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Down to Earth

Why is the story of climate catastrophe so hard to tell?

Mandy Barker, "Hong Kong Soup:1826 - Wildlife"

How do you talk about an emergency when it seems as if no one is listening? For years, journalists, scientists, and activists concerned with the ongoing horror of climate catastrophe have faced this problem. Arguably the most important issue of our time, climate change is a known ratings killer. If you aren’t already a victim of climate-related disaster, the issue can feel far away, and many readers find the unrelenting rise of global warming too disturbing, or simply too overwhelming, to contemplate. “No one wants to read about climate,” a literary agent once told me, “It’s too depressing.”

MCD, 224 pp., $25.00
Tim Duggan Books, 320 pp., $27.00

For journalists, scientists, activists, and those engaged in “climate communication”—a burgeoning field dedicated to understanding how information about climate change moves through cultural systems—the question of how to tell engaging stories remains open and urgent. Climate change is huge, abstract, and wickedly complex, so it resists the kind of easy narrative that might make it stick in a reader’s mind or suggest concrete policy. By comparison, stories about the threat of nuclear Armageddon, humanity’s other recent existential menace, have been far easier to tell, because the danger literally lay in the hands of a few men with red buttons. Some voices have broken through to mass audiences—Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein—mostly in expository styles geared toward sharing information and analysis. But where, at least in nonfiction, are the storytellers who can sing songs of impending doom, who can bring the horror that is already upon us into focus, and help us see our own places within it?

Two recent articles tried new ways of talking about the emergency at hand, and appeared to resonate with readers. When The New York Times Magazine published Nathaniel Rich’s narrative feature, “Losing Earth,” in August of last year, it was the longest piece the magazine had ever run, taking up that week’s entire issue. Rather than explaining new studies or documenting the plight of people in a disaster zone, Rich locates a moment in the past when, he thinks, there was a chance to avert the crisis. The feature garnered an unprecedented level of public attention for the issue. Except, that is, for the previous year, when New York magazine published David Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic climate hair-raiser, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” That feature was based in a simple premise: Take the high-end predictions of warming and paint a picture of what life would be like on Earth at those temperatures. Spoiler: Those of us who survive will basically be boiling in our own blood.

Both pieces quickly provoked impassioned criticism from people who work on climate issues. Responses to Rich’s feature ranged from baffled to withering, with many commentators deriding his understanding of the climate crisis as “naïve.” Wallace-Wells’s piece, too, produced an immediate backlash from the climate intelligentsia, partly because he got some of the science wrong, overstating certain risks, but also because the piece was charged with the cardinal sin of being “alarmist.” People didn’t like how Wallace-Wells was talking about climate change, and the science internet exploded with heated discussion of the “right way” to approach it.

On a rapidly warming planet, one function of climate writing is to get the word out—to spark and help shape public discourse in the midst of ongoing and accelerating catastrophe. We are already too late to prevent some degree of unprecedented change. We know it’s going to be bad, but human activity today could still make the future worse. So it’s true both that we are too late and that there is no time to be lost. Yet if we get the framing of this story wrong—if we see the issue as a matter of individual consumer choice, for example, or choose a purely emotional rather than an explicitly political framing—we risk missing the point altogether.

Rich’s solution to the problem of climate communication is, essentially, to weave a gripping tale of classic Aristotelian tragedy. In Losing Earth, he looks back into the recent past to tell a story about “a handful of people” led by environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and climate scientist James Hansen, who nobly tried to save the rest of us from climate catastrophe, back when such a thing was supposedly still possible. The story begins in 1979, when Pomerance chances on a report about the planetary threat of greenhouse gases and joins forces with Hansen. It climaxes in 1989, at a meeting in the Dutch resort town of Noord­wijk where John Sununu, chief of staff to president George H.W. Bush, single-handedly scuttles what could have been a binding international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

In Rich’s telling, this moment is the point at which the future of the planet is decided. “The conditions for success could not have been more favorable,” he writes. Climate science was settled and widely accepted, partisan lines had yet to be drawn, the fossil fuel industry had not yet ramped up full-throated disinformation campaigns, and climate action had broad international support. And yet, the chance for a binding agreement passes, and here we find ourselves, today. “There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament,” Rich writes, “without an understanding of why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.” The tragic figure in this story is not Rafe Pomerance or James Hansen, but all of humanity, whose fatal flaw is that we are unable to sacrifice the comforts we currently enjoy to avoid future catastrophe.

