by selling organic produce, it contributes
more broadly to a revolution in how we think about people in need, the
land we depend on, and the natural world around us. In the summer, as a
member of its C.S.A. program, I enjoy its kale and strawberries, and in
the fall, because the soil is alive and uncontaminated, small migratory
birds find sustenance in its furrows.

There may come a time, sooner than any of us likes to think, when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes. At that point, traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land—nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it. A project like the Homeless Garden offers me the hope that the future, while undoubtedly worse than the present, might also, in some ways, be better. Most of all, though, it gives me hope for today.

Whether or not you like the term climate change, our world is changing and we are heading to a total climate and societal apocalypse.



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