By Jim Miller
One of the more thought-provoking books I read this summer was Love in the Anthropocene, a collection of stories by Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam. As the title suggests, the tales in this volume are about what the world is becoming and will be as a result of climate change.
Interestingly the world Jamieson and Nadzam depicts is not a Hollywood-style apocalyptic landscape, but an earth largely bereft of natural environments, where zoos house the last animals, natural food is rare, cities have adjusted to catastrophic weather, and those fortunate enough to live inside the bubble of “civilization” are surrounded by vast discarded populations who are left to tough it out on the outskirts of “normal life.”
What is striking about this scenario is that it is not necessarily dystopian for the characters who inhabit it because they have simply come to accept a world we might be horrified by as “the way it is.” Put another way, for these future humans the demise of nature has been naturalized as a simple fact of life, just like the brutal inequality and the blithe replacement of the real with the simulation that defines their social landscape.
The end of the earth as previous generations knew it is nothing to mourn if the impoverished world of the present is all you know.
The setting of Love in the Anthropocene is a dystopian future but one that is, in many ways, right on our doorstep as we aimlessly make our way through yet another endless summer of massive fires, floods, and record heat waves around the globe. It might disturb us a little but we can just change the channel or check our text messages.
Here in California we are used to the ritual of summer fires and our technology has actually allowed us to reduce their number. But, as The Daily Beast notes, “Despite advances in large-scale fire-fighting technology and a better understanding of the underlying causes of wildfires, there is not much that can stand in the way of mass destruction caused by climate change.”
So we watch the landscape burn on TV and shrug away the news that July was the hottest month since records began.
It is what it is.
They tell us that the Artic could be ice-free during the summers in only a few years, and, somehow, it’s merely another news story.
Whatever. It’s just one prediction.
Here in San Diego, the local paper tells us that we may be losing many of the natural wonders that have defined our state and given joy to generations of people while we gain new threats like the Zika virus:
California’s iconic natural features, from salmon runs to Joshua trees, could dwindle or disappear, as climate change rearranges the state’s weather patterns and landscape, leaving much of the state hotter and drier, scientists warn.
“The current four-year drought that we’re in might be a dress rehearsal for what climate change might be like for California’s terrestrial systems,” said Jim Thorne, a research scientists at UC Davis, who surveyed California’s ecosystems to determine how they are likely to change.
A series of reports have outlined those hazards, analyzing how California’s shifting landscape is likely to affect animals, plants and insects, including those bearing diseases such as West Nile and Zika.
“When we look through those assessments, generally, the species that tend to be most at risk are those that occupy very specific habitat niches, those who can’t easily change habitat, and ones where climate changes expected to occur in their area are very different from what they historically experienced,” said Whitney Albright an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s climate science program
California has about 87 million acres of natural land, Thorne said. Between 15 and 50 percent — from alpine forests to freshwater marshes — could be seriously stressed by climate change, his report found.
“One of our most broadly distributed types is our mixed oak and conifer forest,” he said. “Those appear to be highly at risk. Particularly among some of the conifers right now, there is a tremendous amount of mortality in the state.”
As temperatures rise, species are likely to migrate northward and upward toward cooler climes. This could force plants and animals into less hospitable habitat, shrink their range or force them into competition with other species.
Some might not adapt. For instance, hotter weather in the Southwest is likely to eliminate Joshua trees from 90 percent of their range in 60 to 90 years, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.
For species living on mountain tops or at the Northern end of their range, there may be nowhere to go. That could be the end of the line for animals like the pika, a small, round mammal that lives in mountain rock piles, Thorne said. The rabbit-like creature uses very specific areas, and is fatally sensitive to temperature. So as its habitat gets warmer, it can’t adapt.
“Some of the populations have winked out,” Thorne said. “We expect to see local extirpation of that species.”
California’s storied salmon runs also face uncertain futures under this new order.
What a bummer–on to the debate about the Chargers stadium! That’s what really matters to us in our day to day bubble lives as we drive back and forth to work and plan for our weekend fun.
Down in Louisiana, where the climate-denying Donald Trump should easily take the state in November, communities are literally drowning:
Climate change is never going to announce itself by name. But this is what we should expect it to look like.
That’s what many scientists, analysts and activists are saying after heavy rains in southern Louisiana have killed at least 11 people and forced tens of thousands of residents from their homes, in the latest in a series of extreme floods that have occurred in the United States over the last two years.
That increase in heavy rainfall and the resultant flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models,” said David Easterling, a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Not just in the U.S. but in many other parts of the world as well.”
In other news, Trump is still offensive and his supporters don’t like you!
