More on Corona and Climate

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

‘This is a yes-we-can moment’: What the coronavirus response means for climate action

Climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’

The relationship is complicated, very complicated. I’m struck with a few of the many comparisons. One is that corona and climate both demand present sacrifice to achieve future goals—fighting the virus in the short term, attacking climate change over an extended time. Some young people find this hard to accept because the burdens fall heavily on them. Their public protests must give way to social distancing, and the internet is no real substitute.

Both crises require a broadening of the concept of community, a fundamental change to demand of a country like the U.S. composed largely of radical individualists. The populace will have to learn to trust in science, or at least accept it. This will not be easy for a people heretofore dominated by consumerism and laissez-faire economics. The impediments will be our so-far limited understanding of coronavirus and the perceived “remoteness” of climate change.

Both corona and climate have penetrated and largely collapsed the idea of national borders. What’s happening in Europe demonstrates that borders don’t stop the disease though lockdowns may slow its progress. Ethnic nationalists look more and more absurd in the face of it. Nobody can dodge the bullet.

On the positive side, the economic slowdown has given the world cleaner air, a major benefit for the 8.8 million people who die from pollution each year. But it’s a wild card:

If countries like China try to revitalize their economy by subsidizing polluting industries like steel and cement, emissions could soar in the coming months. During a period of economic crisis, climate concerns often fade, many analysts have noted. But there’s another scenario: Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies for fossil fuels, which have been increasing in recent years, or raise taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.

Comparing the notional effects of corona and climate, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, had this to say: “The coronavirus crisis is a better lesson than the financial crisis because, while it is still quite like a creeping crisis, it is like a fast-forward run of the climate crisis. The difference is that instead of it taking place over four decades, it has taken place over four weeks.”

The global pandemic is giving us a preview of what’s to come with climate change. Each sets up a range of harsh choices we must deal with. Climate change and the virus both require us to give way to the experts. But the remedies proposed must also involve community action. The costs will be tangible and immediate but offer us the prospect of remote and abstract returns. That will be an interesting challenge to the human species.

The Virus and the Climate

Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want to Decrease Emissions’

 For Richer or Poorer: Coronavirus, Cheap Oil Test Climate Vows

How the Wuhan Virus Is Accomplishing the Green New Deal’s Goals

María Medem, New York Times

We’re seeing a slew of articles on how coronavirus is affecting climate change efforts. After reading several, my take is that the outlook isn’t good, but nothing is certain. The consensus of opinion seems to be that

    • emissions will go down in the near term, then rebound
    • mountains of waste will increase
    • reductions from cheap oil and a possible recession will be short-term
    • unstable geopolitics make things totally up for grabs.

It’s not all bad news, but the situation is so fluid that no good predictions are really possible. “One of the greatest hazards for climate policy related to the coronavirus is that governments, international organizations and companies may have fewer resources and less time to focus on other thorny problems.” Yet it could be that the challenges of dealing with the virus may fundamentally change behavior and finally enable us to confront the enormity of climate change. A recession will complicate matters.

Let’s hope real change isn’t pie in the sky: “The focus is on health and supply chains right now. But the process of challenging assumptions and fundamentally altering behavior—illustrated by remote work—can be seized on by climate action advocates once the worst of this health crisis is over.”

To the contrary, Daniel Turner in The Federalist, a conservative bible, argues that the virus is a good stick to beat the Green New Deal with. “Coronavirus is a glimpse of the long-term pain a Green New Deal and environmental radicalism would inflict on America. And besides, grandma would die eventually anyway.” How old is your grandma, Daniel?

The virus pandemic has brought the world to a state of both high anxiety and compassion. Could it be the trigger for finally confronting climate change seriously? One can only hope. All the likely negatives are listed here.

Emergency without Urgency

Trump’s Coronavirus Press Conference Wasn’t Exactly Reassuring

Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts

A Very Hot Year

If you watched El Cheeto’s incoherent news conference on coronavirus, you saw someone attempting to announce an emergency and minimize it, while continually congratulating himself on the good job he’s doing. It was a disgusting performance, totally unreassuring and self-serving. If you’re telling people everything is fine, there is no urgency. The stock market reaction shows us something different.

It was later reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was told to ‘stand down’ and not appear on five Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the coronavirus.” Presumably, he would only scare people.

Climate activist Bill McKibben recently wrote: “It is far too late to stop global warming, but these next ten years seem as if they may be our last chance to limit the chaos.” That’s the urgency. Government and university labs have been predicting the climate crisis for thirty years and more. And what’s been done about it? McKibben tells us how the emergency was predicted, with the World Health Organization calling it “potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century.” We are not even close to accepting that; coronavirus is so much more immediate.

