Is Climate Change like Diabetes or an Asteroid?

Is climate change more like an asteroid or diabetes? Last month, one of us argued at Slate that climate advocates should resist calls to declare a national climate emergency because climate change was more like “diabetes for the planet” than an asteroid. The diabetes metaphor was surprisingly controversial. Climate change can’t be managed or lived with, many argued in response; it is an existential threat to human societies that demands an immediate cure.

The objection is telling, both in the ways in which it misunderstands the nature of the problem and in the contradictions it reveals. Diabetes is not benign. It is not a “natural” phenomena and it can’t be cured. It is a condition that, if unmanaged, can kill you. And even for those who manage it well, life is different than before diabetes.

This seems to us to be a reasonably apt description of the climate problem. There is no going back to the world before climate change. Whatever success we have mitigating climate change, we almost certainly won’t return to pre-industrial atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, at least not for many centuries. Even at one or 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the climate and the planet will look very different, and that will bring unavoidable consequences for human societies. We will live on a hotter planet and in a climate that will be more variable and less predictable.

How bad our planetary diabetes gets will depend on how much we continue to emit and how well adapted to a changing climate human societies become. With the present one degree of warming, it appears that human societies have adapted relatively well. Various claims attributing present day natural disasters to climate change are controversial. But the overall statistics suggest that deaths due to climate-related natural disasters globally are falling, not rising, and that economic losses associated with those disasters, adjusting for growing population and affluence, have been flat for many decades.

But at three or four degrees of warming, all bets are off. And it appears that unmanaged, that’s where present trends in emissions are likely to take us. Moreover, even with radical action, stabilizing emissions at 1.5 degrees C, as many advocates now demand, is not possible without either solar geoengineering or sucking carbon emissions out of the atmosphere at massive scale. Practically, given legacy emissions and committed infrastructure, the long-standing international target of limiting temperature increase to two degrees C is also extremely unlikely.

Unavoidably, then, treating our climate change condition will require not simply emissions reductions but also significant adaptation to known and unknown climate risks that are already baked in to our future due to two centuries of fossil fuel consumption. It is in this sense that we have long argued that climate change must be understood as a chronic condition of global modernity, a problem that will be managed but not solved.

The Chronic Climate Condition

Managing that condition will require both reducing emissions to limit warming and adapting to warming that we won’t avoid. Frequently, mitigating emissions and adapting to a changing climate are seen as separate tasks, and in some circles, among both advocates and skeptics, as oppositional and zero-sum. But, in fact, decarbonization and adaptation are deeply entangled enterprises that are inseparable from long-term modernization processes.

The worst case climate scenarios, which are based on worst case emissions scenarios, are the source of most of the terrifying studies of potential future climate impacts. These are frequently described as “business as usual” — what happens if the economy keeps growing and the global population becomes wealthier and hence more consumptive. But that’s not how the IPCC, which generates those scenarios, actually gets to very high emissions futures. Rather, the worst case scenarios are those in which the world remains poor, populous, unequal, and low-tech. It is a future with lots of poor people who don’t have access to clean technology.

Under those scenarios, climate change has terrible consequences because it is interacting with endemic poverty, failing institutions, crumbling and overtaxed infrastructure, and myriad other problems. It is a world in which most people don’t have air conditioning, homes resilient to hurricanes and floods, advanced crop varieties and efficient irrigation systems, access to globally-traded agricultural commodities when local crops fail, and resources to pull up stakes and move to more hospitable climates.

By contrast, a future in which the world is resilient to a hotter climate is likely also one in which the world has been more successful at mitigating climate change as well. A wealthier world will be a higher-tech world, one with many more low carbon technological options and more resources to invest in both mitigation and adaptation. It will be less populous (fertility rates reliably fall as incomes rise), less unequal (because many fewer people will live in extreme poverty), and more urbanized (meaning many more people living in cities with hard infrastructure, air conditioning, and emergency services to protect them).

That will almost certainly be a world in which global average temperatures have exceeded two degrees above pre-industrial levels. The latest round of climate deadline-ism (12 years to prevent climate catastrophe according to The Guardian) won’t change that. But as even David Wallace Wells, whose book The Uninhabitable Earth has helped revitalize climate catastrophism, acknowledges, “Two degrees would be terrible but it’s better than three… And three degrees is much better than four.”

Given the current emissions trajectory, a future world that stabilized emissions below 2.5 or three degrees, an accomplishment that in itself will likely require very substantial and sustained efforts to reduce emissions, would also likely be one reasonably well adapted to live in that climate, as it would, of necessity, be one that was much wealthier, less unequal, and more advanced technologically than the world we live in today.