It’s easy to see why a narrative of classic tragedy might be tempting to a writer struggling to tell a compelling story about climate change. In the face of this amorphous and all-encompassing threat, it can seem that no one person has the ability to take meaningful action, but by casting heroes and villains, Rich puts a face to the crisis and endows his characters with agency in a way that is likely to feel satisfying to readers. When you tell the story of climate change like this, maybe readers will feel that they can (finally) understand it. It offers a way to think about what is otherwise a nearly unthinkable problem. All of which seems terribly promising. And judged by the metric of whether it is an engaging story that keeps the reader flipping pages, Losing Earth is a resounding success. You have to admire the narrative alchemy by which Rich transmutes what is basically a series of meetings and conferences into a riveting will-they-or-won’t-they drama. Especially when we already know how it ends: They didn’t.

Ice formations in Alaska caused by rising bubbles of carbon dioxide and methane.
Ryota Kajita, “Frozen Bubbles #1, Ice Formations”

Yet climate change, it turns out, just doesn’t fit the sort of story Rich wants to tell. To tell the story as tragedy, Rich has to sacrifice important truths—both small and large. An elite cadre of men in the United States—quite literally meeting behind locked doors—has to stand in for all of a tragically flawed humankind. (A less inclusive “we” would be hard to imagine.) As Kate Aronoff wrote in response to the magazine piece, even “America’s particular failure to address climate change isn’t a failure of all of humanity.” In addition, this narrow “we” obscures tensions between the interests of people in more and less economically developed nations. In the 1980s, Rich writes, more than 30 percent of people on the planet lacked access to electricity. Breezing past the implications, he acknowledges that “billions of people would not need to attain the ‘American way of life’ in order to increase global carbon admissions catastrophically; a light bulb in every other village would do it.” This is one of the fundamental difficulties of any international action on climate change: Less economically developed nations are not about to halt growth and give up on the increases in living standards achieved by burning fossil fuels, gains already achieved by richer nations at the expense of a stable climate.

Naomi Klein, Alyssa Battistoni, and others have pointed out that Rich also ignores his story’s broader historical context. This was a decade when Western economies that had been chugging along since the 1950s stalled, and world leaders anxious to address declining economic productivity latched on to neoliberal ideas about deregulation and market freedom. This politics relied on an engine of economic growth fed by ever-accelerating use of fossil fuels. In the United States, the right was strategically pitting economic growth against environmental concerns, while systematically demolishing the labor movement, which might have tried to pull the brake on runaway free-market fundamentalism. Klein, who has previously written about the same period of climate change history, writes of Rich’s premise,

one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life.

Battistoni put it simply: “This isn’t just a missed opportunity or a partial story—it is the wrong story.” While individuals with high hopes for the Noordwijk meeting might have felt that binding international action on climate was just a few pen strokes away, with hindsight we can see how unlikely that was. At best, the fossil fuel companies helped get us into this mess because they knew about the threat of planetary catastrophe by the 1970s and did nothing. Meanwhile, ascendant neoliberalism and globalization were stacking the deck against success at Noordwijk.

Of the ill-fated agreement, John Sununu tells Rich, “It couldn’t have happened … because the leaders in the world at that time were all looking to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources. That was the dirty little secret at the time.” William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under George H.W. Bush, explains to Rich that even if a binding international agreement had been ratified, such agreements are unenforceable, therefore outcomes are far from guaranteed. “There is no global police force,” writes Rich, “and no appetite for economic sanctions or military action triggered by a failure to meet emissions targets, so we can only enforce ourselves.”

