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.

The Lure of Travel, the Shame of Flying

If you care about your impact on the planet, you should stop flying

Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.

When it comes to the environmental costs of flights ‘we need to figure out how to turn that shame into action’

Most of the friends I have in Oaxaca are Americans, most have money, and most love to travel—usually by air. And they tend to take several long-distance trips a year. These are smart people who understand (at least I think they understand) that aviation produces enormous amounts of carbon pollution.

Yet these folks are expats who have family in the U.S. or elsewhere. They are retired and yearn finally to indulge the urge to see the world. They have personal connections abroad or would create them. Flying seems to activate this kind of personal globalization in all its ambiguous consequences, and there are millions of travelers like them.

What are the costs of this sort of indulgence?

Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand.

And neither biofuels nor reduced demand are likely to happen soon. Putting it another way: a one-way flight from London to New York for each traveler in economy class will “put an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air—about as much as taking a round-trip 15-mile commute every day for a year in a fuel-efficient car.”

So the question of whether or not to give up or restrict one’s flying typically becomes an ethical and very personal one. For me and my friends in Mexico, Oaxaca has recently improved its air service options, and with more airlines and more flights operating, we’re more tempted to use them. Bus travel within the country is much less polluting, and the buses are good. But if they have the money, most will choose to fly.

I fly to the U.S. maybe once a year to see family. I don’t like what air travel has become and I don’t want to contribute to climate pollution. Others will have different needs and convictions. Americans fly more than most anyone else in the world (and contribute the second-most pollution of any country). They are not going to quit flying but they should think long and hard before making any trip. They should also think long and hard about the systemic and political changes that the climate crisis demands. Shame and personal guilt are not enough.

For Greta, the Timing Was Problematic

It’s Greta’s World

The World’s Oceans Are in Danger, Major Climate Change Report Warns

Why the right’s usual smears don’t work on Greta Thunberg

Well, she got upstaged by impeachment. Some stories will always capture the media, but that’s not to deny the reality and power of what Greta told the UN leaders last week. She got a ton of pushback and some nastiness from the right-wing, e.g.,

“She’s ignorant, maniacal and is being mercilessly manipulated by adult climate bedwetters funded by Putin,” ranted C-list climate denier Steve Milloy, somehow fitting all the mutually contradictory stereotypes about powerful women into his pea brain at once.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison found her remarks would cause “needless anxiety” in his country’s children. Oh dear. How will those youngsters respond to his building more coal-fired plants and the country’s dismal record on climate change?

By putting her faith in science, Greta managed to slough off most of this stuff. She has achieved some kind of political miracle and gotten 4 million-plus people to go along with her. Maybe it’s her Asperger’s that gave her this power. Or the unassailable facts of climate change.

The bad news keeps coming. One of our most respected sources on climate study, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reports that the oceans are rapidly becoming hotter, more acidic, losing oxygen, dramatically affecting fish stocks, coastal flooding, marine heat waves, and more.

While the report recommends that nations sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to lessen the severity of most of these threats, it also points out that countries will need to adapt to many changes that have now become unavoidable.

Only when the politicians and “world leaders” accept the fact that time is running out, will the possibilities for real change emerge. Most are still phumphing around the emergency and that’s what got Greta so angry.

On Twitter she wrote: “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!”

Climate Awareness, Like Ice Cream, Doesn’t Last

Americans demand climate action (as long as it doesn’t cost much): Reuters poll

It takes about three weeks for Americans to stop paying attention after a mass shooting

Amazon rainforest fires: global leaders urged to divert Brazil from ‘suicide’ path

You have to wonder why something as dramatically urgent as climate change doesn’t seem sustainable in the public’s consciousness. Another way of saying this is that a majority gives it a high priority but doesn’t want to pay for the fixes. Ice cream tastes better than wormwood and gall.

Or maybe people just have shorter attention spans (though perhaps not) because they are constantly distracted with disorienting and irrelevant information. They are too busy with their freaking phones. Or being caught up in the latest cultural drivel. Or scandalized by Trump.

