What can possibly bring adequate action against the causes of dangerous climate disruption? A s we know, a scientific consensus says that the disruption is caused by global warming, which is caused, in part, by the burning of fossil fuels. But it's now three decades since a leading climatologist gave public testimony on this issue (and even longer since Exxon was told about the danger by its own scientists). Thousands of peer-reviewed papers have been published, and hundreds of books.
First the history, then the question.
To cite only a few highlights, in 1988James Hansen, then of NASA, testified about global warming before a Congressional committee. In the same year, the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which has subsequently held conferences and issued increasingly disturbing reports. In 2006, Al Gore appeared in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth." In 2008, Bill McKibben and friends founded 350.org which has sponsored world-wide demonstrations, protested a pipeline from the Canadian tar-sands, and run a divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel purveyors. In 2014,Naomi Klein wrote This Changes Everything; in 1916, Richard Heinberg and David Fridley gave us Our Renewable Future; and in 2017, Paul Hawken edited Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.
In the same year, focusing on a worst-case scenario, David Wallace-Wells wrote a widely-read cover story for New York magazine called "The Uninhabitable Earth." Now the same author has given us a book under the same title.
After the magazine piece, some scientists criticized Wallace-Wells not only for making some factual errors in a complex story but also, and mainly, for scaring readers by drawing attention to what they regarded as a worst-case analysis. According to Michael Mann, a leading climatologist, there was no need to exaggerate by focusing on the worst-case. However, he added that the danger that he saw as a scientist was "overwhelming": "climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now."
In reply, Wallace-Wells argued that "complacency is a much bigger problem than fatalism. And as someone who was awakened from complacency to environmental advocacy through alarm, I see real value in fear." He also noted that predictions by climate scientists were sometimes surpassed.
To repeat: What can possibly bring action on the causes of climate disruption? While Mann is worried about "feed[ing] a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness," others hope that "hyperbole" will frighten us into action, perhaps by appealing to what Richard J. Hofstadter long ago called "the paranoid style in American politics."
It is ironic that the political party most given to the paranoid style, as exemplified by McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 43, and the current leadership, should also be dominated now by climate change denial. Rather than responding to a clear and present danger, these politicians have become what Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway call "merchants of doubt." Why? The most parsimonious explanation would be that if your ideology offers little to the solution of a problem, that problem must not exist.
Considering the provocative title of TheUninhabitable Earth, it is no surprise that Wallace-Wells has been criticized for focusing on the worst-case predictions of climate disruption, but in fact the book (2019) escapes the trap of assuming that our choice is between the extremes of somehow stopping climate change and lapsing into the extinction of the human race. In fact, like Mark Lynas in Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, the Wallace-Wells book makes clear that our choice consists of a continuum along which we can distinguish degrees of disruption. While the Lynas book is arranged by degrees of warming, Wallace-Wells gives us sections on types of effect, such as sea-level rise, crop failure, floods, spread of tropical disease, mass migration, and so forth.
People concerned with climate disruption are distressed that the public fails to understand the built-in and appropriate caution of normal science. In graduate school, a future scientist is taught never to go beyond what the data unarguably prove. Further, getting that data takes time. One must gather a team, apply for grants, do the experiment, analyze data, write a paper, get it peer-reviewed and published, and then, in the case of climate science, have the paper reviewed and integrated by the IPCC. Sometimes a prediction ends up being cautious
And there are further difficulties. As Mann said, if you predict doom, supporters of the current fossil fuel regime ask, "why should we bother to make huge changes if science says it's hopeless anyway?" This puts scientist in the awkward position of needing to warn but not too much.
At least one more difficulty must be mentioned here. It is hard enough to get good data in any single field of a multi-faceted situation. For example, people charged with supplying water have long been aware of the effect of droughts on the flow of rivers. But they are now realizing they must also be concerned with the radical dehydration of far-away upstream forests, which thus become vulnerable to wildfire. Such fires create voluminous ash that pollutes the rivers. In the far-reaching science of climate disruption there are many interactions, some poorly studied, some surely not yet recognized.
Wallace-Wells draws attention to "cascades," which is his word for what scientists call "feedbacks." (He may have avoided the latter term because, as scientists understand, a "positive" feedback refers not necessarily to a favorable effect, but rather to an amplification of what, in some cases, we are trying to avoid.) These cascades are even more speculative than what sets them off. But any account that omits cascades is overly optimistic
Here is where the Wallace-Wells book makes a major contribution. We have a choice not between extremes, but among intermediate states at which to stabilize. All the degrees are at least inconvenient, but as the temperature rises, each is increasingly terrifying. We should become aware of the possibilities and the costs of each.
Let's be realistic: It is one thing to argue that most fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground, and another to write off a large part of the present worth of profit-making entities that own these reserves. Under our system, no "invisible hand" protects the public interest in avoiding the various degrees of climate disruption. Pity the poor deniers: you cannot expect someone to admit the existence of what his core profit-driven ideology is powerless to prevent or cure.
The scandal described by Wallace-Wells is that our economic system, whatever its merits, has so far, over more than three decades, been incapable of dealing with greenhouse gases released by the burning of the fuel that has created our civilization. This system encompasses not only investors in (and executives of) fossil fuel firms and elected officials who quietly support them, but also all of us accustomed to using these fuels, whether in powering machines in the garage, in providing the electricity we take for granted, or in heating and cooling our homes, offices, shops, schools and factories, etc.