It doesn't take the end of the world to kill you

Even if some of us survive climate change, it won't be pretty

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a force in public life. One reason is her skill at boiling complex issues down into vivid, immediate language, in a way that energizes supporters and drives opponents insane.

Take this from January:

… Millennials and Gen Z and all these folks that come after us are looking up, and we’re like, ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we going to pay for it?’ This is the war. This is our World War II.

It landed directly on her critics’ deepest insecurities. In fewer than forty words, they had to grapple with the reality that climate change is a big deal and will take major government and social action to confront. They had to consider whether something they’ve been lied to about for decades might be as important as a war they know from movies and books. And, worst of all for them, they had to hear about all of it from a young woman of color who is smarter and more popular than they are.

So instead of dealing with any of that, they tried playing her claim for laughs:

And they haven’t let up since:

My personal favorite is this dude, who thinks “the world is going to end” means the planet will literally explode, Alderaan-style:

Yes, I know, these are trolls cynically trying to distract people by mocking an obvious figure of speech. But in a very real way, they also want people to believe what they’re saying: Unless climate change is the literal end of the world, we don’t have to do anything about it.

A similar argument kicked up again this week when an Australian think tank predicted a 2°C rise in average world temperatures could provoke a scale of destruction “beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilization coming to an end.”

Again came the actuallys:

Let’s dispatch first with these guys’ flawed premise. By definition, nothing that has ever happened in human history has been the literal end of the world. A lot of it has really, really sucked.

The Long Version

On January 12, 2010, I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was correspondent for the Associated Press. At 4:53 p.m., the city and the house I was standing in got hit by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake. In forty seconds I got the most terrifying glimpse of the Earth’s raw power that I ever want to see. Any wishful thinking I’d harbored about a guarantee of human permanence on this planet was shattered along with my windows and walls.

Somewhere between 100,000 and 316,000 people were killed—roughly one in ten residents of the metro area. If you haven’t seen what ninety percent survival looks like, it’s almost impossible to convey the horror. Bodies rotted in the streets for weeks because there was no way to bury all of them. Those of us lucky enough to survive will live with the emotional and physical scars for the rest of our lives.

That was not the end of the world.

Something like half a million people have died in the war in Syria. The conflict has also sparked the exodus of millions of refugees, a crisis which, in addition to the horrors visited upon those forced to flee, helped spark the revival of fascism in Europe and the United States. It isn’t the end of the world either.

World War II killed around 85 million people. That was a mere three percent of Earth’s population.

The 1918 flu pandemic might have killed 100 million. U.S. cities ran out of coffins. That was five percent of the species.

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas resulted in widespread civilizational collapse and the deaths of millions. The end of their worlds, perhaps, but not the world. The Black Death is estimated to have killed two-thirds of the people in Europe. The whole continent seems to have been convinced that was the end of the world. But it wasn’t.

I covered the 2015 Paris climate summit. Delegates there were desperately trying to get an agreement on limiting climate change to +2°C over pre-industrial levels, which they thought was the best they’d be able to do. At the last minute, the vulnerable small island nations were able to convince everyone to agree on at least nominally accepting an even lower goal of +1.5°C. It was considered a huge success.

Here’s some of what scientists say will happen at +1.5°C:

  • Huge increases in wildfires tearing across North America and Europe

  • Sea levels rising by two feet—eliminating much of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Miami Beach, causing severe flooding in London, New York, Lagos, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

  • Another 300 million people added to the billions already living with water scarcity

  • Several more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes a year

  • Around $10.2 trillion in annual flood damage losses

Again, that’s currently a best-case scenario. But thanks to the election of Donald Trump and his pulling out of the climate accords, it’s probably out of reach. Here’s how David Wallace-Wells summarized some of the more likely outcomes in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth:

At +2°C:

… the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer …

+3°C:

… southern Europe would be in permanent drought … the areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple, or more, in the United States …

+4°C:

… eight million more cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone and close to annual global food crises. There could be 9 percent more heat-related deaths. Damages from river flooding would grow thirtyfold in Bangladesh, twentyfold in India and as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom. In certain places, six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously, and, globally, damages could pass $600 trillion—more than twice the wealth as exists in the world today …

Also, “conflict and warfare could double.” We’re already seeing the early stages of this: the Syrian war is rooted in part in climate change. (Wallace-Wells’ sources include thisthisthisthis, and this.)

