Climate and the Very Serious, Cont.

The RoostThe New Yorker goes deep on geoengineering. Is this what it looks like when our Very Serious media take the climate seriously?

[UPDATE, 5/10/12: NASA’s James Hansen has a hard-hitting op-ed in today’s New York Times, which shows us what it looks like to take climate seriously. “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” he writes. Describing near-term scenarios, he continues, “If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically.” Bottom line: “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.”]

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Back in March, just after we launched this blog at Thoreau Farm, I asked David Roberts of Grist in an email exchange what it would look like if our “Very Serious mainstream media” (as he likes to call it) started taking climate change seriously. If you missed it, the resulting exchange is worth reading (and was cross-posted at Grist).

Well, it may not have led the evening news (or even made it into your newspaper), but this past Saturday, we got to see what it looks like when ordinary citizens — all over the planet — take climate change seriously.

May 5 was the first “Connect the Dots” Climate Impacts Day, the latest “global day of action” spearheaded by Bill McKibben and 350.org. The idea was simple: thousands of people, in communities around the world, who are already feeling the impact of global warming got together for group photos, holding homemade “dots,” and sent them to 350.org. There, they joined a spectacular — and often moving — photostream at ClimateDots.org, “connecting the dots” between extreme weather and climate change (as scientists are already doing), and calling for action. (I organized an event in Wayland and spoke at the event in Concord, where more than a hundred people gathered at the Old Manse, right next to the Old North Bridge. You can see a great collection of photos from around Massachusetts at 350MA.org, a new statewide grassroots network that I’m helping to organize.)

One kind of “climate action” I didn’t see or hear mentioned on Saturday is the highly controversial (some say crazy) idea of “geoengineering.” For that, though, you can turn to this week’s issue of The New Yorker, its splashy “Innovators” issue, and a big piece by Michael Specter titled “The Climate Fixers.”

Everyone should read this piece, or at least the first two sections. Not because it adds terribly much to the well-covered topic of geoengineering (i.e., human manipulation of the atmosphere to counter the effects of climate change), but because Specter’s opening pages are as close as anything I’ve seen, in a “Very Serious” publication, to what I call the “WE’RE F****D. NOW WHAT?” framing of the climate story. A framing, in other words, that begins to level with readers about the extremity of the situation.

Specter opens with the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which lowered global temperature by nearly three-fourths of a degree Celsius in a single year (as much as the climate had warmed over the previous hundred) and disrupted precipitation on multiple continents, leading to major floods and drought. “Most people considered the eruption a calamity,” Specter writes. “For geophysical scientists, though, Mt. Pinatubo provided the best model in at least a century to help us understand what might happen if humans attempted to ameliorate global warming by deliberately altering the climate of the earth.” Then he lowers the boom (and it’s worth quoting at some length; emphasis added):

For years, even to entertain the possibility of human intervention on such a scale—geoengineering, as the practice is known—has been denounced as hubris. Predicting long-term climatic behavior by using computer models has proved difficult, and the notion of fiddling with the planet’s climate based on the results generated by those models worries even scientists who are fully engaged in the research. “There will be no easy victories, but at some point we are going to have to take the facts seriously,” David Keith, a professor of engineering and public policy at Harvard and one of geoengineering’s most thoughtful supporters, told me. “Nonetheless,” he added, “it is hyperbolic to say this, but no less true: when you start to reflect light away from the planet, you can easily imagine a chain of events that would extinguish life on earth.”

There is only one reason to consider deploying a scheme with even a tiny chance of causing such a catastrophe: if the risks of not deploying it were clearly higher. No one is yet prepared to make such a calculation, but researchers are moving in that direction. To offer guidance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) has developed a series of scenarios on global warming. The cheeriest assessment predicts that by the end of the century the earth’s average temperature will rise between 1.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius. A more pessimistic projection envisages a rise of between 2.4 and 6.4 degrees—far higher than at any time in recorded history. … Until recently, climate scientists believed that a six-degree rise, the effects of which would be an undeniable disaster, was unlikely. But new data have changed the minds of many. Late last year, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, said that current levels of consumption “put the world perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius rise in temperature. . . . Everybody, even schoolchildren, knows this will have catastrophic implications for all of us.”

… Deliberately modifying the earth’s atmosphere would be a desperate gamble with significant risks. Yet the more likely climate change is to cause devastation, the more attractive even the most perilous attempts to mitigate those changes will become.

