Choose your metaphor

I have been reading this depressing, though such a terribly revelatory book on the future of climate change The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and thought I would like to share some excerpts.

The climate change issue is getting so alarming it requires unconventional methods to not fix it, because we couldn’t, just to slow it down:

 If we can’t rebuild the entire infrastructure of the modern world soon enough to save it from self-destruction, perhaps we can at least buy ourselves some time by artificially cooling off the planet or maybe sucking some of its toxic fumes out of the air. If that seems too sci-fi for you, you are not alone; in 2018, Nature dismissed all such scenarios as “magical thinking.”

But if, today, you want to believe in climate hope — want to believe the planet can stay below two degrees of warming — it means believing in something more fanciful than decarbonization and clean energy. No matter how quickly we take action, and no matter how aggressively, the goal of a stable climate is functionally out of reach by any conventional method. We can implement the most aggressive climate policy yet conceived, doubling or even tripling the most ambitious decarbonization proposals being put forward today by the world’s greenest leaders, and we will still need some “magic.” Probably a whole lot of it.

Among climate scientists, these are considered Hail Marys — worth exploring but unlikely to change the course of global warming on a large scale — although the two approaches these scientists consider more practical are likely to strike you as Hail Marys, too. The first is to cool the planet with a program of suspended particles — that is, polluting the air on purpose, likely with sulfur, to reflect sunlight back into space. This prospect, called “solar geoengineering,” would allow us to continue to produce at least some carbon. It has also been received by the public as a worst-case scenario near science fiction — and has, in fact, informed much of the recent sci-fi that has addressed itself to the climate crisis. And yet it has gained a terrific amount of currency among some of the most concerned climate scientists, many of whom describe it as an inevitability — it’s just so cheap, they say. Even an environmentalist billionaire, going rogue, could make it happen on his own.

Once we began such a program, we couldn’t stop, at least not suddenly: Even a brief interruption would send the planet plunging several degrees of warming forward into a climate abyss. (The system would also be vulnerable to terrorism, war, and political gamesmanship, as even its advocates acknowledge.)


In a way, literature had been dispensing us with warnings from the dawn of time:

Even before the age of climate change, the literature of conservation furnished many metaphors to choose from. James Lovelock gave us the Gaia hypothesis, which conjured an image of the world as a single, evolving, quasi-biological entity. Buckminster Fuller popularized “spaceship Earth,” which presented the planet as a kind of desperate life raft in what Archibald MacLeish called “the enormous, empty night”; today the phrase suggests a vivid picture of a world spinning through the solar system barnacled with enough carbon-capture plants to actually stall out warming, or even reverse it, restoring as if by magic the breathability of the air between the machines. The Voyager space probe gave us the Pale Blue Dot — the inescapable smallness, and fragility, of the entire experiment we’re engaged in, together, whether we like it or not. Personally, I think climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power and, in so doing, calls the world, as one, to action. At least, I hope it does. But that is another meaning of climate change’s kaleidoscope, which makes it so we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever seeing it clearly.

You can choose your metaphor. You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.

I will resume properly structured writing tomorrow, hopefully.

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