What I've been reading, featuring climate change only: “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells, the moral imperative of alarmism, and climate intersectionality

“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” by David Wallace-Wells

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  • I’m not sure the title claim is advanced in the book or supported by the climate literature so some people may justifiably feel deceived (and maybe also by the cover; when the mass bee deaths feature, its connection to climate is dismissed). As far as I understand, certain parts of the world—small island nations and some vulnerable coastal cities—are on track to be submerged pending political intervention and others in South Asia and the Middle East will regularly have weather exceeding the limits of human survivability. But that’s just 30% of the world’s population for 20 days a year currently and maybe 48-74% of the population by 2100 depending on what we do. By then, that study estimates, many equatorial locations like Jakarta, Indonesia are expected to experience deadly heat 365 days a year. Luckily, the city will probably be completely below sea level anyway. So literally the entire Earth uninhabitable? Nah. Just conducive to heat death on a daily basis for hundreds of millions of powerless people thousands of miles away and the land inhabited by 5% of the world’s population will experience chronic submergence. And then the next century will start.

    To be less flippant, the title serves mostly to make explicit the book’s origin as the author’s 2017 long-form (here’s a version annotated by scientists), which quickly became New York magazine’s most read article ever (though it’s since been unseated by a “Fire and Fury” excerpt). Many called the original article’s focus on and presentation of worst-case scenarios sensationalist, maybe most prominent among them the climatologist and climate science communicator Prof. Michael Mann. In Mann’s words, his problem with the article was “the fact that there were SCIENTIFIC INACCURACIES that PREFERENTIALLY fed a somewhat doomist narrative.” In contrast, with this book adaptation, “David has done his due diligence, vetted the science, and gotten it right.” Since the publication of the original article, Mann and Wallace-Wells have participated in a public conversation hosted by NYU to discuss the communication of climate science and have jointly promoted the book.

  • To me, the book is overwhelmingly a success and potentially an important leap forward in advancing how the public understands the enormity of the climate change problem. By ‘public’, I also mean to include academics from other disciplines and the op-ed intelligentsia who’ve decided to stake a claim of expertise in the area now that the Green New Deal proposal has made the topic politically relevant.

  • Part of this contribution may be its updating the language of climate change. “97% consensus” and the questions of its happening and of human attribution are old. Here’s some new:

  • The main criticism I’ve seen levied against the book and similar ones has been that they are alarmist. While sometimes an appropriate epithet used to throw cold water on inappropriately extreme messaging (see the cloud study mentioned at the bottom of this post), it’s also had the effect of dismissing necessary attempts to bring the public up to speed with our current understanding of the consequences of climate change, which has advanced significantly in recent years. Wallace-Wells’ work embraces the adjective: his recent NYT opinion piece adapted from the book uses the headline “Time to Panic.” The book’s first sentence, the same as the original article’s, is “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” And on page 138: “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.”

    This gets to the heart of an outstanding issue with public engagement on the impacts of climate change. Any honest reading of the growing interdisciplinary literature on climate impacts should induce panic, a natural expression of empathy for the most vulnerable human beings on our planet. From my perspective, to admonish those who feel fear amounts to promotion of injustice and ignorance. Two climate journalists discuss that here.

    Noah Smith recently had what I think is a lazy take on the dangers of climate panic when comparing being upset by the prospects of climate impacts to the fear to itself be feared during the Great Depression:

 
 

To hone in on the Great Depression analogy, there is no meaningful parallel between the mass panic of bank runs collapsing the international economy to the supposed chaos that would ensue from learning what climate change does. When has high public concern ever led to commensurate or over-compensating policy? As pointed out here, the metaphorical mapping would not have the concerned public playing the FDR role; it would be more like everyone but FDR noticing the stock market crashing and then pressuring the bumbling President to take action at an appropriately revolutionary scale. If made in good faith, it’s a silly if not harmful argument for Noah to half-ass for an important topic.

It also seems to be the opposite criticism to the typical one made about alarmism, which is that it induces political defeatism and paralysis. I realize I’m focusing on a single tweet, but Smith has over 135,000 Twitter followers and a Bloomberg column so his thinking out loud in 280 characters at a time to try to reconcile his staunch neoliberalism with the catastrophic embodiment of its shortcomings is unfortunately influential. A bit more on this later below.

We’ve lived with climate indifference for the past few decades and it hasn’t produced any meaningful policy. In contrast, the urgency of the young Democratic progressives made climate change maybe the defining issue of the 2020 Democratic primary before they were even sworn into Congress, this after none of the US presidential or vice-presidential debates from the last two races included a single question about climate change. To drive home the opportunities climate indifference has squandered, consider this hypothetical that Wallace-Wells presents:

“If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year.”