So the whole premise of this great tragedy we have just seen unfold—that “we” missed this moment to save ourselves—rests on the flimsy assumption that an unenforceable treaty signed at Noordwijk would have kept warming below 1.5 degrees, staving off planetwide disaster (never mind that climate science predicts planetary warming of 1.5 degrees will, in fact, be disastrous). It was wildly unlikely the Noordwijk meeting was ever going to be the pivotal moment. Rich’s reporting is clearly extensive and thoughtful, and yet so often contradicts his narrative that it’s as if one hand is unwilling to know what the other is doing. But what matters more is that he’s trying to tell a political story as an explicitly apolitical morality tale about human nature.

The fatal flaw of classical Aristotelian tragedy later came to be interpreted as a moral flaw, and Losing Earth takes up this idea in a sanctimonious afterword pleading for more focus on the “moral dimension” of climate change. That is, Rich suggests that an appeal to sentiment might help move people to action: “Rational arguments are self-defeating,” he writes. “They only help to shuttle the discourse out of the furnace of moral reckoning and into the arid corridors of a policy debate. A human problem requires a human solution.” Rich quotes Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s (genuinely remarkable) second encyclical, whose title has been translated as “On Care for Our Common Home,” in which Francis points to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s call for every person to repent for our contribution “smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.”

From this, Rich arrives at the conclusion that it’s necessary to identify “the villains—those who have tried to bewitch an unassuming public with uncertainty, lies, and the gratuitous fantasies of denialism.” While acknowledging that he is not free of blame himself (“my hands drip crude”), he calls for public shaming to hold the worst offenders to account. Here, he seems to be indicting the fossil fuel industry and denialists in the Republican Party, which makes one wonder why he didn’t write that story, instead. And a reader might be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash after the fatalism of the tragedy we’ve just seen unfold. We are, in Rich’s telling, doomed by “human nature” to fail at averting the climate crisis. But here he is, gesturing down a path to “solutions.” “One of our most effective weapons is mortal shame,” he writes. Implausibly, he foresees that out of this miasma there “will eventually emerge a vigorous, populist campaign to hold to account those who did the most to block climate policy over the last forty years.” He makes a vague gesture toward future action—“an appeal to higher decency can work on the human beings who vote in elections”—but for the most part it seems as if his “solution” to the total shipwreck of climate change is to vigorously point the finger as the ship goes down.

The deeper problem with Rich’s call to moralism as a spur to action is its ineffectiveness in building consensus and facilitating change—the stuff of politics. At best, moralism is an earnest expression of personal values; at worst, it is an exercise in self-aggrandizement that lends itself to righteous bullying. When you deploy moralistic rhetoric in public discourse, you close down the possibility of dialogue, which can only stall progress. See Fox News, as well as moralism in public discourse about abortion, immigration, or pretty much any other hot-button topic that riles emotion and divides our nation today. In the case of climate change, moral bombast threatens to perpetuate the paralyzing dynamics already in place around the issue. When what’s at stake is the actual end of the world as we know it, this seems like a poor choice of tactics, narrative or otherwise.

Losing Earth is, perhaps unwittingly, an excellent reminder that the way we define problems shapes our definition of solutions. If stories locate the problem in a realm where humans have some control, in politics and policy, they might point down a road toward salvaging something of human civilization. The future is undoubtedly bleak—to suggest we will “solve” climate change is to ignore the truth unfolding all around us—but it is not wholly settled. At the end of a political story, there is at least the possibility, however belated, of action. At the end of a tragedy, there is just tragedy, though some readers might feel catharsis on the road to ruin.

Wallace-Wells’s approach to climate change is that it’s not a story at all; it’s a setting. You will find no plot pitting characters against external odds or internal flaws in The Uninhabitable Earth. Instead, you will find sketches of hellish backdrops against which the future could unfold if we keep on our current course of global emissions, coupled with cultural criticism exploring how humans make meaning in a catastrophically warming world.