Are you ready for disease pandemics that make the 1918 flu look like a bad cold season? How about global financial crises and spiraling poverty, of the kind that made the Haiti earthquake so unnecessarily deadly?

To look at it another way, there are about 65 million refugees in the world now. The U.N. says that, by 2050, the total number of climate refugees could reach 1 billion.

The world might not end. Human civilization might find a way to survive.

But do you want to live through any of that?

Stolen Valar (Morghulis)

I think a lot of these guys are laughing in the face of catastrophe because they feel certain that, no matter what, they will find a way to survive. There are a few things going on there.

One part is survivorship bias. That’s the logical fallacy in which a person wrongly assumes that because they survived something in the past, they will survive it again in the future.

Shapiro, D’Souza, et al., have a particularly dumb strain of it. They assume that because other people have survived hardship and war, they will survive a totally different set of circumstances in the future. (They also stupidly ignore all the people who didn’t survive those past calamities.)

Another reason climate deniers seem happy to risk pandemic, fire, and flood is that they are certain humankind will “adapt.”

One of the last times the climate changed this dramatically was 195,000 years ago, when the mild seasons and plentiful food that allowed for the rise of humanity gave way to a major Ice Age. Almost every single person in the world died. The species survived only because a few hundred individuals got lucky and their descendants could hide out in southern Africa for about 72,000 years.

Forget the way the word is used in Silicon Valley. That’s what “adaptation” really means.

The biggest limitation the deniers are working with is a total lack of imagination and empathy. They are tweeting from comfortable, climate-controlled buildings in a rich country that fights its wars far from home, on a planet still averaging only +1°C. They are insulated from the early effects of climate change we’re already seeing: killer heatwaves, catastrophic flooding in the midwest, islands disappearing in the Pacific, and supercharged hurricanes destroying American cities—with their impacts always on the most vulnerable.

I am sure more than one assumes we can just build walls to keep the problem out. Or maybe they’re on the apparent Thiel/Musk/Bezos plan: planning a last-minute escape to a Bond-villain hideout in New Zealand, or fucking Mars.

There are movies about that too:

News Guy Wept and Told Us

Ocasio-Cortez most likely got her 12-year figure from the IPCC’s 2018 report, which said that in order to limit ourselves to +1.5°C warming and its associated catastrophes, we have to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050. (For anyone keeping score, we’re now down to 11 years on the first part.)

The deniers cheered when the literalist fact-checkers at Axios got the IPCC’s scientists to push back on her comments after the talk. But if any of them had bothered to actually read the story, they might have slowed their rolls.

It turned out the scientists’ problem with the congresswoman’s claim was that it wasn’t urgent enough. “Deadlines will make people treat climate change more cavalierly to start, since 12 years can seem like a long time,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech.

Or, as NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel put it:

We don't have 12 years to prevent climate change — we have no time. It’s already here.

We’re deciding through our actions right now the kind of world we, our children, and hopefully generations to follow are going to live in. Maybe raging wildfires, rising seas, pandemics, heat deaths, roiling poverty, a billion refugees, and mass starvation won’t be the literal end of the world. But it’s close enough for me.

If a rising leader like Ocasio-Cortez can mobilize people into avoiding a hellish future by using figurative language and stirring up debate, I’m all for it. I’ve seen too much to risk otherwise.

More on this Topic

Osita Nwanevu on what’s actually in the Green New Deal (The New Yorker)

Reviews by Roy Scranton and Franz Baumann of Wallace-Wells’ and Bill McKibben’s new climate change books (LA Review of Books)

If you want to know more about the Haiti earthquake and what went wrong after, you can check out my book: The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

And now this is in my head.