Climate change is like diarrhea. You never know when or where it’s going to hit. Climate change is like getting old. You know what’s coming but are powerless to prevent it. Climate change is like believing in God. As Pascal said, play it safe and believe.
Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, social commenter and birdwatcher, took the fatalistic stance a couple of months ago in the New Yorker (What If We Stopped Pretending?) and got a lot of flak for it. He told us: “The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. . . . 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.”
Denial seems to be part of our human makeup, or maybe it’s simply an inability to confront anything as far out in time as climate change. Bryan Walsh shows how the present dominates our minds and yet we often consider the welfare of future generations, as in working to cure cancer or trying to avert a catastrophic climate crisis.
Franzen talks about dystopian political denial and how to keep a democratic focus:
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 yet his essay seems premised on prophetic doom and rather less on how we can face that impossible music. Facing such facts means taking climate science at something more than face value. Naomi Oreskes, who teaches environmental science at Harvard, has written (with others) two recent pieces that shed some harsh light that has been missing on climate science.
In Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change she explains why climate change has been “occurring far faster than predicted by theory” and why and how scientists have underestimated its severity and pace. In Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think, she reflects on how world political leaders “understand neither the magnitude of the risks to lives and livelihoods, nor the urgency of action.” A major reason is that economists have underestimated the impact of climate risks. Worse, they don’t factor in the cascading effects of even small changes. Worse still, what they don’t know or can’t account for, they dismiss or set the effect at zero.
In the face of all this, Franzen is not wrong in saying
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.