The Climate Asteroid

For some, though, describing climate change as a chronic, serious, and potentially catastrophic threat that we might successfully manage but won’t solve fails to convey the urgency of the situation. Climate change is an emergency, closer to an asteroid than a chronic disease. “Civilization is at stake,” Grist’s Eric Holthaus argued last fall. Climate change, Vox’s David Roberts suggested recently, is “a priority-one emergency, threatening progress in all other areas.” It will make “anything we might recognize as human civilization physically impossible,” The Intercept’s Kate Aronoff argued.

But if climate change is in fact like an asteroid zooming toward the earth, you wouldn’t know it from the actions and prescriptions of those who hold this view. The Green New Deal remains more slogan than policy proposal. But based on what little its proponents have said, it seems unlikely that anyone is actually seriously proposing the sort of draconian measures that a true climate emergency would ostensibly demand.

Green New Deal proponents appear to have no plans to ban meat or air travel, as some right-wing critics have suggested. Many reject nuclear energy and carbon capture technology, despite strong evidence that both will be necessary to deeply cut global emissions.

Democratic socialists and social democrats who actually took both the New Deal and the climate emergency seriously would call for nationalization of the power sector and other energy intensive industries or, at the very least, a major expansion of public power, as our colleague Jameson McBride argued earlier this year. A climate movement that really believed that we only had 12 years to avoid the end of the world would probably conclude that we could make do with Obamacare for another decade or two while we dealt with the looming civilization ending climate deadline. Indeed, faced with an intransigent Congress and indifferent polity, people who really believed that the failure to eliminate all global greenhouse gas emissions within the next 12 years entailed the likely collapse of civilization might seriously countenance suspending some freedoms in order to quickly mobilize to deal with the crisis, as we did during World War II.

That no one among the climate hawk community, democratic socialists, and social justice democrats advocating for a Green New Deal to respond to a climate emergency seems willing to countenance any of the above suggests that the climate emergency is mostly for show, a gesture aimed at conveying the seriousness of the problem, but not actually requiring tangibly different measures than those that advocates have proposed for several decades, long before the situation became so dire as to ostensibly require an emergency response.

But for Medicare for All and an unspecified jobs guarantee, nothing proposed to date as part of a Green New Deal appears to constitute much beyond puffed-up Obama-era climate and energy policy, minus an economy-wide cap-and-trade program that many Democrats have concluded is likely to remain a political non-starter and might not be worth the effort anyway.

What climate catastrophists are actually willing to propose are the sorts of things you do in response to planetary diabetes, not a climate asteroid. After spilling several thousand words about why alarmism about looming climate catastrophe was warranted in a New York Times Sunday Review article entitled “Time to Panic,” Wallace Wells could only offer higher fuel efficiency standards, high speed rail, and mandatory requirements to feed cattle seaweed as the path forward. This is hardly the stuff of asteroids and emergencies.

What climate hawks and Green New Deal advocates actually have in mind is politics, not the suspension of politics in the face of looming catastrophe. The talk of climate apocalypse is in service of long-standing policy goals, not an all hands on deck response to a climate emergency.

Politics vs Anti-Politics

“Fear,” Wallace Wells argued in his op-ed, “can mobilize.” But the imperatives of movement building and mobilization are not easily reconciled with demands for evidence-based policymaking. The climate movement has always simultaneously wanted to engage in politics and remain above it, to have its science and expertise while continually cannibalizing both in service of its communications and organizing strategies.

The activist journalist Bill McKibben has long insisted that physics and chemistry cannot be negotiated with, even as he has spent a decade attempting to build a grassroots movement that policy-makers would need to negotiate with. Wallace Wells similarly chides scientists for “editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was” even while bemoaning the collapse of public faith in expertise.

Wallace Wells is only the latest to complain that scientists and journalists, even those highly supportive of the cause, have failed to be apocalyptic enough, even as alarmism has been the modus operandi of climate messaging for decades now. Yet despite three decades of evidence that ever louder and more apocalyptic rhetoric has failed to convince the public and politicians to wake up and smell the coffee, the conviction that still more scientific doomsaying is the only way forward remains bottomless.

That is because while the nature of the climate problem is chronic and the political and policy responses are incremental, the culture and ideology of contemporary environmentalism is millenarian. In the millenarian mind, there are only two choices, catastrophe or completely reorganizing society. Americans will either see the writing on the wall and remake the world, or perish in fiery apocalypse.

This, ultimately, is why adaptation, nuclear energy, carbon capture, and solar geoengineering have no role in the environmental narrative of apocalypse and salvation, even as all but the last are almost certainly necessary for any successful response to climate change and will also end up in any major federal policy effort to address climate change. Because they are basically plug-and-play with the existing socio-technical paradigm. They don’t require that we end capitalism or consumerism or energy intensive lifestyles. Modern, industrial, techno-society goes on, just without the emissions. This is also why efforts by nuclear, carbon capture, and geoengineering advocates to marshall catastrophic framing to build support for those approaches have had limited effect.