The idea of fear inhibiting meaningful action is disputed in social movement theory (h/t @cityatlas) and I hope I am not out of line in invoking the spirit of civil rights movements:

“I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt [in the Jim Crow South]. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. It felt futile for them too. Then, as now, there were calls to slow down. To settle for incremental remedies for an untenable situation. They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world.

“You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called ‘the sickness unto death.’

“…What, now, do you have to lose? What else can you be but brave?”

In 2017, 150 Indians carried the skulls of their fellow farmers—some small subset of the 320,000 driven to suicide due to uncharacteristic climate-driven crop damage between 1995 and 2016—and trekked to the capital Delhi to protest naked and sitting down for almost a month to demand a policy response: “We wanted to symbolically shame our leaders into action.” So the notion that the relatively wealthy and climate-insulated can’t be trusted to inform themselves about climate change because they might accidentally do too much out of fear is offensive, in my opinion. Maybe anti-alarmism is also part of the new climate denialism.

Figure 4:  “Country-level shares of the global social cost of carbon (GSCC) versus shares of the 2013 CO2 emissions. The CSCC is the median estimate with growth adjusted discounting (ρ = 2%, μ = 1.5) for SSP2/RCP6.0 and BHM-SR. Points are shaded by CSCC per capita and sized according to country GDP in 2015. Diagonal lines show the ratio of the GSCC share to the emissions share. Ratios greater than 1:1 indicate that a country’s share of the GSCC exceeds its share of global emission. The box in the left panel indicates the bounds of the detail shown in the right panel.”   From: “ Country-level social cost of carbon ” , Nature Climate Change   8 , 895–900 (2018)

Figure 4: “Country-level shares of the global social cost of carbon (GSCC) versus shares of the 2013 CO2 emissions. The CSCC is the median estimate with growth adjusted discounting (ρ = 2%, μ = 1.5) for SSP2/RCP6.0 and BHM-SR. Points are shaded by CSCC per capita and sized according to country GDP in 2015. Diagonal lines show the ratio of the GSCC share to the emissions share. Ratios greater than 1:1 indicate that a country’s share of the GSCC exceeds its share of global emission. The box in the left panel indicates the bounds of the detail shown in the right panel.”

From: “Country-level social cost of carbon, Nature Climate Change 8, 895–900 (2018)

  • It is this notion of injustice that I think resonated most while reading this book and even while contributing the little I have to climate research. Wallace-Wells make the point that we’ve now expelled more greenhouse gases while aware of its contribution to the global greenhouse effect than we ever did in ignorance going back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. There is an intuitive unfairness now in “trying to bring many hundreds of millions more into the global middle class while knowing that the easy paths taken by the nations that industrialized in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries are now paths to climate chaos.” I highlighted Presidents Barack Obama and Narendra Modi acknowledging that unfairness here in a section about the Paris Agreement from Ben Rhodes’ White House memoir last year.

    The legacy of other oppressive institutions such as colonialism, slavery, and Western exceptionalism permeate the narrative of climate change. The first figure at right shows that Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are expected to bear the largest share of economic growth impacts relative to their contribution of carbon emissions. For India and Brazil, this ratio is estimated to be roughly 4:1 (but maybe President Bolsonaro’s deforestation can swing the ratio towards equity). The two biggest emitters—the United States and China—are net beneficiaries by this definition, China by a less than 1:4 ratio.

    There is a normalized disregard for the well-being of those in vulnerable areas already suffering tremendously from climate change even among those prepared to embrace the science of climate. How else to interpet the Nobel committee approving the Nordhaus recommendation that 3.5 degrees of warming is optimal the same day that the devastating IPCC Report on 1.5 warming came out? How else to read these suggestions (tweets embedded to the right) that the brutal reality of climate change has finally arrived only now that it’s violently affected the United States in the last two years?

    The only dimension along which climate change has been "far off" was in geography and political power. In 2013, even before Haiyan, 85% of Filipinos reported personal experience with climate change impacts, 54% of them describing them as “severe”. In 2015, 54% of Hispanic Americans rated global warming as “extremely or very important to them personally”. In 2017, monsoon-exacerbated floods affected 45 million in South Asia and submerged two thirds of Bangladesh, including parts of the makeshift hillside camps where nearly a million Rohingya refugees have been forced to settle at risk of death by disease or mudslides. When will developing countries or the vulnerable within developed countries get their say as frequently as do white op-ed writers or public intellectuals who command enormous platforms on seemingly any issue of their choosing regardless of experience or expertise? They haven’t yet. Anti-alarmism and Western exceptionalism would have you discount the value of those lives.

  • Other than harrowing research findings, I think a problem in climate communications is its failure to capture the imagination. A small chapter in the book poses a question I’ve wondered myself: Where is the great climate-change novel? Land war, nuclear winter, artificial intelligence, and other generation-defining threats have inspired influential works of art, but none springs immediately to mind about climate change.