This is partly because, unlike Rich, Wallace-Wells sees the impossibility of casting this story as a tragedy or any other kind of familiar drama focused on only a few powerful individuals. “There is also, beyond the hero problem, a villain problem,” he writes. Even in a comic-book movie version of a climate story, “who would its heroes be fighting against? Ourselves?” Wallace-Wells acknowledges that some are more responsible than others—the world’s wealthy produce half of all emissions—but suggests that any narrative that stops there is incomplete. The United States produces only 15 percent of global emissions, so it’s not accurate to blame global warming solely on the Republican Party or American fossil fuel companies. To do so, he writes, “is a form of American narcissism.” There are also the forces of “inertia and the allure of near-term gains and the preferences of the world’s workers and consumers, who fall somewhere on a long spectrum of culpability stretching from knowing selfishness through true ignorance and reflexive, if naïve, complacency. How do you narrativize that?”

His book ducks this narrative problem, instead taking worst-case scenarios that put the planet at more than 4 degrees Celsius warming by 2100 and painting a vivid picture of what life would be like on Earth at those temperatures. This is a world of plague and famine, drought and flooding, in which human cognitive abilities decline precipitously and just breathing the air can present a mortal danger. Global food production collapses, economies crumble, and war breaks out in feverish waves. This panoramic backdrop, revealed horror by horror, sets the stage for an apocalyptic hellscape of human misery. For many people, of course, climate horror is here, today. Already the dead can be counted—in Puerto Rico, Bangladesh, California. Already the air is deadly: “More than 10,000 people die each day, globally, from the small-particulate pollution produced by burning carbon.” Given the speed, scope, and severity of change already underway, Wallace-Wells has warned that it’s time to panic.

Critics savaged the original article as irresponsible and alarmist. The term “climate porn” was bandied about online. “I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing,” climate scientist Michael Mann wrote on his Facebook page. “It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change,” he observed, but he suggested there is “danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.” Present too grim a forecast, some argue, and people may lose the sense that they can do anything to help. Critics believed optimism to be more motivating than fear; some also thought it unlikely that the future would get this bad. Others applauded the piece as a necessary corrective, one that explicitly attempts to make a very real threat feel more concrete and urgent.

If you read the news, Wallace-Wells points out, it seems as if the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees, set by the Paris accords, “remains something like the scariest scenario it is responsible to consider.” But no industrial nation is on track to meet its Paris targets. And a recent report presented to the United Nations shows that even if global greenhouse gas emissions are somehow (improbably) cut to hit the Paris targets, Arctic temperatures are likely to rise to catastrophic levels—3-5C above preindustrial levels—because of the CO2 we have already released into the atmosphere. Those temperatures could still trigger a climate “tipping point”—rapidly melting ice and permafrost leading to rising sea levels and a release of methane into the atmosphere, causing a runaway warming effect. Even if the science is not settled, which science never is, alarmism might be one of the most honest narrative approaches we’ve got in our arsenal, this late in the day.

In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells is reaching for a form that gets readers, especially those unscathed thus far by the effects of climate change, to feel their skin in the game. He asks you to imagine what it will be like when everything you think is stable—your food, your water, your health, your country—has broken down. This is all in the range of the possible. After a brief plateau from 2014 to 2016, and a small rise in 2017, global emissions spiked to an all-time high in 2018. Although the effects will be unevenly distributed, the premise of this book is that no one will escape the consequences of climate change—it will hit you no matter who you are or where you live. If Rich tries to short-circuit the human tendency toward narrow self-interest through an appeal to morality, then Wallace-Wells doubles down on that tendency.

Some of the best writing in The Uninhabitable Earth appears in its second half, where Wallace-Wells grapples with the cultural shifts that climate change may bring. The ground covered here will be familiar to readers who follow climate theory, particularly on the left. Primarily an act of assemblage, it is incredibly useful as a sort of CliffsNotes of cutting-edge climate thought. He mulls over insights from scholars and writers such as Kenneth Pomeranz, William Nordhaus, William Gibson, Andreas Malm, Amitav Ghosh, Paul Kingsnorth, and Thomas Piketty (women are few, and the canon here leans decidedly Western). He considers everything from economic theory to transhumanism to a litany of cognitive biases (“We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception”) to try to better understand this warming world.