McKinsey, the management consulting firm, has been taking it on the chin recently, not without cause. They recently published a study about climate impacts, showing their severity. It was an impressive summary, though their lame conclusion was not:

Societies have been adapting to the changing climate, but the pace and scale of adaptation will likely need to increase significantly. Key adaptation measures include protecting people and assets, building resilience, reducing exposure, and ensuring that appropriate financing and insurance are in place. Implementing adaptation measures could be challenging for many reasons. The economics of adaptation could worsen in some geographies over time, for example, those exposed to rising sea levels. Adaptation may face technical or other limits. In other instances, there could be hard trade-offs that need to be assessed, including who and what to protect and who and what to relocate.

A lot of conditional words here (“likely,” “could,” “may”) but no urgency, and unfortunately that’s been typical of much of the writing about climate. Too little of what we write has any immediate urgency. A Guardian writer in the U.S. south put it this way:

In eastern North Carolina, where I grew up and write from, climate change was never a polite topic of conversation. I was told the same in a coffee shop in Mississippi, and by a minister in Georgia. Too many southerners are still dancing around the reality of climate change, and the cost of avoiding the conversation is going to be steep.

Politics, Confusion and Doubt

Planners talk about resilience in the face of climate change. We need to start using a different R word.

 CLIMATE SCORECARD: 10 critical climate actions that the Democratic nominee for President can take immediately upon entering the White House.

Jeff Bezos just made one of the largest charitable gifts ever

Our extreme level of uncertainty and anxiety today begins with Trump and ends with climate change. We don’t seem capable of dealing with either.

The president is getting away with murder: the pardoning of crooks, the sick cronyism, megalomaniacal acts of revenge, and daily denials of reality reached new heights this week. There seems to be no way to stop him, and the opposition party is in disarray. Mike Bloomberg, as we saw Wednesday night, will be no savior.

Climate change efforts are also in disarray. The Democratic debate saw almost no consideration of what the candidates were calling “an existential problem.” They attacked each other, inflated their accomplishments, blathered on again about healthcare, and so there was no time for talk about the existential issue of our time.

Aside from a few studies there has been a total failure to plan for or address what’s certain to come from climate change.

Around the world, instead of some 50 million people being forced to move to higher ground over the next 30 years, the oceans will likely rise higher than predicted, with a coastal diaspora at least three times larger; by 2100, the number of climate refugees could surpass 300 million. Indeed, sea-level rise looks likely to be measured in yards and meters, not inches or feet.

The world is more unsettled in ignorance and anxiety than at any time I can remember in my 85 years. We’re living in a world where bots on Twitter control opinions, creating more disinformation and anxiety. A recent study finds that

On an average day during the period studied, 25% of all tweets about the climate crisis came from [climate denialist] bots. This proportion was higher in certain topics—bots were responsible for 38% of tweets about “fake science” and 28% of all tweets about the petroleum giant Exxon.

Is there any good news? Well, Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man, announced he was giving $10 billion for a climate initiative to “fund scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” Maybe this will quiet the ongoing efforts at Amazon to make the company more climate conscious? Probably not.

Are the billionaires like Bloomberg and Bezos finally stepping up to the plate? We don’t yet know how Bezos’s gift will be structured, what it will cover. The devil will be in the details. We do know that the Democratic candidates are all over the map on climate—from Bernie’s pie in the sky ideas to Bloomberg’s and Klobuchar’s proposals which scored at the bottom (1 out of 10 criteria) of a recent evaluation.

When will they ever get a debate format that puts them on the hot seat? There is no accountability in the way we debate climate issues, just as there is no accountability with Trump.

Threat Assessment

Weather: A novel

Global Climate in 2015-2019: Climate change accelerates

Every Democrat should run on Trump’s disastrous budget proposal

What most keeps you up at night? Thinking about Trump or climate change? Which is the worst threat? Or maybe it’s getting the kids off to school tomorrow?

The answer for many would be Trump, who thrusts himself constantly before us, one high crime and misdemeanor after another, every day a new offense to law and the polity. Climate change recedes to the background because our field of view is so narrow. And yet the daily impacts of both are sometimes comparable, I think.

Jenny Offill’s novel Weather plays with both threats by putting them in the context of a Brooklyn librarian’s daily life concerns and patterns. Lizzie’s words, full of insight and humor, carry the freight of Trumpism and climate change that are behind her daily attempts to succor people and keep a normal life going. She wonders whether to buy a gun. The book plays with the metaphor of weather and how we are all connected.

The impacts of climate short-term are fires, floods, famine and storms—all mostly determined by changes in weather. Weather is our barometer. Long-term, the changes predicted are more frightening and less predictable: sea level rise, heat, populations on the move, illnesses increasing, vast ecological changes. But it seems less and less possible to diminish these to the background, as Lizzie’s life demonstrates.

