My week in the heat

I haven’t been on holiday near the Equator or sitting in a sauna at some upmarket health club that I don’t belong to. The heat comes from reading and listening to climate science. Hot temperatures and hot in the sense of stoking my anger. As tomorrow is Earth Day, yet another awareness campaign, I promise I won’t mention any numbers or statistics as you will have heard enough, and I don’t think they’re very helpful. What we need is a shift in thinking. Here are some highlights that have rattled my head this week and have brought me to this conclusion.

In David Wallace-Wells’ newsletter, the environmentalist describes how critiques of the ‘catastrophic thinking’ in recent climate activism have been ‘regularly and conspicuously levelled by complacent centrists and patronizing greybeards against the alarmist fringe of the climate movement — yes, warming was happening, they acknowledged, and yes, it represented a challenge to the world’s collective status quo, but still, all of this hyperbolic talk was, let’s be honest, a bit much.’ This does an excellent job of depicting the stance of many public figures who are not climate change deniers but are not fighting for the environment either. It is as if positioning oneself in the middle of the argument, avoiding extremes, is reasonable. In this case, it’s not.

I’ve been reading Simon Sharpe’s Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change, where the issue of communicating the dangers of climate change is looked at from a slightly different angle. Sharpe argues that climate scientists have been pulling their punches when presenting their findings to the public and to policy makers because these scientists have tended to talk in terms of predictions, which they are naturally cautious in making. It would be better, according to Sharpe to address the effects of climate change in terms of risk assessment – that is, looking at the worst possible scenario. He compares risk assessment in other fields to make his case. ‘What would become of a national security adviser who stormed out of a briefing on a terrorist threat complaining that it was all too depressing? Or a chief medical officer who decided not to warn political leaders of an approaching pandemic in case the bad news caused them to ‘switch off’? Obviously, such negligence is unthinkable.’ Yet, scientists, economists and politicians have skirted around risk assessment in the context of climate change. My blood boils thinking about it.

I took a break from these commentaries on catastrophic thinking and parlance only to find this item in the New York Times: ‘India is among the most vulnerable countries to human-caused climate change. And its poorest people are at the greatest risk…. This week, many parts of India were under heat wave alerts. Schools and colleges were closed in most parts of West Bengal state.’ Over to EuroNews, where there were stories around the fact that 2022 had the warmest summer on record across Europe. There was no escaping it.

Finally, returning to Simon Sharpe as he has the right words to describe what’s been going on in my head this week. He writes, ‘Thinking about climate change risks can be emotionally draining. You might feel you’ve heard enough by this point. There are increasing reports of climate change scientists and activists needing psychological support to cope with the strains of constantly staring into the abyss, trying to tell people about it, and witnessing the utter inadequacy of our collective response.’ Am I an activist, or an ordinary news junkie, needing psychological support? Perhaps not yet, but I did find writing this blog therapeutic.

Election Day 2020

With fears of election-day violence, America has joined corrupt and disreputable countries around the world. Thank you, Mr President – this is on your watch.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this presidential election might be the most important one of our lifetimes. How so? I’ve narrowed this down to two reasons, both of which have been touted by political pundits, newspaper columnists and the like. This is my take in the context of the films and books that influence my thinking.

Reason 1 – democracy is at stake. Over the past four years, the world has watched a wannabe autocrat in the Whitehouse fight against the institutions of American governance and the freedom of the press. Among the many examples of this, what first comes to mind are Tr**p’s public criticisms of the FBI, the CIA and most recently and most alarmingly the Centers for Disease Control. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has been one of several books to expose of the Tr**p transition team and the way this president set up his antigovernmental administration, a  heady mix of inexperienced individuals and those with a grudge against certain branches of government.

And the media has had it worse. On top of frequent references to the media as ‘fake’ and ‘public enemies,’ let’s not forget the many instances of reporters being targeted and arrested while trying to report on demonstrations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Netflix has recently produced The Chicago Seven, about the kangaroo trial of seven anti-war protesters during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. From aggressive policing to an openly racist and bias judicial system, echoes of Tr**p’s treatment of the media resound.

Reason 2 – the planet is at stake. Not only has the 45th president of the US started the process of pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord, he’s a supporter of the fossil fuel industry, a climate change denier and has reversed over one hundred acts of legislation by the EPA during Obama’s presidency. A couple of good books I’ve read recently that cover this president’s treatment of the environment include Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth.

There is perhaps a third reason why this is such an important election. But I’ve changed my mind a few times about the real importance of this. Okay, here goes. America’s reputation is at stake. As I would like to see a more balanced world, with a more equitable distribution of wealth, the US doesn’t need to keep its position as an economic superpower. I would be even happier still if it were not a military superpower. Despite these misgivings, I’d like to see America retain some of its influence in the world as a source for good. (Hard to imagine at times, I know. Sorry if I sound like Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.) Voting Tr**p back into office is at the very least condoning criminality at the highest level of government. With all of the noise and distractions to come from this Whitehouse, it’s easy to forget that Tr**p was impeached by The House of Representatives for trying to bribe a foreign government. Even Tr**p’s lawyers admitted that this is what he did, but argued to the Senate that this was not an impeachable offence. There is also the matter of Tr**p’s tax records, the cases of fraud against his businesses and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.  A Tr**p win tonight (or tomorrow, depending on your time zone) tells the rest of the world that America wants to be represented by a man clearly unfit for the job, in addition to of course his being a vulgarian, a defender of white supremacists, an habitual liar… I’ll stop myself there – you’ve heard it all before.