One of the most interesting ideas he plucks from academic journals is that climate change is morphing away from narrative and becoming a metanarrative, as Modernism was in the twentieth century. As climate change “begins to seem inescapable, total—it may cease to be a story and become, instead, an all-encompassing background. No longer a narrative, it would recede into what literary theorists call metanarrative, succeeding those—like religious truth or faith in progress—that have governed the culture of earlier eras.” This will, in turn, affect all our stories. “When we can no longer pretend that climate suffering is distant—in time or place—we will stop pretending about it and start pretending within it.” In this imagined future, “even romantic comedies would be staged under the sign of warming, as surely as screwball comedies were extruded by the anxieties of the Great Depression.”

What people miss about Wallace-Wells is that he’s, in fact, an optimist. He’s an almost Pollyannaish one at that, who argues that it’s wholly in our power to stop the clock on climate catastrophe. The solutions, he says, have already been imagined. We have all the tools—a carbon tax, clean energy, novel agricultural practices, a shift away from beef and dairy, and much-touted (but still more or less imaginary) carbon capture technology. He takes a leap of faith that we’ll somehow figure this out in the next 30 years, which is the window of time he cites as humanity’s opportunity to avoid the nightmare planet he has just described. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see a glossy feature with techno-optimist overtones on carbon capture or geoengineering from Wallace-Wells in the near future.) The fact that to implement these changes would mean overhauling global industry and infrastructure doesn’t seem to faze him. Neither does the lack of geopolitical systems needed to even begin to address these changes. “We just haven’t yet discovered the political will” to do it, he writes. The “just” in that statement is a doozy.

In a section titled “Ethics at the End of the World,” Wallace-Wells paints a bleak picture of what is actually far more likely to happen, which is essentially the normalization of increasing levels of human suffering. “One way we might manage to navigate that path without crumbling collectively in despair,” he writes, “is perversely to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it, as we have so much human pain over centuries, so that we are always coming to terms with what is just ahead of us, decrying what lies beyond that, and forgetting all that we have ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely.”

It’s not surprising that writers can struggle to tell new stories about climate change, stewing as we are in the midst of it. At the very least, these are unprecedented times that call for new kinds of narratives—or perhaps new forms, entirely—that help make sense of our interrelated lives on a warming planet. These two new books illustrate, each in its own way, how insufficient traditional modes of narrative can be for this subject. For Rich, spinning a good yarn means leaving out politics, an egregious omission for a story that unfolds in the halls of American political power. For Wallace-Wells, telling the truth means leaving out narrative altogether.

Both books also tend to whitewash difference in an attempt to talk about a problem whose burden is not equally shared. Rich whitewashes difference to put all humans in the same doomed boat; Wallace-Wells whitewashes difference to curry hope. “Personally,” he writes, “I think that climate change … flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world, as one, to action.” But power is an unevenly distributed resource, and not everyone is so easily flattered. Given vast disparities in wealth and risk, “we” are not all facing the same threat, and yet people need ways to talk to each other about climate change.

The real gift these books offer, then, is the dialogue they’ve prompted. Together, they serve as a reminder that we need to recognize what’s at stake in the stories we’re reading; what one perspective values, what another overlooks. Maybe, the truth can only appear in aggregate, arising out of an ecosystem of different kinds of stories that rub up against one another in surprising ways.

One story that is still to be told is a tale of collective action, in which a social movement, say, could serve as protagonist. Wallace-Wells calls this approach “a snore.” And anyone paying attention to climate news can tell you we have already missed the opportunity for a happy ending. But rather than a moralism of climate change we could use an ethics of climate change, rooted not in personal belief but in a shared consideration of what we owe to one another. I hope someone figures out how to tell that story, soon.