At one point she interrupts her thoughts with:

People Also Ask
What will disappear from stores first?
Why do humans need myths?
Do we live in the Anthropocene?
What is the cultural trance?
Is it wrong to eat meat?
What is surveillance capitalism?
How can we save the bees?
What is the internet of things?
When will humans go extinct?

Trump is small potatoes compared to this. Or is he? Each daily dose of scandal displaces the last. As in climate change, the effects pile up and accelerate. Look at Trump’s proposed 2021 budget! The push for political change finally becomes inescapable. The push to deal with climate change will become so.

How Bad is Bad Enough?

Emissions—the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading

 We may avoid the very worst climate scenario. But the next-worst is still pretty awful.

 ‘Collapsologie’: Constructing an Idea of How Things Fall Apart

What if many of the predictions of upcoming climate disaster have been based on faulty premises? What if the worst-case scenario has been way overdone? Climate scientists model their projections for the future on greatest and fewest emissions discharges. If the projections are wrong there are big implications for us all.

Climate science has been questioned in a recent Nature article which is rocking a lot of boats. The authors propose that the commonly accepted worst-case (“business as usual”) scenario is based on faulty assumptions, a major one being coal consumption.

Emission pathways to get to RCP8.5 [the worst-case scenario] generally require an unprecedented fivefold increase in coal use by the end of the century, an amount larger than some estimates of recoverable coal reserves. It is thought that global coal use peaked in 2013, and although increases are still possible, many energy forecasts expect it to flatline over the next few decades. Furthermore, the falling cost of clean energy sources is a trend that is unlikely to reverse, even in the absence of new climate policies.

The world is still on course for a 3-degree Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warming, which is more likely but still catastrophic. Says the Washington Post, “That’s severe—it would be three times the amount of change that the world has seen—but appreciably different from 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7.2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit).” The Nature graph shows the problem in a nutshell.

Some experts still say the worst-case RCP 8.5 scenario is still possible and there should be plenty of concern. Among other things, the possibilities of climate feedback loops, as from melting permafrost, are what “keeps us climate scientists up at night.”

Then there are the collapsologues, those folks mostly but not exclusively in France, who believe the world is heading for total collapse. They think we have crossed the threshold of “burning the totality of the earth’s stocks of fossil fuels and heating the atmosphere well beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius—which most scientists now conclude is the red line for averting the worst effects of global warming. That these thresholds are violable does not, however, mean that transgressing them will be any less devastating.”

This way of thinking derives in part from Jared Diamond’s fascinating 2005 book Collapse and owes something to David Wallace Wells’ more recent The Uninhabitable Earth, a bestseller. Collapsologues predict dreadful outcomes and conflicts and look at efforts like the Green New Deal as wishful thinking, illusions. Their critique finds that “the fatal weakness of traditional environmentalism is its inability to think beyond economic growth.” There is always “the inexorable question of limits.”

Their answers to all this involve religions and “bio-resilient pastoral communities,” responses we have heard before. Yet these folks must be taken seriously.

The collapsologues do point to real contradictions in contemporary environmentalism. Collapsologie is really just a name for a very serious problem: the frivolousness and injustice of much of what passes for solutions to our current impasse. That some form of mystical antinomianism should emerge from this void recalls the philosopher Michel de Certeau’s saying: “When the political withers, the religious reawakens.”

The Fire Next Time

Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide

Don’t Let Australia’s Crisis Go to Waste

Public anger builds against Morrison

I borrow the title of James Baldwin’s 1963 best-seller that articulated his personal agonies in the civil rights movement. In our time what could galvanize people to stop the burning? I wish I had the skill and talent of Baldwin. A major part of Australia has already gone up in flames. The Amazon rainforest has just about reached a fiery tipping point. Will Africa be next?

Scott Morrison, Australia’s coal-fired prime minister, is leading his country to suicide, opines Richard Flanagan, a novelist whose recent piece caught the terror and the drama of what’s happening there.

The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness—half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.

Bloomberg’s Daniel Moss puts the crisis in terms of statistics and money. But the problem is much more personal than that. And it’s the blindness of leadership that permitted the crisis come to its present head.

An area larger than Ireland has been destroyed, at least 25 people are dead, 2,000 homes have been razed, and 25 million acres of forest and bush have been wiped out. As many as a billion animals may have been incinerated since September, some species almost to extinction. Tourism, farming and consumer confidence have taken a hit. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been lambasted for too little action, too late. His government announced a $1.4 billion recovery fund over the weekend; with more than 100 fires still tearing through the country’s most populous state, more is bound to be needed.

