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Or Worse? Climate Catastrophe and Dark Hope

We’re on the steep part of the carbon emissions-global heating curve. It gets steeper every minute. And we’re thinking about it all wrong.
[additional-authors]
June 28, 2021
Out of control fire on Narrow Neck Plateau, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia. Climate change is causing extreme weather, prolonged droughts and increasing bushfires. Photo by Andrew Merry/Getty Images

It might be easier to understand and react if this were last year’s carbon footprint. If the giant sucking hole of fire and flood we’re spiraling into were the immediate consequence of more recent choices. That would make the contingency, as psychologists sometimes put it, clearer. Action, consequence; cause, effect. Release more carbon into the atmosphere, create more unbearable climate extremes.

Perhaps that sounds dramatic. The reality is that there aren’t words dramatic enough to get at the scope of our disaster.

As NASA has put it, “Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.”

We’re on the steep part of the carbon emissions-global heating curve. It gets steeper every minute. And we’re thinking about it all wrong.

This year’s fires, the current superheating and megadrought and hypertornadoes and all the rest: they’re the consequences of our lousy choices five, fifteen, even twenty, thirty, and forty years ago. We’re living with the carbon consequences of old decisions. For younger people, those are decisions they had no part in. Our decisions now, for people of all ages, will have far worse outcomes than what we’re beginning to deal with today. Probably much sooner than expected.

(Small wonder so many young people are opting out of an American “normal” entirely, concluding that it’s “bulls–t.”)

If you want to think about the consequences of last year’s actions, take whatever happens this summer—and, though barely summer at all, it is filled to overflowing with dread and despair on the climate front, ringed by raging fires—and remember that it’s the outcome of much older actions. Then times it by eleventyhundred. That’s the consequence, a few years from now, of this year’s carbon emissions.

In other words, if you don’t like what you’re getting now, act immediately. Not to get something better, but to avoid something far, far worse.

In other words, if you don’t like what you’re getting now, act immediately. Not to get something better, but to avoid something far, far worse.

For climate catastrophe, “act” means act politically, at scale. Large-scale problems can’t be solved by small-scale individual gestures. As indicated in a draft of an upcoming report from the UN’s climate science advisors, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

In politics, we still talk about “inaction” on the climate catastrophe, but that’s profoundly misguided. We’re acting in concert plenty already. Lots and lots and lots, even during COVID.  Unfortunately, nearly all our action is oriented toward ever more hellish consequences in an ever nearer future.

It’s easy to forget that preventing global warming was once a bipartisan winner in the United States. Republican George H.W. Bush ran for, and won, the presidency in 1988 in part on a climate platform. High on having solved the hole in the ozone layer, a confident nation was ready to establish a global treaty on carbon emissions. Even the oil giants were on board, at least somewhat. John Sununu scuppered the deal. Personally, he just couldn’t see it. How could human carbon emissions possibly change the climate of the whole earth? It didn’t seem right to him.

Sununu’s the scapegoat, but one supposes plenty of other people in the energy industry saw upsides to a warmer world, too. After all, why wasn’t the U.S. climate delegation led by a capable negotiator like Richard Benedick, who had brokered the world-historical Montreal Protocol (to protect the ozone layer) in 1987 and wanted to lead the charge to control carbon emissions under Bush?

Today, immodestly modest climate proposals from the Biden presidency are treated as partisan maneuvers. Major newspapers offer silly headlines like “Democrats spar over advancing Biden’s climate agenda”—as though addressing our catastrophe were a Joe Biden thing and not, say, a universal human responsibility to one another and the world. (Indeed, the “Biden climate agenda” is woefully inadequate in its own right, and the U.S. is only one actor upon a large stage, albeit an outsized one. China’s carbon emissions are a canard waved by those hoping to forestall transformative change at home, but they’re also a real contributor to the general disaster.)

The reality is that it is simply too late to solve the climate crisis. But, it’s probably not too late to avoid the worst. And that’ll take an awful lot more than anything yet coming out of the Biden White House.

It’ll take more than partisanship and bipartisanship alike.

A couple years back, I wrote, from my home in Kachina Village, near Flagstaff, Arizona:

“Our house will probably burn. As heat-driven wildfires sweep America’s vast mountain west, the almost unthinkably devastating Paradise Fire in CA will be a regular occurrence from WA to TX. Situated as Kachina Village is along Pumphouse Wash, the seasonal stream that drops down to Oak Creek and, through that raggedly beautiful red-and-silver-white canyon, 3,000 ft to Sedona and beyond, it is only a matter of time. Kachina will most likely burn, and with it our house: 3,000 books or so, keepsakes and furnishings from around the world, G-d forbid our nonhuman companions and we ourselves, too.”

This year, in Arizona, the Rafael Fire had our house on “set,” the pre-evacuation notice. Sheriffs and volunteers went door to door. Shooting across Sycamore Canyon to the west, driven through drought-ravaged junipers by high winds, fire rushed toward our neighborhood, rained ash and the burned black leaves of live oak across all of Flagstaff. We were away from home, though, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado—where smoke from the Muddy Slide Fire also blanketed the town, obscuring entirely the runs of the ski resort. As I began writing this piece, in California the Willow Fire in Big Sur blossomed into a promise of death.

This is the fire threat, less threat than already partially achieved promise. Elsewhere the promise-threat is inundation, pandemic, dust bowls and globalized crop failures, outright heat-death, water wars (already heating up along antisemitic lines for U.S. extremists), refugee crises of unthinkable proportions.

It is hard to look at all this squarely, to accept the evidence of our senses and our scientists. There are many creative dodges, from the billionaire fantasy of bunkers and mountain-island getaways to the smaller, seemingly reasonable questions. Should we move into the city, then? Is it time to start looking at Maine or Manitoba?

We will not avoid the ravages of the climate change we have wrought. Quite the contrary: We need to confront even the possibility of widespread social breakdowns.

We can—if we become sufficiently pragmatic, honest enough to live with that shimmer of horror at our horizons that Jews have already so long endured—diminish the extent to which coming consequences threaten our very species-survival. We can increase the likelihood of sustaining our most cherished values and ways of being, can make futures together where we are, almost wherever we are.

We can—if we become sufficiently pragmatic, honest enough to live with that shimmer of horror at our horizons that Jews have already so long endured—diminish the extent to which coming consequences threaten our very species-survival.

To do that, we’ll need to change everything.

As the draft IPCC Climate Report for 2022 (reported out exclusively by AFP) has it, “We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions, and government. We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

And even if we do will it all still burn, house and yard and neighborhood alike? Probably, and we should not be dispassionate about that probability. As I write, the Rafael Fire is around 65,000 acres and pointed at Camp Navajo, a significant military installation near to home. Ash continues to fall in both Flagstaff and Steamboat.

These are times, then, for dark hope. Start with cold-eyed realism, yes, but then wager on our own possibilities not alone but all together and also with something like the transcendent, something like HaShem. Bet like the Marranos—the medieval Jews of the Iberian peninsula who outwardly converted to Christianity to survive the Inquisition, but held fast to Judaism within—on making a future that, though worse, will not be the worst.

That may be a long shot, but wouldn’t we be fools and scoundrels both, to bet any other way?


Ira Allen is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Northern Arizona University and author of The Ethical Fantasy of Rhetorical Theory. His current work focuses on witnessing and constitution writing in the face of climate change.

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