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.

Entombed in Plastic

US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It Than Other Developed Countries

We’re Buying Into a Giant Lie about Plastic

Microplastics Have Invaded the Deep Ocean—and the Food Chain

As many of you know, I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. Saturday morning was garbage day, and I watched a brand new truck pull up in front of my house for one of three pickups a week—better than most communities here get. The truck had big plastic bags attached to sort cans, glass and plastic bottles. The truck also collects flattened cardboard boxes.

From its collection points, the truck proceeds to an enormous, long over-capacity dump on the outskirts of the city. The dump has been the site of frequent controversies, closings, political fights and fires. Its history is documented here. One way the dump manages to survive is through the presence of “pepenadores” who sort and salvage the stuff they can sell to recyclers. They make far less than a living wage and their efforts, in terms of the local and global problem of plastic and garbage generally, are like shoveling shit against the tide, as the saying goes.

We need to be particularly and regularly reminded of the problems that plastic is causing in all our environments. Recycling was never the panacea for the problem; no country but maybe the US has the resources to deal with it. And US waste is the biggest culprit:

    • Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
    • The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation. . . . 
    • Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, last month [May 2019], 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.

You may not know that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic trash gets recycled because it’s too expensive. China won’t take it anymore, so most gets dumped in the ocean or burned or put in over-burdened landfills. You may be familiar with what this dumping is doing to the ocean and its inhabitants, an abominable story with enormous consequences.

Like climate change itself, there is no real solution to this but to stop producing plastic and work on source reduction, as it’s called—like not burning fossil fuels in the first place. How to bring industry and consumers and politicians to this state is the conundrum of the age.

Recognizing the severity of the problem is the first step. Mexico’s giant supermarket chain Chedraui recently decided, without much fanfare, to just stop giving customers plastic bags. This I discovered last month with happy surprise on a shopping trip. Such bags are banned in at least 68 countries worldwide, but not in the US. Bangladesh, victimized by plastic and trash dumping, has banned them since 2002. Neither bans nor charges for bags are much more than quick fixes. But they are small and necessary steps forward.

Hansen’s Recent Thoughts on Climate Change—and Some History

Saving Earth (June 27, 2019)

Thirty years later, what needs to change in our approach to climate change (June 26, 2018)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (August 1, 2018)

Once one of the few scientific voices crying out about climate change, James Hansen has become a renowned, and sometimes vilified, spokesman. That trek took him more than thirty years, as he documents in a Boston Globe editorial. He’s a controversial figure still—both in his political views and in his opinions on nuclear power (with which I concur; see below)—but to many he is the father of climate change awareness.

A journalistic history of the climate change threat, its people, politics, and science is parsed in Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy New York Times piece, “Losing Earth,” published a year ago. It is a dramatic account in which Hansen is naturally a principal figure. I list it here as essential background reading on Hansen’s role in how the climate issue developed.

I got an early copy of “Saving Earth” forwarded from a friend. It struck me immediately as the most authoritative yet personal view of where the climate change arguments came from and how they need, in Hansen’s singular view, to be implemented.

It’s eleven pages long in pdf form and I doubt most of you will plunge into that. So I’ve excerpted some of the more significant passages.

It is wonderful that more people are waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency. The emergency was clear more than a decade ago when it was realized that the long-term safe level of atmospheric CO2 was less than 350 ppm. Already, we were well into the dangerous zone. . . .

[The threat of an ungovernable planet] derives mainly from two large-scale climate change impacts. First, low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and huge swaths of Africa. The tragedy would be that these regions are, in a ‘less than 350 ppm climate,’ among the most spectacular and livable regions on the planet.

The second climate impact is sea level rise, which is an ominous threat on multi-decadal time scales. This sea level threat may be less immediate than the low-latitude, over-heating, climate-change threat, but it is more ‘non-linear,’ implying that it has the potential to grow exponentially, becoming unstoppable and irreversible. Note that the sea level threat is near-global, because most of the world’s large cities and infrastructure are located on coastlines. Nations that would be devastated by large sea level rise include the greatest economic powers of the 21st century, the United States and China. These two climate impacts are the heart of the ‘existential threat.’ . . .

Most of the warming still ‘in the pipeline’ is associated with deep-ocean warming. Thus most of this ‘in the pipeline’ warming will not occur this century. This permits the possibility of avoiding most of that warming, if we reduce the amount of gases in the air on the time scale of a century or two. . . .

Faced with realization that we could hand young people a climate system running out of their control, political leaders took the easy way out. With the Paris Agreement in 2015 they changed the target for maximum global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C. A temperature ‘target’ approach is ineffectual. It has practically no impact on global emissions.

Global energy policies remain inconsistent with professed emission targets. Emission targets will never overrule the desire of nations to raise their standards of living. Effective energy policies, not professed targets, are the crucial requirement for phasing down fossil fuel emissions. . . .

The two essential energy policy requirements are: 1) honest pricing of fossil fuels, i.e., the price must rise to include the cost of fossil fuels to society; 2) government support of breakthrough technologies, including clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment programs. . . .

The missing technology for China, and now for India, was a clean source of power to replace coal in massive energy requirements for electricity and industrial heat.

Later this century, when scholars look back at what went wrong, the single sentence likely to stand out will be one uttered by President William Jefferson Clinton in his first State of the Union Address, almost three decades ago: “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.”

How could such a spectacularly bad decision have been reached? Readily available empirical data showed that nuclear power was the safest energy source, with the smallest environmental footprint.

The potential for inexpensive, modular, ultrasafe reactors – built in a factory or shipyard – has not been developed. Support for research, development, demonstration and deployment – lavished on renewable energies for decades – only recently has been initiated in a small way for modern nuclear power. . . .

The most urgent task is to phase down fossil fuel emissions. There is no one simple solution to this. It will take a lot of positive actions, and also pressure on the fossil fuel industry, from multiple directions, pressure on them to become a clean energy industry. . . .

The legal approach is slow and no panacea, but it is an essential part of the solution. [It] must be pursued simultaneously with the political approach. . . .

[Voting Trump out of office is not the answer.] The public has tried that recourse. They voted in Barack (‘Planet in Peril’) Obama and Albert (‘Earth in the Balance’) Gore. The accomplishments by those Administrations in addressing climate change, to use a favorite phrase of my mother, “did not amount to a hill of beans.” Democrats and Republicans are both on the take from special interests, the fossil fuel industry. Both parties work with industry, approving and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and use.

I wanted to write something today about the impact of tanks on the environment but then thought better of it.

The Worst Case Scenario, in Summary

Human Civilization Isn’t Prepared to Survive Climate Change

If you need to be brought up to speed on the worst horrors possible with climate change, this piece is a good place to begin. Author Luke Darby interviews David Spratt, research director of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia.

The very broad strokes aren’t too different from last year’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that we have just over a decade to prevent the absolute worst climate outcomes. That report focused on the now-inevitable two degrees of warming, the temperature at which 411 million people living in cities will face water scarcity, crops begin failing, and all coral dies off. But Spratt and Dunlop wanted to know what the absolute worst could be. . . .

P.S. (June 25, 2019):
‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive

“Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” Alston said. Developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs of the climate crisis, the report said, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.