Now you can see how it works, this whole climate collapse scenario that writers and scientists have been hollering about for years. In the space of a few short months, the Pacific Northwest was baked by an extreme heat wave, California was (and still is) consumed by wildfire and parched by drought, Tennessee was hit by 17 inches of rain that caused devastating floods that killed 22 people, a major hurricane flattened towns and knocked out power for nearly a million people along the Gulf Coast and then moved north and drowned one of the richest cities in the world. All of this was in addition to battling a mutating virus that has already killed more than 645,000 Americans and may or may not be a preview of a new climate-driven pandemic era.
All this is happening with just 1 C of warming. “This is climate change,” climate scientist Andrew Dessler said in an interview on CNBC. “It’s just a small preview of what is going to happen if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We really need to do that, or we are going to look back on this as the good old days.”
Of course, terrible flooding in Bangladesh and China is also climate change, as are heat waves in India and Pakistan. But because this wild summer culminated in a flood of the media capital of the world, it has inspired a lot of media coverage and yet another round of questioning about whether this is the moment that Americans will begin to truly grapple with the future we have created for ourselves by our century-long fossil fuel binge. As Chris Cilizza at CNN put it: “Is this finally the moment we wake up to the climate crisis?”
Fifteen years ago, I was out on a research vessel in the North Atlantic and asked a scientist a similar question. We were drilling sediment cores, looking for evidence of past climates in the shells of tiny organisms called forams that lived in ancient oceans. One evening as we sat out on the fantail of the ship, I asked Lloyd Keigwin, a geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who was the chief scientist on the trip, what he thought it would take to wake Americans up to the risks of climate change. “When a major hurricane comes along and wipes out a great American city, they will wake up,” Keigwin confidently predicted.
Well, we’ve had Katrina, Sandy, Laura, Ida – I lose track of them all. It’s impossible to calculate how many houses have been destroyed, power lines downed, roads washed away, lives upended and lost.
And what has changed? Yes, we have bent down the carbon-emissions curve enough to make the truly apocalyptic climate nightmares (5 C of warming by 2100) less likely. Clean energy prices have fallen precipitously. We elected a president who now talks bluntly and frequently about the climate crisis and has committed to a zero-carbon grid by 2035. Places like Louisiana have invested billions in coastal resiliency projects. Electric bikes and scooters and cars are proliferating. Media-savvy scientists like Michael Mann, Andrea Dutton, Katharine Hayhoe, and Andrew Dessler are speaking ever more clearly about climate risks. Grassroots activist groups are gaining political power and learning how to use it. Climate warriors like former Secretary of State John Kerry are jousting in the fields of diplomacy, trying, once again, to convince the Chinese to step up and show leadership in the upcoming international climate negotiations.
This is all good. This is all important. But if this is what it means to “wake up” to the risks of the climate crisis, then we truly are fucked.
I recently moved to Texas, which, according to the 2020 census, is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. I moved to Austin for love, not BBQ or to escape paying state income taxes, and there is much to admire about the state. But climate-wise, the view is bleak. It’s highways, strip malls, and big trucks as far as the eye can see. I have visited the big wind farms in the northwest part of the state and there are plenty of venture capital bros driving around in Teslas, but Texas has a governor who is more interested in regulating uteruses and militarizing the border than cutting carbon and preparing for life in a different climate. And just down the road is Houston, the oil capital of the world, where, despite all the talk about economic diversity, fossil fuel still reigns supreme.
And it’s not just Texas. The very day New York City was drowning, Senator Joe Manchin wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, explaining why he would not support spending $3.5 trillion to help slow climate change. This from a politician who reportedly owns millions of dollars in coal stocks and whose state has probably contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than any other. Evidence of cluelessness and short term greed is everywhere: Last year, billionaire investor Warren Buffet pumped $10 billion into natural gas pipelines. South Florida real estate is still booming, despite the obvious risks of storm surge and sea level rise. What writer and futurist Alex Steffen calls “the brittleness bubble” continues to expand.
Most importantly, there is zero accountability for the corporations who have made billions of dollars keeping America hooked on fossil fuels while undermining and distorting the urgency of the climate crisis. What price has ExxonMobil and Shell and BP paid for their years of hawking fuels that they knew very well would heat up the planet and cause wreckage and mayhem for generations to come? None, as far as I can tell. There are various lawsuits moving through the courts and activist shareholders are pushing them to think differently about the future, but basically they trashed the planet and got away with it and their only penance is to run commercials about what good citizens they are and what a good job they are doing “innovating for the future.” Meanwhile, The New York Times, whose climate coverage is exemplary, sees nothing wrong with creating and running ads from Big Oil. As writer Emily Atkin put it: “The NYT stopped shilling for cigarettes. Why won’t it stop shilling for fossil fuels?”
The big problem America faces here in the early years of the 21st century is that we built our world with the idea that we live on a stable, steady planet. The land is here, the ocean is there, and forever it shall be. The rains will come, but they will be rains like we always knew it to rain. It will get hot, but no hotter than it ever has. For 40 years now, we have ignored scientists who were telling us about the risks of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere and how it could change everything, creating a different planet than humans have ever lived on before.
Now, as the world floods and burns, the price of our willful ignorance and denial is becoming clearer. Are a few devastated towns along the Gulf Coast and waterfalls in the New York City subway system going to be what wakes us up from that? I hope so. But I fear that just as there is no “us,” there is also no “waking up.” If the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that the reservoirs of stupidity and self-destructiveness in the American mind are deeper than even the most cynical among us could have imagined. So maybe the best thing we can do right now is not pretend we will “wake up” to the monstrous reality of our time like some character in a fairy tale. Maintaining a habitable planet is going to be a long hard fight, and if this summer from hell has shown us anything, it’s that this fight has only just begun.