Defying the Gods of Nature

How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease

The Covid-19 ‘Infowhelm’

 There Is Still No Plan

This is a picture of plastic on the sea floor, a rape of nature and another instance of hubris—that ultimate kind of human arrogance—here putting the stuff out of sight, out of mind.

Some of our oldest and greatest human stories involve hubris—meaning, for the Greeks, “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.” I like writing about hubris because it never goes unpunished, at least in the Greek myths. Pride always goeth before a fall, and our fall could be a long drawn-out catastrophe.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

A catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless destruction of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode. . . . The diseases may have always been there, buried deep in wild and remote places out of reach of people. But until now, the planet’s natural defense systems were better at fighting them off.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

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.

It has become difficult to make sense of all this because we are deluged daily with data and information. With coronavirus we are met with “dizzying numbers of disease prevalence, fatalities, ventilators, unemployment claims; models predicting time to hospital overload, time to reopen for business.” Trump doesn’t even bother with a plan for getting the virus under control. Coronavirus has eliminated any safety net, and as many thousands of Americans die, Trump has set himself to take no responsibility—an act of utter hubris.

The consequence of the data dump also applies to climate change as the onrush of climate data provokes “everything from anxiety, numbing, and complacency to hubris and finger-pointing.” It’s overwhelming and so we proceed with business as usual. As Ghosh revealed, we are now meeting the limits of human understanding and our response is “out of sight, out of mind.” This, as the old stories tell us, cannot continue.

Hard Truths about Climate Change

Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Do we really have any chance to come to grips with climate change? Like many of us, I go back and forth on that one. Some recommend throwing out the whole capitalist system. If that seems a bit unlikely, you’d need to know how to redirect the system and what it would really take to decarbonize global business.

A pretty convincing roadmap for that is provided by McKinsey, the firm some love to hate. The critics hate its high-pressure culture, its stress on process, its success. But the business of America is still business, and McKinsey’s leaders have recently tried to transform their firm’s role to reflect the totally changing world we’re living in. I almost went to work for McKinsey in 2006, which would have been to the delight of my capitalistic forebears, but that didn’t happen and I’m grateful.

Anyhow, McKinsey recently issued a report on Climate Math that challenges business to meet the demands for a 1.5-C degree warming limit. This is very much worth your reading so you can understand in some coherent detail the challenges in achieving that goal.

 . . . With further warming unavoidable over the next decade, the risk of physical hazards and nonlinear, socioeconomic jolts is rising. Mitigating climate change through decarbonization represents the other half of the challenge. Scientists estimate that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the odds of initiating the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.

The report offers five necessary and difficult steps to get to that goal. “The good news,” they say, “is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting.”

None of what follows is a forecast. Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonization efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport. A markedly different regulatory environment would likely be necessary to support the required capital formation.

The report traces five needed interdependent “shifts” in areas that we all know, with varying means and prospects of achieving reform:

    • reforming food and forestry
    • electrifying our lives
    • adapting industrial operations
    • decarbonizing power and fuel
    • ramping up carbon capture and carbon sequestration activity.

Each of these areas plays out in three scenarios the report envisions, not as predictions but as “snapshots” to get where we have to go.

All the scenarios, we found, would imply the need for immediate, all-hands-on-deck efforts to dramatically reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. The first scenario frames deep, sweeping emission reductions across all sectors; the second assumes oil and other fossil fuels remain predominant in transport for longer, with aggressive reforestation absorbing the surplus emissions; and the third scenario assumes that coal and gas continue to generate power for longer, with even more vigorous reforestation making up the deficit . . . .

Relying so much on reforestation seems to me dubious at best, despite the report’s qualifications. The final pages state in bold type, “It is impossible to chart a 1.5-degree pathway that does not remove carbon dioxide to offset ongoing emissions. The math simply does not work.”

The challenges here are immense and the report does not shy away from them. But finally we are getting serious analysis of how feasible (or unlikely) the 1.5-degree goal is.

Camus Updated

Albert Camus, The Plague

 Gordon A. Craig, Politics of a Plague

 David Wallace-Wells, The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future

I’m rereading the great Albert Camus novel The Plague (La Peste), and there’s no fiction more timely than this. It’s Camus’s best work, the story of how plague comes to a small French-Algerian city in the 1940s with consequences more frightening than today because so much about the blight was then unknown.

Among other things, it is the story of how ordinary people do extraordinary things when under pressure. Of course we think of our health care workers of today: the priceless virtues and commitments of all those who care for the sick under dreadful conditions.

The plague in Camus is a metaphor for the Nazi holocaust. But it also represents the “abstraction” in all our lives, those rules, habits, and forces that control us, keep us in line and, even, give satisfaction as the townsfolk march to work every day, go to the movies, drink in cafés and live out their pedestrian lives.

The town of Oran is a grim, featureless place, and Camus stresses the climate’s effect on its inhabitants. “It must be the weather,” they say: the blue sky, the piercing sun, the heat that keeps people indoors, “socially distant.” Reading from our perspective, it could be a metaphor for climate change. The plague transforms the city into a charnel house. And “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” It hides in furniture, clothes, bedrooms, cellars, always to reemerge without warning.

Like cholera and COVID-19, plague is a disease of society, as if a God were taking vengeance. In Camus’s novel, the plague exposes all our shortcomings—political, social, moral, economic—and so it is with COVID-19. Our very isolation forces us to contemplate the vacuous defects of our institutions and the precariousness of our lives.

We have been living in a bubble of denial about pandemics and certainly about climate change. We discover that we cannot insulate ourselves from the natural world, though that seems to be the goal of our culture. As David Wallace-Wells put it: “Nature is mighty, and scary, and we have not defeated it but live within it, subject to its temperamental power, no matter where it is that you live or how protected you may normally feel.”

My isolation is pretty comfortable. Boring, but comfortable. Yet it forces me to think of what others are enduring. I think of the trenches being dug to bury the nameless, unrecovered dead. I think of those who expire in a ventilator isolated from all.

Being in Mexico, I think of these words of Camus:

Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our town was exile. . . . It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile—that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

In our present isolation, we are thrown back on that “sensation of a void within” for much of the day, trying to make sense of the abstraction of a pandemic that is all too real. It’s an effort to wrap our minds around the inscrutable nature of something so distant and basically unknowable.

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.