It’s also the enormity of the climate problem, as we have discussed, and the complex conundrum of a solution. For many, that tends to force climate onto the back burner.

The analogous situation is gun control. Philip Bump of The Washington Post analyzed Google searches interested in recent high-profile mass shootings. He found that interest always spikes high after the event and then greatly subsides after about twenty days. “People have moved on.” You and I know that finally the climate will not allow us to move on.

It’s certain that the crisis isn’t going away, and the media will necessarily cover the latest shocking events. Last week it was the fires in the Amazon rainforest and their consequences. You have a political story about the lunacy of Bolsonaro’s policies, and there’s an agricultural/environmental story about the ranchers and loggers who set the fires, and a story about the effects of the fires. A smorgasbord of climate stories.

Yet much of the major media, like The New York Times, still seems obtuse about running climate stories. I did a search query there for “Amazon fires” and the first four items that came up had to do with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet! I guess the search editors know which side of their bread is buttered.

The Climate Change Blues

The Green New Deal isn’t big enough

Climate change will force 120 million people into poverty

What I learned writing about climate change and the US south for a year


The outlook is full of distressing signs. A climate change blues plays in heavy rotation on our interior Spotify. It echoes the rainstorm that never quits, the drought that never ends. Try applying analytical reason or talking about solutions, and you confront boundless examples of human inertia, narcissism, bias and denial.

One problem is the vast scale that a viable solution requires. The Green New Deal by itself can’t stave off calamity even if the US adopted it. It’s not nearly enough because the problem is global and historic. The U.S. and other wealthy nations will have to kick in vast amounts of money in “climate finance” to mitigate emissions in developing countries, not to mention their own. Electorates show no sign of being willing to do this.

The leaders of developing nations aren’t suckers, and they know how dire the problem is. They have something rich countries want (emissions reductions), and they’d be fools to just give it away for free, even if they could. If we want them to succeed, it’s going to cost us, and we’ll need to move quickly. The science is clear: We do not have another decade to waste.

Likewise, Philip Alston, author of a devastating UN report, finds that

mainstream discussions about climate change are remarkably out of touch with the scale of the crisis and the economic and social upheaval it will bring. Political leaders have failed to put forward a vision for avoiding catastrophic consequences or protecting those most affected. . . . 

[Climate change] will impoverish hundreds of millions, including middle class people in wealthy countries. It will push 120 million people into poverty by 2030 alone, and could lead to a “climate apartheid” scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.

While American attitudes toward the climate crisis vary significantly, many people in rural regions like the South have powerful interests in promoting denial. A climate reporter for The Guardian comments:

A Pew survey indicated that white evangelical protestants are the least likely to profess a belief in climate change. Power companies, developers and conservative politicians have a vested interest in deregulation and maintaining the environmental status quo, and many paint environmental concerns as nothing but liberal pagan ideas.

In a region that recapitulates decades of delay and denial, some plan to stick it out at any cost and go down with the ship. Is it really any different with the rest of the country? Although their scale and threat have dramatically increased, floods, famine and extreme weather events have always been with us. Bessie may help us remember that “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow /there’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

No Agreement on Climate Solutions

The World’s Climate Emergency Is Getting Harder to Ignore

Climate change requires big solutions. But baby steps are the only way to go.

Implementing The One Viable Solution To Climate Change

Greenland glaciers melting

The accepted way to solve a big problem has always been to break it down into smaller components and work on them. Most solutions to the climate crisis seem to rely on this approach which, for the most part, hasn’t shown much promise. Climate defies rationality. We don’t have the proper language to express it.

