And what if we have been telling the wrong story about climate change?
Can you still add anything else to all the articles and books that were published about the climate crisis? David Wallace-Wells proves it's possible. Instead of being nuanced and careful, we may just have to tell the bare-knuckle truth.
I realize this is a long post, so only read it if you have the time. If you are free however: take a cup of coffee, sit in a comfortable position, keep an open mind and let it all sink in. Truth reflects the world as it really is, without distortion. This is too important to ignore.
To describe the climate catastrophe that unfolds before our eyes, we will have to invent a new language. That is at least the impression you get when reading titles in the media. After the powerful cyclone destroyed most of the city of Beira, Mozambique, CNN talked about "Biblical scenes". Hundreds of dead, thousands of people missing and millions of others who are left destitute without food or basic services.
When a bomb cyclone ripped through the Midwest of the US in mid-March, various news sites also talked about a "Biblical flood". Because of the warming of the Arctic, so much snow falls in the northeast of the US that they talked about the "snowpocalypse" in 2010, "snowmageddon" in 2014 and "snowzilla" in 2016.
Sometimes the current conceptual framework seriously falls short. When the storm Harvey flooded hundreds of thousands of homes in Texas two years ago, The Washington Post headlined: "Hurricane Harvey is Houston's third 500-year flood in 3 years". Three times in a row an event that normally only occurs twice in a millennium...
Normal here means: as it was before humanity emitted insane amounts of CO2 into the air. Extreme weather conditions are of course something of all times. We probably even got the story of Noah and his ark from one severe flood. A story that is perhaps based on a similar flood myth in the Gilgamesh epic. The only difference is that the floods and endless downpours of the near future will have no place in our collective imagination. They will become a situation of normality. We will just call it "weather".
A lot faster
As a result, global warming already has two forms. On the one hand, it is the subject of future projections, of political bickering and intense discussions between proponents and opponents of resolute action. On the other hand, you have reality. Climate change already sneaks into the news feeds. Record-breaking temperatures, floods, storms, extreme cold spells and huge amounts of snowfall. When it snowed from the East to the West coast in the US a few weeks ago, climate expert Daniel Swain said:
Things are changing faster than I think has been apparent to a lot of people. It seems incremental until it doesn’t.
The reports about the effects of climate change are already there, but we do not seem to realise the magnitude of the problem. How many people would remember that barely two years ago, floods killed 1,200 people in South Asia? Two thirds of Bangladesh were under water. According to the UN, 41 million people were affected.
This week the UN came with the news that sea level is rising faster than ever. Also this week, the International Energy Agency informed that last year energy emissions increased by 1.7 percent. Increased! Despite all international summits, agreements and reports we have to conclude that emissions continue to rise.
These are messages that hardly receive attention. Can we already speak of climate fatigue? Have we seen too many such messages? The American physicist James Hansen, who was the first to testify about climate change in 1988, points the finger at his colleagues. Not because they raise the alarm too often. According to Hansen they do just the opposite. They are too careful. They tinker too much with their reports to drown out the hard facts. Hansen has been fighting for years against what he calls "scientific reticence."
The journalist David Wallace-Wells, a master of storytelling, decided to take up the challenge in 2017. In a long article in The New York magazine, he broke all the rules about reticence. After reviewing the scientific literature of recent years and interviewing dozens of prominent scientists, two things struck him. What the general public knows about climate change are the minimal scenarios. Buried deep in the scientific literature, there are also maximum scenarios. That was the story he wanted to tell. What would this planet look like if all the nightmares of scientists came true?
Second observation: the story we tell about climate is limited to a few spectacular aspects. In short: the suffering polar bear and the rising sea-levels. But climate change affects all facets of life on earth. And as Wallace-Wells says:
If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
The article in The New York magazine clashed with all the laws of climate literature. Alarmist stories would scare people away... But after a few days, it was already the most-read article ever from the leading magazine. Two years later, Wallace-Wells processed the piece into a book. 'The Uninhabitable Earth. Life after warming' is irresistible storytelling.
I have already read many books and articles about the climate. Yet this is the book that shook me up the most. It is hard to explain why that is the case. No, it's not about the facts. You can find these yourself if you read the newspapers and follow the IPCC reports. I think it's the way in which those facts are brought together in a story.
Climate change is not a dark story about the future. We are now already living in the age of a changing climate. Of the 19 hottest years since the start of the measurements, 18 took place after 2001. 2018 was the fourth hottest year ever. 2016 is at the very top. This variation has to do with the El Niño phenomenon, which causes the warming of seawater along the equator in the eastern Pacific. The record of 2016 will certainly be broken again in the coming years. This ensures that the planet now already warmed up by 1.1 degrees compared to the average before the industrial revolution.
