Climate images have never been able to convey our full planetary danger until now. The extraordinary recent four-punch sequence of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria — threatened the lives of millions of people, obliterated their homes and has raised doubts that some places will ever recover. The rest of us have a newly immediate sense of catastrophes of biblical proportions. As meaning-hungry creatures we search for explanations. No wonder some have embraced the apocalyptic narrative of total destruction by an angry deity. And no wonder that climate-change rejecters like President Trump have increasing difficulty defending their position.
Even before the hurricanes we had experienced a drumbeat of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires that rendered global warming not just a remote future danger but an immediate one. This fear was reinforced by the recent hurricanes, which provided imagery equivalent to the danger, imagery equivalent to nuclear disaster. When we viewed photographs and film of the annihilated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we sensed that the world could be ended by nuclear weapons. Now these hurricanes have conveyed a similar feeling of world-ending, having left whole islands, once alive in their beauty and commerce, in ruin.
But does this mean that we attribute this menace to global warming and to human contributions to that warming? My answer here is yes and no and yes again.
Yes: Scientists warn that hurricanes are made worse by the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and by the increased storm surge caused by higher sea levels. Climate change can thus amplify disasters into catastrophes.
No: There are still voices ridiculing this conclusion. About the record-breaking intensity of Hurricane Irma, Mr. Trump said that “we’ve had bigger storms than this.” And Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, took righteous exception to discussing the “cause and effect of these storms” as “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.” Both were engaging in climate rejection rather than denial. Because with climate truths so widely disseminated and accepted, both know in some part of their minds that global warming is real and threatening.
But there is good reason to believe that climate rejecters, including the president and Mr. Pruitt, are fighting a losing battle. The apocalyptic fear aroused by the recent destructive hurricanes is the latest manifestation of the mounting dread that has taken hold in the American mind-set about the implications of our steadily warming planet.
So yes again, hurricanes have now become a central component of what I call the climate swerve: the powerful shift in our awareness of climate truths. The swerve is a change in collective consciousness that includes a coherent narrative of global warming, of cause and effect and of steps necessary for mitigation. The swerve forces us to look upon ourselves as members of a single species in deep trouble.
This mind-set is evident in public opinion surveys, in the reporting of catastrophes that regularly invoke the influence of global warming, in growing doubts about a carbon economy and in challenges to the morality of extracting and burning underground fossil fuel resources.
The Paris climate conference of December 2015 was a stunning demonstration of the reach and force of the climate swerve. Virtually every nation in the world joined in what could be called a species-wide recognition of global warming and its dangers, each putting forward a promised goal of reduced carbon emissions. True, Paris was more a demonstration of universal climate awareness than an enforceable treaty. But the mind-set it expressed is crucial for all subsequent climate action.
And that mind-set could not be readily defied, as President Trump has learned. His determination to withdraw from the agreement was no surprise, since he had long rejected the idea of climate change as nonexistent, not human-caused or a hoax. What was perhaps surprising was the immediate and overwhelming reaction to his announcement of the American withdrawal. The decision was widely denounced in this country by governors who declared that their states would hold to the Paris protocols, and by mayors who said the same of their cities. It was also condemned abroad. France, Germany and Italy insisted that the Paris momentum was “irreversible,” and China asserted that it would follow the protocols no matter what the United States did.
What followed were clarifications by the White House having to do with renegotiation and continuing to attend climate meetings — all amounting to equivocation and leaving the whole issue of withdrawal confused.
It would seem that the climate swerve is greater than any individual person, even one as dangerous to the world as Donald Trump. And while the climate swerve may ebb and flow, it is gathering momentum and will have to be reckoned with for generations.
The string of hurricanes we experienced recently and can expect again in the future raises a crucial question about the kind of adaptation we make to climate change. Of course we must prepare for extreme climate conditions, with special attention to coastal areas and flood plains, and to restrictions on what and how we build or rebuild in those areas.
But to do only that would neglect the primary cause of our danger, and would do nothing to prevent ever more lethal expressions of global warming. The climate swerve moves us to focus on the adaptation of our entire species. That would require meeting the Paris pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and going further in making renewable energies a dominant force in national and world economies. In that inclusive form of adaptation, the human species becomes our operative group, and we do all we can to bring our historical and psychological imagination to the task.
We have squandered opportunities to reduce global warming and there has already been more suffering from climate change than we have allowed ourselves to recognize. But we can still avert civilization-ending catastrophe, and even achieve a modest new beginning for our species. Yes, it is very late in the game, but at the same time far from too late.
Source: The New York Times