Saturday, August 12, 2017


After Hiroshima, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that nuclear war could threaten to end global civilization.  For at least a generation beginning in the 1960s, that threat was very real, and people felt it.

Today the end of civilization from nuclear war is still possible, if it cascades and  causes enough damage that civilization can't come back.  And while it is of less conscious concern today--except perhaps for times like the past week or so--it still is a background fear.

Since the early 1990s, many people--from scientists to ordinary citizens to journalists to high ranking military officers and even a few politicians--realized that the climate crisis could end global civilization.  Since around 2009, that threat became very real, and people feel it.

It would be interesting to track the similarities and differences in our responses to these two threats, and I may do a little of that here in passing.  But basically, this post is about the climate crisis and the end of civilization.

In early July, New York Magazine published an article by David Wallace-Wells titled "The Uninhabitable Earth" which took existing data on climate, and instead of choosing the most conservative prediction of consequences, or the happy medium as official reports often do, it chose the worst.  Not the worst imaginable, but the worst possible.

In Part I: Doomsday, subtitled Peering beyond scientific reticence, the author began:  "It is, I promise, worse than you think...

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century."

I won't go into the details.  The author also provides an annotated version.  But the piece quickly became the most read article on the New York site ever, and started a controversy, including among climate scientists and activists.  Among them were climate scientist Michael Mann, one of the past targets of  denialists, who criticized the story for being "doomist."

Besides critiquing aspects of the science cited, Mann and others expressed the view that such doom drains people of hope, and in despair they will refuse to do what's necessary to address the causes of the climate crisis because it just won't matter.  Mann even took to the Washington Post to declare that "Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial" (as the headline of his oped says.)  Emily Atkin in the New Republic called it "Climate disaster porn."

Others disagreed.  Susan Matthews in Slate wrote that ""alarmism is what we need to fight climate change" and that the Wallace-Wells story wasn't "scary enough." Science News looked at both sides of the question.

All of this was happening just as Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Sequel was being released.  In her New Yorker review of the film, Michelle Nijhuis mentioned the New York Magazine controversy, and seemed to come down against it, in praising an element of the movie:

"Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful. Wallace-Wells’s article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” successfully got attention... But it offers little in the way of fixes, nodding briefly to the allure—if not the wisdom—of geoengineering and suggesting that civilization will eventually cobble together a substantive response to climate change, if only because the alternative is so appalling. “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which is a work of advocacy rather than journalism, pivots efficiently away from its disaster reel and toward solutions, cheering the rise of cheaper renewables and the promise of the Paris climate accord, even in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal."

Perhaps surprisingly then, Gore (who used to talk about "solving the climate crisis and calls himself an optimist) not only praises Wallace-Wells article, but appeared with him in a live program after a film screening.  Gore said:
"I really admired the article you wrote, took note of some of the snipes and critiques, and I agreed with some of the climate writers that I most respect, like David Roberts and Joe Romm, who said, good for David Wallace-Wells, it’s a real wake-up call. We need to be aware of how things could go really badly wrong."

Even as this controversy was ongoing, news kept coming of how much worse things are getting.  Just a sampling of the stories, studies, and headlines: 
Hopes of mild climate change dashed by new research
 (the Guardian),
Earth to warm 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, studies say (CNN: 2 degrees is the red line scientists use to indicate the likely tipping point into irreversible and catastrophic climate change, hence some of the headlines that follow.)

Climate change will almost certainly heat the world so much it can never recover, major study findsThere's only a 10 per cent chance we'll avoid widespread drought, extreme weather and dangerous increases in sea level (the Independent.)  Similar stories ran in Wired, Science Daily, elsewhere.

And it kept on coming:Climate change pushing Asia towards doom, says report  (Gulf Times.) Climate change to cause humid heatwaves that will kill even healthy people (Guardian.) Extreme weather 'could kill up to 152,000 a year' in Europe by 2100 (BBC.)

In the past few days, there's the leaked final draft of a US interagency report which Slate said "paints an unsettling picture of dramatically rising temperatures that are already affecting the lives of Americans..."  The New York Times had extensive excerpts of this extensive study that confirms global heating due to carbon pollution and other "human activities," and the likely extent of consequences felt right now and in the future.

Meanwhile other headlines confirmed what is happening now. Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims (Guardian), We're choking on smoke in Seattle (New York Times: triple digit heat and smoke from forests burning in British Columbia), etc. etc. and finally:2016 Was Hot, Weird, and Unprecedented, Says NOAA (Atlantic) as the US agency formally announced that 2016 was (stop me if you've heard this one) the hottest year on record.

So what does it all mean?  What, if anything, is different?  And who is right in this doomist debate?