“We don’t know how bad this is going to be, and we don’t know when it is going to get bad,” Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist with the Carnegie Institution, told me. In 2007, Caldeira was a principal contributor to an I.P.C.C. team that won a Nobel Peace Prize. “There are wide variations within the models,” he said. “But we had better get ready, because we are running rapidly toward a minefield. We just don’t know where the minefield starts, or how long it will be before we find ourselves in the middle of it.”

Again, what’s significant about these paragraphs (and the rest of the piece, which I recommend reading) isn’t so much what they say about geoengineering — the outlines and extreme risks of which have been known to Very Serious readers for some time now — but rather, the way it paints the rationale for seriously considering geoengineering in such stark terms.

For Very Serious media types in Manhattan and D.C. (some of whom are my friends and former colleagues), David Remnick’s New Yorker is at the pinnacle of Seriousness.  If that magazine is discussing, in the feature well of its highly visible Innovators issue, the fact that we are now sailing into a climate sh*tstorm that makes even geoengineering look like a sane, if desperate, consideration — well, I’m prepared to venture that something interesting (and long overdue) is happening to our national media “discourse” (to use the suitably Serious word). Obviously, The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert (author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe) has been on the climate case for years and is filing increasingly alarming dispatches. But I haven’t seen anything quite like the dire logic of Specter’s framing.

(Worth noting, too, that the same Innovators issue carries a profile of MIT’s Daniel Nocera [subscribers only] and his work on artificial photosynthesis as a potentially revolutionary advance for low-cost, decentralized, widely distributed solar energy.  Nocera came up in my recent interview with Vermont ecologist Amy Seidl, who admires his work. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.)

Now for what’s disturbing about Specter’s piece (beyond the subject itself!): it essentially bypasses all of the decidedly sane responses to the climate crisis that haven’t really been tried yet — like, say, carbon pricing, massively increased investments in clean energy technologies (both deployment and R&D), and real global commitments on both emissions and adaptation — in favor of the far sexier “true Sci-Fi” angle of geoengineering. As an attention-getter, fine. It works. But as a “Serious” treatment of the climate crisis? Can’t we at least talk about the other stuff — the stuff that would jump-start a transition away from fossil fuels, with all deliberate speed — before we trot out geoengineering again? (At least Specter’s treatment is better than that found in SuperFreakonomics, which his colleague Kolbert eviscerated in a 2009 review.) And given that a whole lot of climate change is already “locked in,” shouldn’t we be talking about the immediate necessity of adaptation — “managing the unavoidable” — especially in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world, before we talk about last-ditch gambles? It strikes me as another form of avoiding the real subject.

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Incidentally, Joe Romm has an important post at Climate Progress, titled “‘Hug The Monster’: Why So Many Climate Scientists Have Stopped Downplaying the Climate Threat,” highlighting a piece by ABC’s Bill Blakemore that offers some advice to the media about its climate coverage. As Romm writes, Blakemore’s piece “helps dispel the myth that climate scientists have long been overhyping climate impacts — when everyone who actually follows climate science and talks to any significant number of climate scientists knows that the reverse is true.”

One of the leading climate scientists quoted by Romm and Blakemore is MIT’s Kerry Emanuel (who, it so happens, is a Republican and nobody’s idea of an alarmist). Emanuel spoke to a group of us in Wayland back in January, and one of the main points he made is that uncertainty in climate science, especially when it comes to predicting future impacts, cuts both ways.

“We’re very uncertain about the future,” Emanuel told us. “We cannot state with confidence that the warming is going to be what we project it to be. It could be a lot less. It could also, with equal probability, be a lot more. It’s a double-edged sword. Uncertainty doesn’t translate to ‘no worries, mate.’ It’s the opposite. We have, on the high-end of the probability curve, we have some pretty scary scenarios. … And if we want to act, we have a very narrow window of opportunity.”

That window may be closing fast — but as far as we know, it hasn’t closed yet. (According to one head-turning analysis last fall, by the International Energy Agency, we have less than five years to begin a major transformation of our energy infrastructure.) Until it’s clear that it has closed, it seems to me that any sort of defeatism (which is what geoengineering really amounts to) is indefensible.

It’s up to all of us to create the kind of pressure that will force governments to take decisive action. That’s going to require a bottom-up political movement like nothing we’ve ever seen – and something like a “politics of hope.” Maybe we can see the stirrings of it in the Keystone XL Tar Sands protests, in the Beyond Coal campaigns — and even in the photos of ordinary people around the world holding “climate dots” with their neighbors and making the connections that too many, in positions of power and influence, are still failing to make. Look at those photos and you’ll know who the serious people really are.

Wen Stephenson

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