We should view those few centuries of capitalist development as a momentary period of madness in human history. The CO2 trapped in coal was massively pumped into the air. It was the motor for very rapid economic developments of a handful of countries and for global imperialism. A country like Great Britain bears a crushing historical debt, but at the same time it is one of the countries that is the least affected now and in the future by the effects of these emissions. India, where British colonialism was at its height, is at the top of the list of most affected countries. The richest 10 percent residents of this planet emit half of all CO2.
Half of the historic emissions after the first IPCC report
A few centuries of madness? No, we should instead talk about a few decades. More than half of the emissions have occurred in the last 30 years. That means that humans have caused as much damage to the climate after Al Gore wrote his first climate book or after the IPCC published its first report, as all millennia before.
We should really talk about pure madness because we now burn 80 percent more coal than in 2000. The prices for renewable energy, however, fell sharply during the same period. But in a capitalist economy, cheap renewable energy simply means more energy.
The consequences of that very conscious procrastination are there. If mankind had taken action after the first IPCC report, we would have done the job by emitting 3 percent less each year. We are now already faced with the challenge of emitting 10 percent less. If we wait another ten years, we talk about 30 percent each year.
Yes, there is a climate agreement now. But even if all countries adhere to the promises they made after Paris, we will end up at a global warming of 3.7 degrees at the end of this century. If… Of the 195 signatories, only Morocco, Gambia, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and the Philippines are more or less on schedule.
Life after global warming means looking at immense suffering
Reading the book of Wallace-Wells means getting mad. It leads to the deep realization that your individual life will be different than you have expected so far. Life after global warming means looking at immense suffering.
- Last year 1,600 direct deaths from heat waves and natural fires and 2 million people displaced by climate-related disasters. By 2050, the International Organization for Migration predicts 200 million climate refugees.
- Within a few decades, the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, will become a life-threatening trip for weaker people. In 2010, a record temperature of 52 degrees was recorded in Saudi Arabia.
- An ice-free north pole is now a matter of years, not decades. The loss of ice in Antarctica and Greenland is 100 years ahead of the forecasts in the first three reports of the IPCC.
- That means that even the story about the rising sea level is not being told correctly. In his book The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell lists some landmarks that will disappear under rising water this century: the Maldives, most of Bangladesh, Miami Beach, Facebook's headquarters and the White House. Wall Street will be spared. After all, the authorities are planning to build a wall of 1 billion dollars around the financial district. A structure that will cause rising water to end up in the poorer neighborhoods of the metropolis, as critics now already predict.
- Or what about Jakarta. That city with 10 million inhabitants is a poignant example of the current madness. Due to the excessive use of groundwater, parts of the city sink deeper each year. At the same time, the surrounding sea is rising. By 2050, large parts of the city would be under water. A new wall of 32 kilometers and artificial islands worth 42 billion dollars should prevent this from happening. But a report from 2017 already said that this monumental challenge only will postpone the execution date for 20 or 30 years.
- In addition to the devastating water, there is also the searing heat. The wildfires in the US are already destroying an area twice as large as in 1970. That would double once again by 2050. For every degree rise in the average temperature, the destructive power of wildfires quadruples.
- Last November, a wildfire in northern California killed at least 85 people. More than 18,000 homes went up in flames. A few months earlier 100 people died in a series of forest fires on the Greek mainland. It was the second deadliest wildfire of the 21st century. In the same summer, forests were also on fire above the Arctic Circle. The latter fires may not have caused so much material damage, but they are no less important. The soot and ash from those charred trees can end up on ice plains. That black color absorbs more heat, making the ice melt faster.
The latter is an example of a positive feedback loop. The warming causes phenomena that reinforce the warming. Other examples are the stored methane bubbles that are released when the ice melts in permafrost regions. That is the terrain that we are now entering. The complexity of it makes predictions very shaky.
We can't predict what humanity will do in the coming decades
So that is life after warming. Life as it is from now on this planet. Recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis has, however, nothing to do with taking away hope.
You can find HOPE everywhere on the street, for example at the many climate marches that are organized all over the world. Or with the many groups of people across the planet who resist polluting factories and power stations.
It is a fact that young people have never known life before global warming. They will see the world of the future described in the book of Wallace-Wells. Whether all those terrible predictions come true is impossible to say. That is because one variable remains uncertain. Scientists can pour all the data into models and even calculate more or less when something will occur. But one thing even they don't know: we can't predict what humanity will do in the coming decades.
You can make predictions based on the trend of the past half century, but history does not work that way. That is why this message is so important. We can still keep this planet livable. But then we must start now!