Morrison’s government still maintains there is “no direct link between climate change and the country’s devastating bushfires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims and warnings from scientists.” This is more than ignorance; it’s murder. Morrison is captive to the coal industry and takes his stance from other climate criminals like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Finally, the activists are on the march in nine Australian cities. Led by student organizations, “tens of thousands” are expected to march this weekend. Melbourne will host the biggest protest. Yet it will take more than activism to displace Morrison & Company. It will take political power.

In 1963 Baldwin asked, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Now, it seems, some Australians have no choice except to flee to the sea shore, as in a bad apocalyptic movie. The leadership of climate deniers may not yet go up in smoke but we can hope for their eviction, and soon.

Climate Dominoes Begin to Fall

In bleak report, U.N. says drastic action is only way to avoid worst effects of climate change

Nine climate tipping points now ‘active,’ warn scientists

The climate chain reaction that threatens the heart of the Pacific

Nobody needs to tell you that you’re going to die. But what if they could tell you not precisely when you’re going to die but the likely causes and conditions of your death? What would you do about it? You would take precautions or you would slough it off, too preoccupied with worldly things. Or you’d worry and do nothing. You’d keep on smoking cigarettes. My parents were like that.

And if you knew the climate was going to run out of control in a relatively fixed number of years? If you understood that life on earth would be forever altered for the worse; that millions would die or live lives of misery? Denying that prospective reality would be the ultimate dismissal of your rationality, even your humanity.

We learn now from last week’s U.N. report—“a grim assessment of how off-track the world remains”—that the present pace of confronting the climate crisis will inevitably lead to disaster. If you read this blog, you knew that already.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science tells us that nine tipping points are now active and menacing. They immediately threaten

the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently undergoing measurable and unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.

This “cascade” of changes sparked by global warming could threaten the existence of human civilisations.

Evidence is mounting that these events are more likely and more interconnected than was previously thought, leading to a possible domino effect.

Meaning that they are so interlinked as to cause and amplify one another. Such events are, it seems, irreversible. Without our intervention, the dominoes will begin to fall. A revealing description of how interrelated our ocean ecology is was published by the Washington Post here. The salmon catch off the coast of Japan is being depleted by warming waters, and the consequences are like so many dominoes falling. These effects are being felt in many places around the globe.

Remember the fatuous domino theory (predicting the takeover of communism) for our appalling encroachments in Vietnam? This time it’s no political theory but provable scientific facts that are impossible to ignore.

Gloom but not Doom?

What If We Stopped Pretending?

Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think

Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change

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.

The Big Heat

Facing unbearable heat, Qatar has begun to air-condition the outdoors

Days of 100-Degree Heat Will Become Weeks as Climate Warms, U.S. Study Warns

Heat waves and climate change: Is there a connection?

Air conditioning the outdoors? insanity reigns everywhere and it’s not just over Trump. Three days ago the Washington Post published this lengthy and frightening account of what’s happening in one of the world’s hottest regions. It may be the scenario of our future.

Here are some of the takeaways, but you need to read the full piece to understand their implications. And the photos are most revealing.

    • Preparing for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is air conditioning its eight open-air soccer stadiums.
    • “Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide,” this in a country that is the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases.
    • The region expects temperatures to increase about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius by the time the rest of the world hits 2⁰ C.
    • The country relies more than ever on fossil fuels, including natural gas.
    • Doha, the major city, is progressively roasting, having warmed “by an astonishing 2.8 degrees Celsius since 1962.”

Water temperatures in the Persian Gulf are rising much faster than in the world’s other seas, and the “urban heat island effect” of heating asphalt and concrete makes cities the other focus of this increase. The prospect of growing heat and humidity may “one day exceed the capacity of humans to tolerate the outdoors. In such conditions, air conditioning would no longer be a convenience; it would be essential to survival.”

With its vast resources of fossil-fuel money Qatar can afford to do something as crazy and yet necessary as air conditioning the outdoors. It can’t, of course, do this forever. Some two-thirds of its electricity goes toward air conditioning. So there is planning and engineering to change building and construction requirements—but mostly now for the World Cup sites. Recently and hopefully, however, “Qatar Petroleum announced that it would construct a facility to capture and store 5 million tons of carbon from the company’s liquefied natural gas operations by 2025.”

Meanwhile, heat waves everywhere are going to get much more frequent and hotter. It’s not just athletes and outdoor workers who will be affected, though they have the highest exposure. How will human beings begin to endure such extreme heat? By mid-century many areas of the U.S. will face many more days of 105-degree heat, more than triple those of the previous fifty years. It will be worse elsewhere.

Qatar is one of earth’s richest countries, yet some are predicting that cities throughout the Middle East could well become uninhabitable. You can imagine the scenario for the poorer parts of the world.