On Friday, a new category debuted: the despairer. In a piece in Vox headlined 7 reasons America will fail on climate change, a very smart guy, Ezra Klein, explained in detail why he is a self-described climate pessimist. I urge everyone to read it. The essay is filled with truths about what climate change might mean as well what it almost certainly will mean given the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
Klein laments our failure to act long ago and, in essence, says it's too late now, we're screwed, headed for a temperature rise of far more than the 2°C that scientists say we could adjust to. He points out that the U.S. is not politically designed to act fast, that we are plagued by obstructionists hostile toward acting at all, that we aren't willing to make the sacrifices needed to energize the world cleanly, that international cooperation on an unprecedented (and scarcely imaginable) scale is required to overcome the crisis and that entrenched right-wingers are intractably obstructionist on climate change policies.
Grim and hopeless.
Klein concedes that it's worth working for a future where the average temperature doesn't rise more than 3°C. And in his concluding paragraphs, there's even a hint that his is a guilty pessimism.
Any climate activist or climate scientist or avid reader on the subject or just someone who occasionally catches news about megadrought and melting Antarctic ice shelves will recognize that sense of despair Klein exudes. And no wonder. Big changes are clearly on the way, the first wave already striking us, and even if we figured out this afternoon how to keep from adding one more carbon dioxide molecule to the atmosphere, we would have to make massive adaptations because of changes already set into motion.
Realizing how much power is arrayed against us by the economic behemoths who want to dump even more CO2 into the atmosphere, and having seen the decades of damage done by their fossil fool-fueled propaganda against alternative energy sources, despair is not a surprising destination for anyone whose eyes are open.
But despair creates apathy, which generates inaction. It's a black hole. And like all black holes, it sucks in everything within its reach. Spreading defeatism in time of crisis sucks people into inaction and only serves to justify the do-nothing approach of the deniers and the do-little-and-don't-do-it-today approach of the delayers. Despair is a detour. We don't have time for that.
Look below the fold for more.
On episode nine of the fabulous "Cosmos", Neil deGrasse Tyson said:
We just can’t seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can’t we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What’s our excuse?Suppose for a moment that the scenario so many bad movies have been made about came true. That tomorrow, a searcher for such things discovers an asteroid twice the size of Manhattan Island with an orbit that will mean a collision with planet earth exactly 20 years from now. Suppose subsequent investigation verifies the searcher's conclusions. Yikes and a half, right?
Would we sit on our hands? Would we listen to the people who suggest that we wait 10 years to make sure the asteroid is really and truly going to clobber us? Would we allow the people who say avoiding obliteration is too expensive to be the ones dictating public policy? Would we let ourselves be led by those who claim other things are more important to take care of than shifting that asteroid off course in the speediest possible timeframe even if it reduces gross world product by a few points for a few years?
I don't think we would.
I think any politician or pundit or plutocrat who denied or delayed or despaired in the face of such a crisis would quickly find themselves to be deeply unpopular, ridiculed and toppled from authority. Anyone who counseled inaction by saying the asteroid was a liberal invention, or demanded a tax offset before agreeing to approve an asteroid-shifting budget, or otherwise stood in the path of making sure the space rock missed us would soon be in no position to influence others or make crucial decisions about our direction as a civilization.
I think we—that is, we the human race—would get it together in a way we never have before and do whatever it took to redirect that asteroid. Not because we wanted to. Because we had to. Because we couldn't deny, we couldn't delay and despair would mean extinction. I think we would stand up to meet the challenge and I think we'd succeed in dodging the rock.
Our "asteroid," the climate change we humans have made, is not tumbling toward us through space. But it most certainly will devastate us if we don't deal with it as if it were as lethal to our species and the planet's eco-systems as the rock that finished off the dinosaurs. Klein obviously doesn't think we will get our shit together.
Over at Climate Progress, Joe Romm has written a bullseye point-by-point reply to Klein. I urge you to read it, too.
Romm quotes from an email he received from climatologist Michael Mann:
Defeatist framing is not helpful and threatens serving as self-fulfilling prophecy. We all grew up reading the “The Little Engine that Could,” not “The Little Engine that Couldn’t.” The only real obstacle to averting dangerous climate change is lack of willpower and imagination. We must avoid messaging that seems to condone that, as the title of the Vox piece unfortunately does.Indeed. As Romm says:
The choice is not between inaction now and inaction forever. Aggressive action will always be the best action. If we did it starting now, we could avoid the worst consequences. If we start 10 years from now, we’d be stuck with many serious consequences—but we could prevent even worse ones happening. And so on.Romm points out that, unlike Klein's claims, international cooperation with China on climate change is taking a turn for the better, the cost of avoiding the worst aspects of climate change are phenomenally cheap compared with the economic output of the world and the climate-change obstructionists in Congress won't be there forever.
But asserting “America will fail on climate change,” is to imply climate change is binary— and that we are headed for a single state of failure.
Almost every public mention of what needs to be done about climate change misses the fact that the spending needed to transform our energy system is actually an investment. Outfitting the world in clean, renewable sources of energy while cutting carbon dioxide emissions to zero will generate millions of jobs, sustainable jobs, trillions of dollars worth of jobs.
That's a story that needs to be shouted from the rooftops.
The longer we wait, the closer our imagined asteroid gets and the harder and more expensive deflection becomes, with greater chance of failure. Likewise with climate change. Except it is not imagined. Preventing even worse effects than are already in the climate change pipeline—"unstoppable" effects in the words of the scientists evaluating the melting of the Antarctic ice shelves—demands that we not wait 10 years or 15 to start taking action.
How do we get effective action on climate change from our leaders? The same way we get action on any matter—by engaging in action ourselves. One good aspect of action is that it undermines despair.
If we had an asteroid headed our way, would we be pussyfooting around, hesitating to demand that our leaders—oligarchs and elected representatives alike—do everything in their power to keep that asteroid from striking us? Would we not be in the board-rooms and in the streets demanding changes and ensuring that we had choices on the ballot who would take action? Would we not be trying our dangedest to bring down the fellows and institutions that blocked taking that action?
Journalist Mark Hertsgaard learned in an interview with John Podesta shortly before he became President Obama's senior adviser that the president's aides in his first term didn't spend much time pondering climate change:
The aides’ attitudes about climate change, Podesta recalled, were dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.”Clearly, if we expect to effectively deal with climate change, that attitude, in the White House or wherever it exists, has to be crushed. We can't do that if we're in despair.