These latest studies, particularly predicting a range of the temperature rise already "baked in" which we can't do anything to stop, as well as how steeply humanity will have to cut greenhouse gas pollution to prevent much higher temperatures, tend towards confirming worse case scenarios.

But some observers have been quietly acknowledging this for some time--starting especially from the shocking acceleration in Arctic and Antarctic melting nearly a decade ago, which is still accelerating.  Here's what I think has changed.  While a cascade of possible effects would probably have to happen to make much of the planet uninhabitable by the end of this century,  the possibility has gone up that these global heating effects, plus socioeconomic and probably military effects they cause, will lead to a breakdown in global civilization by the mid to late 22nd century.  And yes, it could get worse from there.

That does not mean things will remain as they are until one of these vague dates in the future.  It could get very much worse suddenly at some point (a pulse of sea level rise, for instance) but it is likely to get gradually worse, with ever more obvious consequences.  (Several years ago, some experts suggested that the reality and direction of change will be obvious to everyone by 2050.  They may have revised that date by now.)

What is all but certain is that we haven't begun to imagine, let alone face, the consequences of the climate crisis.  As far as I've seen it hasn't been really done in fiction.  Kim Stanley Robinson acknowledges the climate crisis as the cause of major changes but doesn't write about the worst of those changes.  And doomsday explorations like The Road don't relate their apocalypse to the climate crisis.

Because of global heating, life in the future is very likely to be very different than it is today.  The life of every person is going to be different, beginning at least with children now in school.  In some ways they may have more fulfilling lives, but they may well have harder lives.  Gore says we're in the early stages of a revolution, and those lives may be in the thick of that, addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, including at very basic levels.

 Beyond that, and beyond the next generation or two, it's hard to say.  But it will never again be as it is now.  Not this planet, not civilization, not humanity.

As for doom, there's always a difficulty in discussing apocalyptic futures, in that this is a big world, and the future is even bigger.  Describe a dystopian future, and there are probably people somewhere living in it right now.  So whose future are we talking about?

But I believe there is one aspect of the future that seems extremely likely, and this touches upon the doom debate.  For years, people in the environmental community especially have refused to talk directly about one probable consequence of the likely cascade of effects caused not only by the climate crisis itself but by mass species extinction, deadly pollution of the oceans, deforestation and other ongoing destruction to the Earth as a living system.

That consequence was once whispered about, borrowing a term from plant biology, as "dieback."  Human dieback.  It is likely that Earth of the future, perhaps the relatively near future, will have a significantly smaller human population, and while some of that decrease will occur naturally, some or much of it will be the result of mass deaths.

This occasionally sneaks into environmental analyses, such as the 2011 book The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding.  Billed as an "optimistic" view of the climate crisis--that is, that civilization will somehow get through it--it nevertheless contains this single astounding sentence:“I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

He doesn't say much more about that, and nobody does.  But it does suggest more than Gilding's subtitle--"an end to shopping."  A few billion people--meaning what? More than two billion, I'd guess-- is a significant chunk of the 7.5 billion now living.  The most vulnerable first, probably, and heating is predicted to be worst in the poorest parts of the world, but epidemics and the fragility of our civilization's supply lines could change that calculus.  It's a horrible thought, and nobody wants to say it out loud.

But that doesn't mean people--ordinary people-- haven't thought it.  Generations of Americans were told and taught not to express fears about nuclear war, because those fears played into enemy hands, showed lack of confidence in our leaders, were unpatriotic.  (That's after officials stopped lying about how pleasant radiation poisoning is, and how you can protect yourself from a nuclear explosion by 'duck and cover.')

But those fears just dove deep into individual and societal unconscious, emerging in nightmares and neuroses, and got expressed and defused in popular entertainment--specifically the bug-eyed monster movies of the 1950s, that Susan Sontag had the insight to see were more than they seemed.

 Eventually after the atomic monsters brought the subject into the open, movies could be made about the real causes and effects of nuclear war,  from Fail-Safe and Doctor Strangelove, to the UK's The War Game, US televisions Threads, to two films that actually changed minds and galvanized public support to control nuclear weapons: the 1959 star-studded feature On the Beach, and the TV drama The Day After.

There are lots of reasons for the current plethora of dystopian fictions and movies, or the fashion for zombies on television as well as film and print.  But the unconscious fear of endtimes is an unacknowledged wellspring.  The climate crisis and other environmental catastrophes are part of that fear. Whether these indirect approaches eventually result in a more conscious approach that changes minds and policies remains to be seen.

It may be too late to prevent large-scale changes (and therefore personal changes affecting everyone) and hardships, but perhaps the worst may still be averted, and the times to come may better be faced by a more prepared generation.

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