    “Mad Max: Fury Road”, while an action masterpiece, is only tenuously climate-related considering its desert dystopia was conceived before 1979. “Interstellar” was all right. I had been hoping from the trailer and its first half that “First Reformed” could be that movie, but I think it’s third act may have veered off message and it didn’t garner the Academy’s attention (not even an acting nomination for an outstanding entry by Ethan Hawke). Maybe “Woman At War” can be one.

    Music-wise, I can only think of ANOHNI’s “4 Degrees” which was released in the context of the Paris Agreement. Thom Yorke, the vegetarian frontman of carbon-neutral Radiohead has said, “If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit.”

    Wallace-Wells offers some plausible explanations for its unique storytelling challenges, but I worry the answer may also be related to the aforementioned inequality.

  • Next on the climate reading list: “Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security” by Todd Miller

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Climate stuff elsewhere

  • Young people for climate justice

  • Linked to above, but reposting here for emphasis: federal disaster money favors the rich

An NPR investigation has found that across the country, white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than do minorities and those with less wealth. Federal aid isn't necessarily allocated to those who need it most; it's allocated according to cost-benefit calculations meant to minimize taxpayer risk.

Put another way, after a disaster, rich people get richer and poor people get poorer. And federal disaster spending appears to exacerbate that wealth inequality.

"The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews."

What I've been reading, featuring problematic art and Jonathan Franzen's "Purity"

  • Writers Nikil Saval and Pankaj Mishra correspond on how they reckon with the legacy of VS Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Man Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author whose influential writing conjured neocolonial, fascist, racist, and misogynistic sentiment. I’m not familiar with Naipaul, but the subject of reconciling influential work with its problematic creator is doubtlessly relevant. They artfully call this exercise “the painful sum of things”.

    Choice excerpts with some editing:

NS: Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful—in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it—as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.)

PM: For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world... In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example—that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort—was a great boost.

NS: The question is whether this recognition, this fundamental dissonance in his existence, had to find the sorts of toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of anti-blackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors... it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.

PM: There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin—why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing… Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew—or the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and indeed professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country.

NS: When Naipaul received the knighthood, the cycle of humiliation had made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that had granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens—Dickens who had proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”—receiving the sign of grace from the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any success as a sign of its ultimate justice; to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the sense of personal injury, of grievance, that I feel in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling—feelings that one day might be transmuted into something different; a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41… It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair witht he milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.”

  • I’ve just finished “Purity” by Jonathan Frenzen (h/t Eszter), the inaugural selection for our unofficial grad-student book club here at Nuffield College. I didn’t like it and not knowing Franzen outside of this work, I found myself distrusting him with the subject matter. I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet from the @GuyInYourMFA novelty account run by @danaschwartzzz:

 

I’m not prudish about what I read, but I didn’t feel nearly enough reward for indulging 560+ pages of exhausting characters. I can appreciate the choice to use a cast of unlikeable in a novel called Purity, but the unlikeability of the author seeps through too much to justify the length.

Spoiler alert, I also made this chart trying to chronologize the sequence of events in this novel, which jumps abruptly between chapters across space, time, and character perspective:

 
Purity Timeline.jpg
 

EK: …99.99 percent of all the humans who’ll ever live have yet to be born. If that’s true, then even very small reductions in the danger of those future lives not happening begins to outweigh large improvements in the value of life now.

BG: Well, the people in the future will have more knowledge and more resources than we have today. They’ll understand what those emerging problems look like.

If you said there was a philanthropist 500 years ago that said, “I’m not gonna feed the poor, I’m gonna worry about existential risk,” I doubt their prediction would have made any difference in terms of what came later. You got to have a certain modesty…

If somebody thinks there’s a magic thing they can do today that helps all those future lives, in a free economy, they have a chance to build whatever it is they think does that. We do have a few things like climate change where you want to invest today to involve problems tomorrow. I’m always a little surprised there’s not more engagement on that issue. Pandemic risk, weapons of mass destruction.

But… there’s not many that we really understand with clarity, and so somebody who says, “Okay, let’s just let a million people die of malaria because I’m building this temple that will help people a million years from now,” I wonder what the heck they’re building that temple out of.

EK: A lot of people have become very focused on the question of AI risk. I’m curious how you weight that as a risk to future human life?

BG: And so they think that’s more important than kids dying of malaria?

EK: …I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but as I understand it, the idea is there are a lot of good people working on malaria, and AI is so dangerous that it’s better for people on the margin to be working on AI risk now than to be—

BG: But most of those people aren’t working on AI risk. They’re actually accelerating progress in AI… They like working on AI. Working on AI is fun. If they think what they’re doing is reducing the risk of AI, I haven’t seen that proof of that.