Climate Change: We're Not Literally Doomed, but...[ANNOTATED BY THIS BLOGGER ON CLOUD ZERO]
…there’s space for action between “everything is fine” and “the apocalypse is upon us,” opines stand-up comedy club speaker Kate Marvel
[ANNOTATED by this blogger on Cloud Zero]
There is really no such thing as a post-apocalyptic story. WRONG, KATE, THERE IS, AND YOU JUST DON'T WANT TO SEE IT YET. Someone, after all, has to survive to tell the tale. FUNNY JOKE! An apocalypse must be incomplete to be interesting: cockroaches don’t present much opportunity for character development. EVEN MORE COMICAL AND FUNNY, KATE!
And yet, this is how we sometimes talk about climate change: ''we’re doomed, the apocalypse is coming, the end of the world is nigh.'' WHICH IS TRUE, KATE. WAKE UP AND GET OFF YOUR DAILY DOSE OF AMBIEN. Don’t get me wrong: climate change is an overwhelmingly horrific thing. AND THANKKS FOR SAYING SO CLIMATE EXPERT THAT YOU ARE! It will lead—it already is leading- to massive economic damage, desperate refugees, and the loss of things we love. WHAT ARE SOME OF THING THINGS YOU LOVE, KATE? But it’s fundamentally different from an ''asteroid impact'' or ''zombie plague,'' and I think it’s important to understand why. OH THIS IS GONNA BE A FUN LECTURE!
I do understand the urge to catastrophize. NO YOU DO NOT. YOU ONLY KNOW HOW TO BE FUNNY AND MAKE JOKES AT THE EXPENSE OF WHAT IS REALLY COMING DOWN THE ROAD SOME 30 GENERATIONS FROM NOW. My surname is ''Marvel,'' and if you make a joke about its resemblance to a certain mass entertainment conglomerate like Marvel Comics, you won't be be the first person to ever do so. But to support ''the family business,'' VERY FUNNY! I’ve seen a fair number of super-hero movies, and I understand the stakes are high. Movie supervillains are never trying to make sweeping changes to the tax code or reform the regulatory state. They’re trying to destroy the entire universe and murder every single one of the good guys. The assumption seems to be that audiences simply won’t care about anything less that total destruction. IN A COMEDY CLUB, THAT'S A GOOD LINE, KATE. IN A SERIOUS OPED, IT'S DUMB.
I believe that it is possible to care about something without believing it will destroy all life in the universe. SUCH AS? I know my own ''personal bar'' is set substantially lower. But it’s true: climate change is a unique problem, and it’s incredibly hard to talk about. ACTUALLY IT IS NOT VERY HARD TO TALK ABOUT IF YOU TAKE OFF YOUR STAND UP COMEDIAN'S CAP AND FACE REALITY. I think there are 3 reasons for this.
First, climate change isn’t a supervillain. It’s worse. OH GOOD! Villains, after all, clearly explain the havoc they’re about to cause, usually to the hero they’ve just captured. If only our climate projections could provide such certainty. IF ONLY! Unfortunately, sometimes the best information scientists can provide comes hedged with caveats. For example, under current emissions trajectories we might exceed the 2 degree warming limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as the 2030s, or as much as 30 generations into the future. What should we do with this information? This uncertainty can lead to paralysis and confusion. FOR YOU! Humans are terrible at thinking about probabilities, as every weather forecaster on the receiving end of abuse for being “wrong” well knows. TV HUMOR!
Second, the climate apocalypse will not come for us all, at least not all at once. NOT WEALTHY COLUMBIA PROFESSORS, THAT'S FOR SURE! A large body of research demonstrates that the people who will suffer the most from a changing climate will be those who did the least to cause it. LIKE PEOPLE IN INDIA, PAKISTAN, AFRICA AND ALASKA? Wealth may still buy security, even in a warmer, more chaotic world. DID YOU REALLY SAY THAT JUST NOW?
Finally, a climate apocalypse may well be on the way, IT MAY VERY WELL BE AND YOU NEED TO STOP BEING FUNNY ABOUT AND WAKE UP but it competes for attention with our own personal apocalypses. At the risk of this column resembling a Smiths song, I would like to point out that we all, eventually, are going to die. OH VERY FUNNY! I would prefer not to, of course. OH VERY VERY FUNNY! And perhaps by the time I am old and decrepit we will have developed sufficiently advanced technology to become immortal. YOU WANT TO BE IMMORTAL? But I think I would probably prefer the sweet embrace of death to spending eternity with the kind of tech billionaires who could afford it. A GOOD COMEDY CLUB THROW AWAY LINE.
The point is, climate change is staggeringly fast on geological timescales, and relatively slow in comparison to a human lifetime. Given the poverty, racism, and inequality in the world, climate change is seldom anyone’s number one problem. Until, one day, it is. FIRST HONEST AND USEFUL THING YOU SAID SO FAR!
But there are reasons to be optimistic. NO THERE ARE NOT ANY REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC. THE GLASS IS HALF EMPTY ALREADY! We make vital decisions under uncertainty all the time. There was a 50 percent chance of rain on my wedding day, but I couldn’t choose to get half married. And we can understand the unfairness that climate change will exacerbate, and work toward a more just society. Finally, we have the tools—science, policy, technology—and the creativity to imagine a better world that outlasts our own lifetimes. IMAGINE? IMAGINE WHAT?
Look, I hate to break it to you: we *are* doomed. That has nothing to do with climate change, and everything to do with the simple fact of being alive. FUNNY!!!!! But we have a choice about what to do to this wonderful place we inhabit for a short, miraculous time. WONDERFUL AND MIRACULOUS FOR WEALTHY PROFESSORS LIKE YOU WHO LIVES IN YOUR POSH SWANY IVORY TOWER LIFE!
I don’t think climate change will destroy the actual planet or make the human species go extinct. IT WILL, KATE, AND IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. STOP GIVING TED TALKS AND WAKE UP! But, you know what? I believe we can aim for something a little bit better than “not doomed.” SUCH AS REALLY DOOMED? If, at the end of the day, the most positive thing I can note in my diary is “FAILED TO GO EXTINCT,” then that was probably not a good day. HAHA, VERY FUNNY COMEDY CLUB LINE. There is space for action between “everything is fine” and “we’re doomed.” TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS SPACE YOU SEEM TO KNOW SO WELL. That space is shrinking fast, but the gap is not closed yet. ACTUALLY, PROFESSOR, THE GAP CLOSED A FEW DECADES AGO. GAME OVER. It shouldn’t take an apocalypse to make us do the right thing. WE ARE NOT GOING TO DO THE RIGHT THING AND YOU KNOW IT. STOP PLAYING WORDS GAMES WITH THESE SILLY OPEDS. GET OFF YOUR AMBIEN FAST!
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Marvel is a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. She received a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge University and has worked at Stanford University, the Carnegie Institution, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She's given talks in places as diverse as comedy clubs, prisons, and the TED main stage.