The problem for the climate movement is that the technocratic requirements necessary to massively decarbonize the global economy conflict with the egalitarian catastrophism that the movement’s mobilization strategies demand. McKibben has privately acknowledged as much to several people, explaining that he hasn’t publicly recognized the need for nuclear energy because he believes doing so would “split this movement in half.”

Implicit in these sorts of political calculations is the assumption that once advocates have amassed sufficient political power, the necessary concessions to the practical exigencies of deeply reducing carbon emissions will then become possible. But the army you raise ultimately shapes the sorts of battles you are able to wage, and it is not clear that the army of egalitarian millenarians that the climate movement is mobilizing will be willing to sign on to the necessary compromises — politically, economically, and technologically — that would be necessary to actually address the problem. Anyone who doubts this need only direct their gaze toward the other side of the political spectrum, where conservatives and Republicans are now entirely captive to the nativist forces they have unleashed over the last decade in their battles with Obama-era progressives.

The Trouble with Climate Millenarianism

Outside the environmental bubble, the logic of the millenarian mobilization makes no sense and in fact undermines the claims of looming catastrophe. For those not already convinced that industrial modernity, left to its own devices, will end badly, the test of whether environmentalists take their own catastrophist warnings seriously is whether the solutions they propose diverge in any meaningful way from the sorts of things that environmentalists (and progressives) would want whether climate change were happening or not. The everything-ism of the Green New Deal, in this way, undermines the deadline-ism of the climate emergency.

For these reasons, the key to raising the salience of climate change for those outside the environmental bubble will not be, as Wallace Wells and countless others before him have supposed, to get us to excise our “cataracts of self-deception” and see the problem as an asteroid, not a chronic illness. Rather, it will be to demonstrate that those issuing the warnings aren’t simply ideologues promoting self-serving solutions to an overhyped crisis.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with advocating for the solutions and technologies you believe in. This is what diabetes politics looks like. Policy preferences get argued about and different stakeholders pursue their interests. In the end, some sort of compromise emerges in which everyone gets some of what they want and no one gets all of what they want.

The Green New Deal is, implicitly, the opening gambit in that sort of negotiation, with other progressive Democrats first (hence Medicare for All) and with moderates and conservatives later. The problem for climate advocates, though, is that it’s not at all clear at this point that there is anyone to negotiate with.

Under the best of circumstances, with a Democratic president and Congress after 2020, environmentalists will be faced with a Democratic coalition dependent on vulnerable members representing swing states that share neither progressives’ enthusiasm for redistributive social programs nor environmentalists’ fear of climate change. This is the reason that senior Democratic members of Congress, such as Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, have been so tepid about the Green New Deal. They have both, twice during the course of their careers in Congress, watched Democrats lose control of both houses of Congress after proposing major climate and health care legislation.

Meanwhile, the polarizing catastrophism of the environmental left — tied to “this changes everything” demands for 100 percent renewables, mandatory vegetarianism, and the end of extractivism and capitalism — has virtually excised moderate and explicit climate policy as an option for Republicans, a problem that will likely be exacerbated in the event of another wave election favoring Democrats. Already, several of the most prominent Republicans still willing to acknowledge climate change lost their seats in 2018. Those remaining are likely to be high on Democratic target lists in 2020 for the simple reason that Republican districts that can presently sustain some level of climate policy advocacy are also districts that Democrats have a shot at representing.

For these reasons, staking out a more catastrophist and progressive position in Congress is unlikely to either raise the ambitions of climate policy or improve its prospects of passage. Getting enough of the political spectrum to have sufficient climate ambition to avoid, under the best of circumstances, the watered-down fate of climate policy efforts during the Obama years will require something different: namely, demonstrating that the environmental movement is something more than an ideological special interest.

Doing so will require environmentalists to stop imploring Americans to bear down and take their environmental medicine and, instead, to swallow hard and take some hard medicine themselves, by embracing things that they have historically found distasteful, such as adaptation, natural gas, carbon capture, and nuclear energy.

That won’t get the United States much less the rest of the world to zero emissions in the next 12 years. But Wallace Wells is right that by almost every measure, a two-degree future will be better than a three-degree future and a three-degree future better than a four-degree future. Moreover, practically, nothing that Green New Deal advocates appear willing to seriously propose will actually cut US emissions at a scale or pace consistent with stabilizing emissions below two degrees, much less 1.5. Making the best of our chronic condition, rather, will require a climate movement that is less catastrophist about the problem and more ecumenical about its solutions.