U.S. News

04.06.14

Climate Change Needs the Politics of the Impossible

We keep learning more about the catastrophe in front of us, but it isn’t helping us solve the problem.

It’s starting to feel like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could keep issuing its reports from here to eternity. The Fifth Assessment Report, released just in time to avoid April Fool’s Day, continues a steady trend: our knowledge is increasing, just about everything that matters is getting worse, and all we can realistically hope to do is soften the edges of a slow-moving catastrophe.

This pessimism may be the most realistic view of the climate crisis. Politics is the art of the possible, and climate change may be impossible to prevent or even shift. That leaves us trying to blunt its impacts with seawalls and mass relocations, which look more and more like the realistic way forward. But this realism is also a hasty and cheery despair. It gives up too much too quickly. Sometimes politics is the art of changing what is possible. That deeper realism is part of the answer that climate change needs.

But first, back to the Report. Once again, deepening paleo-ecology research, ever-more refined computer modeling, and incremental gains in courage led the IPCC to say that “we”—the Global Community of Very Cautious Knowers—are a little more certain about trends in global warming, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. The Report predicts more floods in temperate places like Europe and most of the U.S., more droughts near the Equator, with overall food production taking a nasty hit.

Everything that is already hard is going to get harder. Ecological zones will be reshuffled. With many species already in danger of extinction and conservation efforts focused on preserving habitat, lots of that hard-won habitat is going to be irrelevant—too warm, too dry, too something—as suitable habitat shifts faster than species can travel. Fisheries, already stressed by pollution and over-harvesting, will now confront warming and acidification. Droughts and food shocks may intensify political and military conflict: more resource wars, more grain-price revolutions.

Being poor, in particular, gets worse as climate changes.  Nature has always been hardest on the poor, because infrastructure, transport, medicine, and the rest of our capital-intensive technologies are the key ways we tame her violence.  To be poor—for an individual, and even more for a country—is to be vulnerable to the whims of the natural world.  Recall the very worst of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the poorest parts of New Orleans in 2005 and then project those onto Bangladesh, a country of 155 million—almost half as large as the population of the US.

There’s lots of uncertainty about details—as the Report itself painstakingly documents; but most people not in denial have known the broad outlines of this picture for well over a decade.  It was 1989—when the Berlin Wall came down—writer Bill McKibben was already announcing “the end of nature” in the era of climate change.  But with every IPCC report, the optimistic scenario, where “the world” slashes greenhouse gases and stabilizes climate change, feels more like a weak deus ex machina.  Meanwhile, the drastic scenario—where everything accelerates, the Greenland ice cap melts sometime in the next century, sea levels rise 20 feet or more in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, and the Gulf Stream and the Amazonian forests both consider giving up the ghost—that scenario feels more and more like a weather forecast: unseasonably warm this weekend with a growing chance of apocalypse by Sunday evening.   

But “apocalypse” is probably exactly wrong, even though floods, droughts, and storms are just the kind of thing that one might expect would presage an apocalypse.  Instead, living in a climate-changed world is becoming a post-normal normal, a chronic crisis.

The IPCC Report reflects this, spending four chapters on “adaptation” to climate change. Already, commentators are celebrating the move to adaptation as a win for gritty practicality over empty idealism, local and private efforts over “grand international declarations.”  Of course it’s true that we need adaptation, especially for the poor regions that are the most vulnerable and can’t wait while the waters rise.  But pretending that giving up on big climate action means a victory is nothing but rationalizing defeat. 

This passivity is tempting because political action has done so little and doesn’t seem likely to do much about climate, and doesn’t exactly look poised to do more that is more than symbolic. Because climate change is distributed around the world and has a very long lag time, whatever we do about it here and now mostly helps faraway and future people. So it’s very tempting to come up with excuses for doing nothing, or just enough to feel righteous about what you’ve done. 

Sure enough, in international negotiations, the U.S. has long refused to do anything meaningful until China and India “did their share,” while those countries answered that the U.S. had added more than its share to the problem and needed to lead in paying for the solution.  At all scales, down to the nation and even the individual, the same puffed-up hemming and hawing works out nicely for the living—who enjoy our energy-intensive lives now—and badly for the future. 

Ordinary politics, with its self-interested deal-making just barely hidden under high talk, is a lousy tool for global problems that play out over centuries and would require the living generation to do something costly and inconvenient.  And there is not much that is more costly and inconvenient than retooling your infrastructure, from energy to transport to manufacturing, when that infrastructure is where we all live.