But it’s not just the backward Republicans and Trump supporters who are in denial. As Bill McKibben reports, even our saviors in the Democratic Party aren’t really ready to take the decisive action needed to prevent the kind of future that is the stuff of current science fiction. As he wrote recently in the New Republic, the Clinton team on the Democratic Party Platform Committee hardly offered a profile in courage :
In fact, one of the lowest points in my years of fighting climate change came in late June, when I sat on the commission appointed to draft the Democratic Party platform. (I was a Sanders appointee, alongside Cornel West and other luminaries.) At 11 p.m. on a Friday night, in a mostly deserted hotel ballroom in St. Louis, I was given an hour to offer nine amendments to the platform to address climate change. More bike paths passed by unanimous consent, but all the semi-hard things that might begin to make a real difference—a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants—were defeated by 7–6 tallies, with the Clinton appointees voting as a bloc. They were quite concerned about climate change, they insisted, but a “phased-down” approach would be best. There was the faintest whiff of Munich about it. Like Chamberlain, these were all good and concerned people, just the sort of steady, evenhanded folks you’d like to have leading your nation in normal times. But they misunderstood the nature of the enemy. Like fascism, climate change is one of those rare crises that gets stronger if you don’t attack. In every war, there are very real tipping points, past which victory, or even a draw, will become impossible. And when the enemy manages to decimate some of the planet’s oldest and most essential physical features—a polar ice cap, say, or the Pacific’s coral reefs—that’s a pretty good sign that a tipping point is near. In this war that we’re in—the war that physics is fighting hard, and that we aren’t—winning slowly is exactly the same as losing.
To my surprise, things changed a couple weeks later, when the final deliberations over the Democratic platform were held in Orlando. While Clinton’s negotiators still wouldn’t support a ban on fracking or a carbon tax, they did agree we needed to “price” carbon, that wind and sun should be given priority over natural gas, and that any federal policy that worsened global warming should be rejected.
Maybe it was polls showing that Bernie voters—especially young ones—have been slow to sign on to the Clinton campaign. Maybe the hottest June in American history had opened some minds. But you could, if you squinted, create a hopeful scenario. Clinton, for instance, promised that America will install half a billion solar panels in the next four years. That’s not so far off the curve that Tom Solomon calculates we need to hit. And if we do it by building solar factories of our own, rather than importing cheap foreign-made panels, we’ll be positioning America as the world’s dominant power in clean energy, just as our mobilization in World War II ensured our economic might for two generations. If we don’t get there first, others will: Driven by anger over smog-choked cities, the Chinese have already begun installing renewable energy at a world-beating rate.
We can hope that more of such changes in perspective are in the cards but Clinton’s appointment of Ken Salazar, aptly described in Common Dreams as an “Anti-Climate Powerbroker” who champions fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and a host of other suspect environmental positions, is not encouraging.
And the same short-sighted economic forces that have shaped our politics and given us a choice between a know-nothing Neanderthal and a corporate liberal who acknowledges climate change while denying the reality of what it will take to address it, is shaping our science. As noted in a great recent piece in Counterpunch on ice scientist Peter Wadhams, even many climate scientists are afraid to sound the alarm too boldly for fear of losing grants or being ostracized:
Professor Peter Wadhams (University of Cambridge) has a new book due for release September 1st, 2016, A Farewell to Ice, A Report from the Artic. According to Vidal’s Guardian article, Wadhams’ book offers a new slant on the climate change controversy: “Because Peter Wadhams says what other scientists will not, he has been slandered, attacked and vilified by denialists and politicians who have advised caution or no-action.”
“He and other polar experts have moved from being field researchers to being climate change pioneers in the vanguard of the most rapid and drastic change that has taken place on the planet in many thousands of years. This is not just an interesting change happening in a remote part of the world, he says, but a catastrophe for mankind.”
All of which begs the question: Is runaway global warming a possibility within current lifetimes?
Yes, it is certainly possible if, as Dr. Wadhams suggests, an ice-free Arctic triggers rapid acceleration of climate change. Accordingly, Wadhams beckons people who study climate change to speak up, tell the truth, don’t hold back.
After all, it is already public knowledge that scientists have been tweaking their own work by downplaying the severity of climate change in order to preserve grants and avoid ridicule, and dodge rabble-rousing, extremist name labeling, which can freeze research funds and ruin careers.
Leading climate scientists are not willing to honestly expose their greatest fears, as discovered by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! whilst at COP21 in Paris this past December, interviewing one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson (University of Manchester) of Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research/UK who said: “So far we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.”
Forthwith, we know from one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change that climate scientists are censoring (downplaying) their own research, but why?
“What we are afraid of doing is putting forward analysis that questions the paradigm, the economic way that we run society today… We fine-tune our analysis so that it fits into the economic reality of our society, the current economic framing. Actually our science now asks fundamental questions about this idea of economic growth in the short term, but we’re very reluctant to say that. In fact, the funding bodies are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions.” . . . Dr. Anderson’s last sentence is worth repeating because it goes to the heart of the debate about climate research bias: “In fact, the funding bodies are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions.” To that end, money dictates science.
But there are still enough stark reports out there to make it clear that the only real debate on climate change is about how fast it is happening, how swiftly we are moving towards the catastrophe. As the Counterpunch story notes, “The only question going forward is whether climate change rapidly accelerates as an out of control defiant monster or evolves little by little, in which case the gradualists will be correct, meaning future generations can fight the demons of ecosystem collapse.”
As we face (or don’t face) these realities, the crises will be many and the uncertainty about the future will be great. We might just find out, for better or worse, what we are made of, what the strengths and weaknesses are of our collective character.
The authors of Love in the Anthropocene make a compelling observation in the coda to their sharp book of speculative fiction, “The Anthropocene will challenge not just our science and technology, but also the human heart in ways that are difficult to predict but which we’re already beginning to experience. The question we ask may seem simple but is fundamental: how will love arise in a world without nature as we have known it?”
In the story of our lives, it is our love or lack thereof that matters. We are the characters that get to write the ending and determine the kind of world in which our children will live.