How Did the End of the World Become Old News?
Editorial Note: Internally, at This Spaceship Earth, we had a discussion regarding whether or not to post this curated article by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine. It describes climate change as the end of the world. We would refine that to mean the end of humanity… the extinction of the human species (along with many other species). It is a fair reflection of the reality we face, so yes, it is time to sound the alarms. This may be our last chance to convert unconscious, passive passengers on Spaceship Earth to conscious, active crew members. We must save ourselves from ourselves.
There has been a lot of burning lately. Last week, wildfires broke out in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached almost 90 degrees; they are still roiling northern Sweden, 21 of them. And this week, wildfires swept through the Greek seaside, outside Athens, killing at least 80 and hospitalizing almost 200. At one resort, dozens of guests tried to escape the flames by descending a narrow stone staircase into the Aegean, only to be engulfed along the way, dying literally in each other’s arms.
Last July, I wrote a much-talked-over magazine cover story considering the worst-case scenarios for climate change — much talked over, in part, because it was so terrifying, which made some of the scenarios a bit hard to believe. Those worst-case scenarios are still quite unlikely, since they require both that we do nothing to alter our emissions path, which is still arcing upward, and that those unabated emissions bring us to climate outcomes on the far end of what’s possible by 2100.
But, this July, we already seem much farther along on those paths than even the most alarmist climate observers — e.g., me — would have predicted a year ago. In a single week earlier this month, dozens of places around the world were hit with record temperatures in what was, effectively, an unprecedented, planet-encompassing heat wave: from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The temperature of one city in Oman, where the daytime highs had reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit, did not drop below 108 all night; in Montreal, Canada, 50 died from the heat. That same week, 30 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one, in California, that grew at the rate of 10,000 football fields each hour, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term — “fire tsunami” — along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. The following week, the heat struck there, killing dozens. The following week.
In other words, it has been a month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors. But you may not have noticed, if you are anything but the most discriminating consumer of news. The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and only one so much as mentioned climate change. The New York Times has done admirable work on global warming over the last year, launching a new climate desk and devoting tremendous resources to high-production-value special climate “features.” But even their original story on the wildfires in Greece made no mention of climate change — after some criticism on Twitter, they added a reference.
Over the last few days, there has been a flurry of chatter among climate writers and climate scientists, and the climate-curious who follow them, about this failure. In perhaps the most widely parsed and debated Twitter exchange, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — whose show, All In, has distinguished itself with the seriousness of its climate coverage — described the dilemma facing every well-intentioned person in his spot: the transformation of the planet and the degradation may be the biggest and most important story of our time, indeed of all time, but on television, at least, it has nevertheless proven, so far, a “palpable ratings killer.” All of which raises a very dispiriting possibility, considering the scale of the climate crisis: Has the end of the world as we know it become, already, old news?
If so, that would be really, really bad. As I’ve written before, and as Wen Stephenson echoed more recently in The Baffler, climate change is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a binary process where we end up either “fucked” or “not fucked.” It is a system that gets worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases. We are just beginning to see the horrors that climate change has in store for us —but that does not mean that the story is settled. Things will get worse, almost certainly much, much worse. Indeed, the news about what more to expect, coming out of new research, only darkens our picture of what to expect: Just over the past few weeks, new studies have suggested heat in many major Indian cities would be literally lethal by century’s end, if current warming trends continue, and that, by that time, global economic output could fall, thanks to climate effects, by 30 percent or more. That is an impact twice as deep as the global Great Depression, and it would not be temporary.
These are not the kinds of findings it is easy to ignore, or dismiss, or compartmentalize, even though we have all become exquisitely skilled lately in compartmentalizing the threat. Neither is it easy to forget the stories of the Greek wildfires, or the Japanese heat wave. Which is why it is perhaps important to remember that the media did not ignore these stories, or the month of global climate horrors that gave rise to them. Television networks covered those heat waves 127 times. That is, actually, a very lot! They just utterly failed to “connect the dots,” as Emily Atkin put it incisively at The New Republic —broadcasters told the story of the historic temperatures, but chose not to touch the question of why we were seeing so many of them, all at once, with the atmosphere more full of carbon, and the planet hotter, than it has ever been at any point in human history.
When you think about it, this would be a very strange choice for a producer or an editor concerned about boring or losing his or her audience — it would mean leaving aside the far more dramatic story of the total transformation of the planet’s climate system, and the immediate and all-encompassing threat posed by climate change to the way we live on Earth, to tell the pretty mundane story of some really hot days in the region.
Which is why this all sounds to me a lot more like self-censorship than ratings-chasing — by which I mean self-censorship of two kinds. The first is the intuitive one — the kind done in anticipation of political blowback, an especially acute problem for would-be neutral, would-be centrist platforms like network news. This self-censorship in fear of right-wing backlash is a familiar story, and most of those concerned about global warming know the villains already: oil companies, climate deniers, indifferent (at best) politicians, and constituents who see science as a culture-war front.
But public apathy, and its cousin climate complacency, is as big a problem — perhaps bigger. And this problem, too, is connected to self-censorship on the part of storytellers who feel intimidated from attributing what we used to know as natural disasters to global warming because scientists are so excruciatingly careful about attributing cause. As NPR’s science editor Geoff Brumfiel told Atkin, “You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’”
Well — why not? The stated reason, when a reason is stated, is that scientists can take years to definitively conclude that a particular disaster was impossible without the effects of warming, and often only speak with certainty about specific events a decade or more in the past— the 2003 European heat wave, for instance, which killed tens of thousands. But wildfires are “not caused by climate change” only in the same way that hurricanes are not caused by climate change — which is to say they are (only) made more likely by it, which is to say the distinction is semantic. The same is true, even more so, for heat waves: We know global warming will cause many more deadly temperatures, and should not be confused, at all, when we suddenly encounter an unprecedented number of them. The fact that most climate scientists would say something like, “These disasters are consistent with what we would expect, given global warming,” rather than “these disasters were caused by global warming” is not a reason to elide discussion of climate change. Doing so is an evasion, even if it is made with a scientific alibi.
It is also a dangerous one. Decades of bad-faith debates about whether climate change is “real” and good-faith questions about whether it is “here” have dramatically foreshortened our collective imagination and provided an unfortunately limited picture of what global warming will yield. Treating every climate disaster as a discrete event only compounds the problem, suggesting that impacts will be discrete. They won’t be, and the longer-view story is much more harrowing: not just more months like July, but an unfolding century when a month like this July has become a happy memory of a placid climate. That it is almost hard to believe only makes it a more important story to tell.