That leaves us with, basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology: either a silver bullet to produce cheap, renewable energy, or a reliable geo-engineering technique to adjust the global atmosphere-temperature-weather system directly. Either might happen—the first likely will, maybe too late to prevent permanent crisis; but waiting on clean energy is a very big risk, and geo-engineering brings huge risks of its own, from getting only half the problem to ending up making the system even more unstable. The “simplest” geo-engineering proposal is to bounce a bunch of earth-warming sunlight back into space by launching mirrors or particles into the upper atmosphere; but (1) it’s a half-measure, since the oceans would continue acidifying, stressing and maybe destroying many marine life forms and disrupting other global processes; and (2) if anything ever happened to the mirrors, sunlight would pour in and our carbon-enriched atmosphere would start to warm up like an oven. 

The other way out is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world.  This, admittedly, is a desperate measure.  It is the last thing you want to rely on—other than, possibly, launching mirrors into space to adjust the planet’s atmosphere.  These, however, are desperate times, at least where the global climate is concerned.

One reason for hopefulness, even for measured optimism, is something our hyper-knowing, reflexively cynical political culture trains us to forget: extraordinary politics is a real thing, not just an idle wish. 

Consider the end of slavery—not in the U.S., but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders.  The economic cost was huge.  For decades, historians assumed it must have been a subterfuge for someone’s economic benefit—otherwise, how would such a thing be possible?  But the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics.  The powerful thing about this example is its scale: the global economy of the British Empire was nearly as entwined with slavery as ours is with the fossil-fuel economy.  The change wasn’t just costly: it pulled some institutions up by their roots.  If that never happened, we’d really be out of reasons for hope on climate change.  But sometimes it does.

We should learn to look at climate change simultaneously through two very different lenses.  Keep one eye on the scientists’ reports, with their steady accumulation of reasons to worry, and the Silicon Valley technologists’ innovations, with their promise of landing on an extraordinary technology.  But cast the other on the activist kids who don’t know enough to realize they can’t win—the ones getting arrested outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and pressing universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, as if Exxon were R.J. Reynolds, or Apartheid South Africa.  And don’t forget the people who are experimenting with low-carbon living in their “transition town” projects, trying to recast energy sources and other infrastructure in a less carbon-intensive form. 

It’s easy—ridiculously easy—to show that the activists shouldn’t expect to win, and that whatever they did succeed in doing wouldn’t be enough to stop this massive global problem.  But that is true at the beginning of every episode of extraordinary politics.  That why histories of abolition, the civil rights movement, even environmentalism, don’t begin with people who are powerful, realistic, or even normal.  They begin with people who don’t know better, and who find the world they are born into intolerable.

That is key, because if we end up tolerating a climate-changed world as the new normal, then it probably will last forever—or as long as anyone is around to care about it. 

Our current normal is built out of principles that used to be considered impossible—gender equality, racial equality, democracy—and became common sense long after some people were too unrealistic to give up on them.  Once they win, these principles get absorbed into common sense—and, of course, get betrayed left and right, like any civic piety.  But a world where they are elements of common sense is still vastly different from one where most people accept that they are impossible.

We sort of know this about human freedom and equality, even if we tend to forget it in practice.  But environmental issues tend to get cast as technical problems for scientists and bureaucrats, or as hopelessly politically divided between liberal greens and conservative climate-skeptics.  But that is only half the picture.  Historically, environmental attitudes have changed almost as dramatically as attitudes around gender and sexuality: Americans used to hate wilderness, love to see a forest burn, and wage war on wolves and other large predators.  Even more basically, they had no conception of the global web of life that we call ecology, or just “the environment,.”  A series of political movements and cultural revolutions changed this, beginning as far back as the nineteenth century.  Today’s climate activists are aiming at the same kind of change: to help see, and feel, a disrupted and dangerous world as their problem, their responsibility, something they love enough not to give up on it.    

So the age of climate change doesn’t just need climate scientists, or even technologists, and adaptation engineers.  They are essential, but if we just rely on them, we’re likely to drift further into passivity and pessimism.  We also need, in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change.  That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change.  It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.  Braiding together human rights and distributive justice with environmental ethics and the human relation to the natural world isn’t just a nice-sounding, if daunting idea.  It’s quite simply the only way forward.

Any answers that we succeed in giving these questions will transform us as earlier extraordinary politics changed people: those who ask the question are no longer the same once they give each an answer. That transformation, to a culture and economy that could change the trajectory of climate change, is exactly what seems impossible now. And that is why everyone should be paying respectful attention to the activists who refuse to believe in impossibility, and even more to the parts of ourselves that refuse to believe it, too. This isn’t idealism. It’s a higher realism, and [we] should be scheming a little impossibility of our own.