The world just keeps getting hotter, and California burns ever-more-furiously as one epic blaze after another strain not just our resources, but our ability to cognitively adjust to the fact that this is the new normal. As I wrote in response to the huge fires in Los Angeles last December, “Reality is exceeding the capacity of our dystopian imaginations.”
Temperatures broke records worldwide this summer prompting the Washington Post to run a startling headline about our “red-hot planet”, while the New York Times observed how “Scorching Summer in Europe Signals Long-Term Climate Changes.” Here in California, Governor Jerry Brown visited the devastation in the wake of the Redding fire and bluntly commented that the problem behind these horrifying disasters was that, “We’re fighting nature with the amount of material that we’re putting in the environment, and that material traps heat.”
That fire was then followed by the largest blaze in state history in Northern California and another big fire in Orange County, both coinciding with the huge inferno shutting down Yosemite, and others still. Earlier in the summer, San Diego suffered through the Alpine fire and its own series of heat waves and freakishly warm, record-setting ocean temperatures in early August.
The list goes on and on.
In the midst of all this, the New York Times Magazine published an unprecedented novella-length issue on the history of American efforts to address the climate crisis, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” In this substantial piece, Nathaniel Rich begins with a grim prologue that “if by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees,” humans will still have to negotiate a “long-term disaster” that will include mass extinction, sea level rise, and the abandonment of huge areas where millions of people currently live. Three degrees of warming and higher, he observes, will bring “short-term disaster” that will include the loss of most coastal cities with even more apocalyptic outcomes ending with the possible “end of human civilization” if we hit five-degrees of warming.
This stark beginning is followed by an extensive history of how “everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979,” but, despite the heroic efforts of a handful of scientists and lobbyists, “we” failed. While Rich’s huge piece is rigorous and painstaking in its documentation of significant moments where our political leaders could have acted decisively and did not, it fails in one crucial way: it fixes the blame not so much on bad political actors but on human nature, going so far as to claim that the fossil fuel industry has become a “boogeyman.”
The problem with this kind of mythologizing is clear as the Think Progress response to Rich points out:
That fatalistic view conveniently lets key actors off the hook. The fact is that during the times the United States was seriously contemplating action to address climate change, those efforts were thwarted again and again by the fossil fuel industry and its multi-decade disinformation campaign, as well as key Republicans dating back to the Reagan administration.
Naomi Klein followed up the Think Progress analysis with a response of her own in The Intercept where she takes Rich to task for ignoring the fact that early efforts to address climate change happened during the height of the neoliberal era where all of the ideological, political, and economic forces were moving in precisely the wrong direction for those who called for decisive collective action in the public sphere. It was that ideology and the pernicious influence of fossil fuel money rather than human nature, Klein argues, that blocked efforts to address climate change, which means we could do something about it:
If, on the other hand, we humans really were on the brink of saving ourselves in the ’80s, but were swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism — one that was opposed by millions of people around the world — then there is something quite concrete we can do about it. We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.
Klein goes on to stress the urgency of doing just that when she notes that there are indeed young progressives calling for a “green New Deal” who embody the kind of politics that just might help prevent the worst from happening:
We aren’t losing earth — but the earth is getting so hot so fast that it is on a trajectory to lose a great many of us. In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself. This is no moment to bemoan our lost decades. It’s the moment to get the hell on that path.
On the heels of this debate, leading scientists released a study warning that, as the Guardian reported, “Domino-effect of climate events could move Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state.” More specifically, the research argues that “A domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could tilt the Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile.”
One of the scientists involved in this work on “positive feedback loops,” Johan Rockstrom, explained that this kind of investigation is now “one of the most existential questions in science” and that our current historical moment demands that we ask such questions: “Fifty years ago this would be dismissed as alarmist, but now scientists have become very worried.”
On the other hand, the President of the United States expressed neither concern nor wisdom as he incoherently blamed the California fires on “bad environmental regulations” and continued his effort to roll back fuel efficiency standards. Apparently, Trump lives by the words of the late Jim Morrison who famously introduced a live version of “Road House Blues” by proclaiming that even though he didn’t know what was going to happen, “I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.”
Well, Mr. President, it’s already burning.
Note: Jim Miller will be at the San Diego Festival of Books on Saturday, August 25th at 1:15 in meeting room 1 discussing his climate-related novel, Last Days in Ocean Beach. For more information go here: http://sdfestivalofbooks.com
Also, mark your calendars for the Rise for Climate March, San Diego on September 8th at 10:00 AM at Civic Center Plaza. For more information go here: https://rise4climate.org