But it forces its way into our consciousness and will keep intruding on our carbonized dreams until we pull our collective heads out of the sand. The first step to awareness is recognizing how current events are sending an unmistakable message. Consider:

    • the heat wave in Europe that has now moved to Greenland to vastly accelerate glacial melting
    • the crazy variability in weather everywhere, with more weather-related disasters
    • the weakness of most current plans to reduce global heating
    • the political atrocities of deniers like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Some of these things are outlined in a recent Washington Post piece by reporter Ishaan Tharoor, who is not a climate scientist. While he sounds a few hopeful notes, he thinks massive public awareness finally will not activate the changes required—though it may move the political pendulum.

Solutions offered have ranged from the cosmic to the incremental, from the Green New Deal to a carbon tax. I can’t see that either approach will finally pay off. A couple of recent proposals illustrate how far apart our climate pundits remain.

Ted Nordhaus in Foreign Policy wrote in favor of “baby steps” to resolve the crisis. He seems to feel that big solutions, like the Green New Deal and a carbon tax, will simply be rejected by consumers and government. These things are too politically difficult and economically costly. He proposes a “quiet climate policy” of incremental change.

Ultimately, the choice we face is between some action and no action. Neither economists’ dreams of rationalizing environmental policy through the power and efficiency of markets nor progressive environmentalists’ hopes of heroic state-led mobilization to save the planet are likely to do much to address the problem.

Ted, the problem is too big and too pressing to solve incrementally. There is no time left to wait for your solutions to take hold.

In another camp we have Steve Denning, an Australian management guru, who proposes what seems to be the only viable solution to climate change, an Apollo-type moon shot program that brings to bear the human talent for innovation and a commitment to bold collective action. I think he’s right.

The initiative would pursue the options already on the table, such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear fusion, storage of nuclear fission materials, as well as incremental efforts in wind, solar, batteries, and reforestation, taxes, subsidies, regulation and deregulation, where they are scalable enough to make a difference.

All this would require a massive bipartisan effort “with the best minds, agile management and adequate funding to find the best technology for creating non-polluting energy for the planet.”

If we don’t make the effort, history will not be kind—if there are any historians left.

The Unreality of Climate Change

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Ganges delta flooding

For many of us, climate change is simply beyond imagining. These two excellent books offer quite different ways of understanding what it is, how the threat grew, and what if anything we can do about it.

Ghosh is an acclaimed Indian novelist; McKibben has been writing for at least thirty years about climate and fighting for recognition of the crisis. In these books, Ghosh is the Platonist, looking at the history, artistic rendering and power politics of climate change through a meta lens. He moves us through vast areas of space and time to uncover trends and events that we never suspected controlled the evolution of climate.

McKibben is the Aristotelian here, writing a detailed story of his investigation about why and how we’ve failed to do anything. A reviewer sums up the message:

“Our lives now are only part biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon,” McKibben writes partway through. That transition feels like the heart of the book, which he frames as a look at what he calls the “human game”: How do we balance technology and the natural world? What dark, selfish parts of human nature got us here? And what are the options that might make things better, from installing solar panels to genetically engineering more altruistic babies?

McKibben’s book is more accessible; Ghosh writes of grand, sweeping trends, connections you never thought of. For instance, he explores how literature moved from concern with the epic and the supernatural, the presence of unpredictable nature, to exploring the personal, the subjective, and how that has kept us from seeing climate change developing.

Politics has undergone a similar change, becoming focused on identity and personal (moral) development rather than pushing for the collective action that is essential. The economics of capitalism created the carbon economy, but so did the 19th-20th century drive for empire. Industrialism came late to China and India but their vast populations rapidly brought the crisis to its present peak.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

Climate change thus remains something beyond our ken, something uncanny, to use his word. Language—and our present use of it—has become inadequate to deal with its strangeness. Finally, however, Ghosh has found ways to describe our great derangement, our divorce from the natural world and, just maybe, turn our despair into at least a wisp of hope.

The scale of the climate challenge is beyond enormous, and Ghosh is not an easy read because he forces you to think in complex new patterns. If you make the effort, you’ll find the patterns make sense and some of the clouds will part.