The Power Of Panic

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Ms. Cohen favors vendors who don’t use plastic. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

When I started my Saturday morning reading it was just prior to our weekly visit to the farmer’s market and there was visual resonance with our own experience eliminating, or trying to eliminate plastic:

You’re Addicted to Plastic. Can You Go Cold Turkey?

Going plastic free starts with cloth bags and straws. Suddenly, you’re … making your own toothpaste?

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Reusable cloth bags are a must. Credit Adam Amengual for The New York Times

Like most people, resonance is always welcome in my reading. But like a second cup of coffee to really get the day going, there is nothing like cognitive dissonance. I can think eliminating plastic from our lives is a big deal one moment, and then the next it is clear that it is not enough, that it is like tinkering. Or as the punchy cliche puts it, like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. David Wallace-Wells is a skilled dissonance artist in this vein. He can make your best efforts suddenly seem pathetic; not in a snarky way and if you listen to him explain his work you will realize resistance is futile; you cannot look away from what he is saying, even if you want to.

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‘A profound book, which simultaneously makes me terrified and hopeful about the future’ Jonathan Safran Foer
A Times and FT Most Anticipated Book 2019

His book will not likely be damned by faint praise; its look at our future prospects will more likely draw extreme responses in favor of the intensity of his alarm, and claims of alarmism from the usual suspects. He is catching up to Elizabeth Kolbert in balancing our preference for optimism with extreme realism. His op-ed on Saturday tipped the balance for me quite like a second, maybe third cup of coffee:

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change.

This is a bit strange. You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. The climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has called the phenomenon “scientific reticence” and chastised his colleagues for it — for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was.

That tendency metastasized even as the news from the research grew bleaker. So for years the publication of every major paper, essay or book would be attended by a cloud of commentary debating its precise calibration of perspective and tone, with many of those articles seen by scientists as lacking an appropriate balance between bad news and optimism, and labeled “fatalistic” as a result.

In 2018, their circumspection began to change, perhaps because all that extreme weather wouldn’t permit it not to. Some scientists even began embracing alarmism — particularly with that United Nations report. The research it summarized was not new, and temperatures beyond two degrees Celsius were not even discussed, though warming on that scale is where we are headed. Though the report — the product of nearly 100 scientists from around the world — did not address any of the scarier possibilities for warming, it did offer a new form of permission to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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