I’ve realised that I’ve only made reference to non-fiction books and a film based on true events. Let’s not forget the importance of fiction and poetry at times like this. I’ll close with a quote within a quote from Emily Nemens, the editor of the Paris Review, commenting yesterday on election eve: ‘As Manuel Puig put it, “I like to re-create reality in order to understand it better.” May we all understand the world a bit better once this week is through.’

A dose of climate reality

The day I concluded reading The Uninhabitable Earth coincided with the news that Verkhoyansk, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, had recorded its highest temperature ever – 38C (100.4F).  Another stark sign that climate change warnings have been surpassed by climate reality.

Not only is Wallace-Wells’s book timely, it’s replete with climate science written in a friendly journalistic style, expanding upon and updating what we have all been hearing about for years now. What will make this book stand out from the rest in the popular science subgenre of environmental disaster tomes is its self-awareness. A key moment follows some 100-plus pages, describing where the earth is now and the likely catastrophes ahead, with these brilliant lines:

‘IF YOU HAVE MADE IT THIS FAR, YOU ARE A BRAVE READER. Any one of these [past] twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it.’

From there on out, the book addresses why humans have done so little. Wallace-Wells is good at summing up the political explanations with the added narrative here and there, charting corporate and government collusion and how the economic arguments against green technologies are no longer debateable as the economic cost of climate change is being realised.

Another reason why we humans have done so little given the size and gravity of the climate crisis can be found in those hidden areas of infrastructure projects being untaken across the world. Wallace-Wells gives the example of the production of concrete. At first appearance it’s benign, part of the building of much needed homes or part of the urbanising and creating in areas where farming is no longer feasible. Concrete manufacturing is ‘the second most carbon-intensive industry in the world.’ This point is followed by the mind-numbing statistic that China has poured more concrete in the past year than the US used in the entire twentieth century.

The flipside of this – knowledge of the damage being done and how much worse life on earth is going to get – also freezes us into inaction. Bleak scenarios are hard to process. I have written in this blog before about solution aversion and how it has contributed to climate change denial, but Wallace-Wells goes beyond this by stepping into the psyche of the average person. Put simply, most of us don’t want to appear pessimistic. I know – I have been offended in the past by being called a pessimist, when I felt I was firmly in the realist camp. And then there are those who acknowledge climate change and relish the idea of the end of the earth is approaching fast. Luckily for us realists, Wallace-Wells battles with these ‘doomsters’, pointing to their inaccurate predictions and use of folk science. With that, Wallace-Wells does give the reader some hope for the future, but clearly if and only if we do something about it.

The psychological turn and look at human nature reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem, which speculated on how the earth would end – by fire or by ice. While it is easy to see the literal parallels with the climate crisis, the emotional interpretation of Frost’s poem – destruction by hate or obsession – holds here as well, and The Uninhabitable Earth is a worthy reminder.

Wallace Wells 2
Verkhoyansk, Russian, the coldest inhabited place on the planet, earlier this week.

Talking Climate Change

I’ve been wanting to write about the environment and climate change in particular for a while now but have hesitated at the mere thought of the complexity of the issues. I try to keep these blogs brief and digestible at one sitting.  I also hesitated because my background is in linguistics and literature and my -isms are feminism and political activism. What can I possibly say with any authority?

That all changed when I was watching a YouTube clip of Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and celebrity polemicist, answer a question put to him on climate change and the general state of our environment.

Gratefully, Peterson is not a climate change denier. His attitude was nevertheless flippant and defeatist, saying it was too complicated and politicised to solve. Enjoying the sound of his own voice, he couldn’t let it go at that. He went on, giving examples of the problems with solar and wind energy supplies and mentioning how Germany ended up using more fossil fuels as a backup to renewable energies. I don’t think these are reasons to give up. Naturally, there are setbacks. Think of how many failures NASA encountered before they could land on the moon. And of course, there are success stories, showing the efficacy of renewable energy sources.

Listening to Peterson, I couldn’t help but to think that he was putting up barriers because he might be suffering from a case of solution aversion. He certainly wouldn’t be alone. It’s no coincidence that among climate-change deniers are those who have the most to lose from the proposed solutions.

Another non-scientist, non-climatologist, to pipe into the debate has been David Wallace-Wells. He has often been quoted for the opening sentence of an article he authored in 2017: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.” According to Wallace-Wells, as a result of climate change, the coming decades will bring floods, followed by drought and then disease and famine. As bleak as that sounds, Wallace-Wells is not the defeatist that Peterson is, finding hope in new technologies, such as carbon-capturing, alongside the many green energies being tested.

It appears I’m just another non-climatologist, non-oceanologist, non-biologist etc, to throw her hat into the ring. Perhaps my only right to be in this conversation comes from political activism. On this I’ll agree with Jordan Peterson and David Wallace-Wells, among others, who concede that the environment has become terribly politicised. It’s important to recognise this. While not eating meat and using public transport are steps in the right direct, real change is going to have to come from policy, getting governments to regulate emissions and invest in clean energies. This is not an original thought, I know. But so little is being done and some countries are going backwards and burning more fossil fuels, I feel it’s time to talk climate change and to turn words into actions.