I care about climate change. For eighteen months now I’ve been sounding the alarm on this blog about climate change. I have a heavy Twitter presence (over 8,000 followers) and every morning as I do my “rounds,” picking the most interesting tweets of the previous day to retweet to my audience, I include at least two items of climate change news. I’ve taught a class on climate change in history and will be doing so again this summer. Despite consuming a steady diet of climate change news and developments, I was totally unprepared for, and deeply disturbed by, the latest (March 2016) climate change findings. I blogged recently about how February 2016 is the hottest month on record and shows us we may already have blown way past danger-zone warming levels. Now, climate science guru James Hansen and 18 co-authors have published a new scientific paper concluding that ice melt and sea level rise are much more severe than models predicted. In short, the effects of anthropogenic climate change are showing themselves to be much worse, and occurring much faster, than the most pessimistic predictions held only a few years ago.
For as long as I’ve been interested in climate change, I’ve generally been an optimist about our long-term prospects for tackling it. Climate change is a problem created by human beings, and any human problem, I think, can also be solved by humans. It’ll take a very long time, cost a great deal of money and probably a lot of human lives as well, but ultimately, if we wish to continue to exist on this planet, we have little choice but to end our destructive addiction to fossil fuels and fundamentally change the way human civilization works. I admit, though, recent developments have begun to shake this faith. It’s becoming increasingly harder to be optimistic about our chances, at least for the short term–and by “short term” I mean within the lifetime of any human being alive today. The changes happening are so big and so deeply destructive–droughts, super-storms, sea level rise, diseases like Zika, wildfires, etc.–and our collective response proving so slow that I’m forced to consider the possibility that we, human society, may be headed for possibly the most catastrophic period of upheaval in our collective history.
James Hansen, one of the world’s most important climate scientists, delivers a sobering assessment on where we’re headed.
How could it be otherwise? Scientists (like James Hansen, in the above video) talk about “tipping points,” and by that they usually mean a set of empirical criteria, often based on how long it would take or how hard it would be to reverse certain effects of global warming. I too believe in “tipping points,” but in a historical sense. Right now we have the luxury of being distracted by other issues in the world. There was a terrorist attack by Daesh/ISIS in Brussels this morning. In the United States we’re concerned about increasing breakdown of our political system, of which the rise of the fulsome Donald Trump is an unfortunate symptom. Economic cycles are more important to most people than sea levels or temperatures. But, as the news on climate change grows worse, I sense that this may be the last moment in history where we have the luxury of worrying about problems other than climate change. Soon–possibly within a handful of years–climate change will be so forceful and destructive a force in our world that we’ll have to devote the lion’s shares of our national and personal energies to coping with it. How this will exactly manifest itself is hard to predict, but I think it will happen, and all of our lives will change.
For a possible analogy, let’s look back into history at the coming of World War II. Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 for a host of complex reasons. There were people, during the 1930s, who foresaw the danger Hitler posed to world peace and some (Winston Churchill among them) who predicted that the world would collectively have to deal with him. It’s not as if those conclusions were available only to exceptionally bright or prescient people. It’s just that the priorities of European democracies in the mid- to late 1930s were elsewhere. Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 then forced a shift in priorities, and as World War II exploded across the globe, nation after nation essentially had to drop what it was doing, roll up its sleeves and join the conflict. The war fundamentally changed the lives of nearly everyone on the planet in one way or another (and ended 70 to 80 million of them). After the war, the question “Could we/should we have stopped Hitler earlier?” is now a parlor game played by politicians and armchair historians. While no one could precisely foresee how World War II would unfold, in 1935 or 1937 there were more than enough signs for ordinary observers to understand that a global cataclysm, in some fashion, was coming. All one could be sure of was that the process of the war, however it unfolded, would be horrible, lethal and scarring.
It didn’t take a crystal ball to look at this, in 1935, and predict that Europe was soon to enter a massive upheaval. I think we’re at a similar juncture where climate change is concerned.
I feel strongly that we’re on the verge of another global upheaval, and that climate change will be at the root of it. Whether it manifest itself in war or in some other disruptive process is anyone’s guess, but if climate change can be likened, in terms of its ability to disrupt lives and command national and global priorities, to World War II, then this moment in time is analogous to 1935 or 1937–or possibly even to August 1939. Studying history, both of human societies and how humans interact with the environment, I can conceive of no realistic scenario in which the problems of climate change can be dealt with in ways that don’t fundamentally alter the way virtually every human being on this planet lives. It’s not like we’re going to be able to go about our daily business, go to our jobs, raise our families in largely the ways we’ve done for a long time, and oh yes, on the side also do thus-and-so (like choosing a certain kind of car or paying an extra tax) that helps solve climate change problems. A Prius in our garage or a recycling bin in our kitchen, while our lives continue mostly unchanged otherwise, is not how it’s going to unfold. The problems are too big, and can’t be solved without fundamental change–willing or not–by almost all of our major human institutions.
On a certain level, most people, excluding those unreasonable souls who deny the proven reality of climate change, already know this. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels at the same rate we are now. Industrial first-world economies will have to change, and governments and international organizations must help spur that change. No one could seriously maintain that humans will be living, in 2100, in much the same way that they do in 2016. But one of the things this month’s news does is make clear that the time-scale of the change is probably going to be much shorter than most people expect. It’s no surprise that rising sea levels will ultimately make Miami uninhabitable, but climate scientist’s projections often use 2100 has a benchmark. It seems less catastrophic to conclude that, yes, your great-grandson will not be able to live in Miami than it does to realize that your Aunt Mildred who lives there now is going to have to move. If global warming is pinching harder and faster than even the most pessimistic predictions held 10 years ago, we don’t have the luxury of envisioning fundamental change as occurring over a multi-generational time-scale. Many of us alive today, even people like me in middle age, will live to see these changes. History shows us that the more change you have in a short period of time, the more upheaval will generally result.
This alarming map shows the depth of temperature anomalies across the globe in February 2016. Prepare to see a lot more of these–quite possibly for the rest of your life.
Here’s what really rattles me: the reality that the news on climate change will never get better, not as long as I’m alive. The changes we’ve already made to Earth’s climate will take centuries to recover from, even if we stopped 100% of carbon emissions tomorrow. Catastrophic warming is the new normal. World War II was over in six years and after Hitler and the Japanese were defeated, the world went back to its business–not the same as before by any means, but at least the peak of the global crisis had passed. With climate change we’re looking at a crisis peak that may last decades, if not centuries. I believe that even today’s dire predictions, like James Hansen’s in the above video, will ultimately be proven to be conservative. The big story of climate change in the last 10 years has been, “It’s even worse than we thought.” Unfortunately I think it’s going to continue to be “worse than we thought,” regardless of what we think at any given time.
It is hard to be optimistic about solving climate change. Ultimately I believe we will, and at least in a long-term sense that remains my belief. It’s not as if we have a choice; declaring the problem futile, and refusing to deal with it, is essentially committing suicide on a civilizational level. That’s why climate change denial is fundamentally immoral as well as idiotic. In any event if we declare “game over” and humanity powerless (or unwilling) to stop its own destruction, I expect our children’s and our grandchildren’s generations will fight hard to reverse that declaration. Perhaps they’ll have to do so by force of arms, or revolution, or something else we don’t like. But, optimistic as I am in a long term sense, the sobering reality I’m coming to grips with is this: the problems of climate change are going to get worse before they get better, and they probably will not get better in my lifetime.