We’re (still) not being alarmist enough about climate change

What if we had another 9/11, and nothing happened?

Living in New York City, the one fantasy sport that everybody plays is real estate; we all like to imagine what it would be like to be able to afford to buy a place. And sometime over the last year or two, I realized that, even if I won the lottery and could afford to buy a home in my preferred neighborhood (the Lower East Side), I probably wouldn’t get one in most of the places I'd want to live. Because I think over the 30-year term of that mortgage, our neighborhood will be significantly destabilized by climate change.

It was a bit of a shock for me to come to this realization, because the logic is extremely straightforward, but I hadn’t really considered the implications at that visceral level. I hadn't yet let the science change my daydreaming about an HGTV future. And as I’ve talked about that reality to more and more people in my circle of friends, a curious pattern has emerged. They’ve all found the rationale around the impacts of climate change unimpeachable, but nearly all are very reluctant to embrace the conclusion that this logic inevitably yields.

In our neighborhood, it’s easy to see the impacts of increasingly-powerful storms. We were hit hard by Sandy, with power outages for days or weeks, and severe disruptions for months. I still see buildings with the high-water mark outlined on them, and I still remember which places stayed open to serve people in those incredibly dark nights when we didn't even have street lights to show the way. Any day now, they’ll be shutting down the most essential subway line in our neighborhood for massive tunnel repairs that are expected to take years to complete. This is all still recovery from a storm that most of the country has already forgotten about, that the popular memory remembers as "not as bad as they thought it was going to be".

But if you talk to transit advocates or city council members or the state officials responsible for funding such repairs (and I do), many of them predicate their argument for repairing our subway tunnel on the idea that we’ll be “fixing the problem”. We've got to fix a subway tunnel, right? It’s okay to amortize the cost of repairs to this tunnel over years or decades because then we’ll be in good shape, right?

I don’t think so.

We’re still acting like today, and the recent past, is an aberration, and the future will involve things "returning to normal". We're all making assumptions about when New York City will be hit again by another Sandy-scale storm. Most infrastructure investments are still being made with an assumed “storm of the century” mindset, where it’ll be decades until we confront this kind of disruption again. But it's far more likely, given that the rate of climate change is accelerating, that we’ll see such disruption again within a few years. The big storms we confront in the coming decades won’t always be on the scale of Sandy, but they will hit with far more energy and impact and frequency.

And when they do, not only will not be ready, we’ll be nowhere near prepared for the rebuilding and reinvestment that it will take to recover. We'll have spent our time and resources on investments that treat extreme climate disruption as the exception, instead of the norm.

We're Bad At This

Much has been written in recent years about how human societies are bad at catching on to creeping threats, as opposed to acute dangers. Western societies in particular seem vulnerable to this, and America at this specific moment seems oriented toward willfully ignoring any long-term trends or obvious threats, in favor of conjuring up imagined dangers. There’s a long strain of anti-intellectualism and short-term profiteering that has led to this point, but the years of effort in undermining science and introducing doubt into the existence of scientific consensus have produced an awful, if inevitable, outcome. Many of our political leaders in power seem shockingly comfortable with encouraging a death cult amongst their followers; this began with normalizing violence but easily evolves into an environment where existential threats are treated as exciting opportunities for a rapturous reckoning, rather than a threat to everyone.

In the past, we at least were able to treat galvanizing moments of obvious threats as a catalyst for change. For example, we reacted in the extreme to the shock and tragedy of 9/11. Unfortunately, our thoughtless reaction has delivered Bin Laden an almost total victory by embracing nearly every costly, self-defeating tactic possible. But even in losing the war on terror we certainly demonstrated that we were able to use the death of thousands as a motivation to make huge, costly, sweeping changes in society. It’s even possible to imagine what might have happened if we’d responded to the shock of 9/11 with an urgent effort to make positive changes instead of destructive ones.

This time, though, we had a catastrophe with a far higher death toll, and far higher economic toll, than 9/11, and the regime in power decided to act as if nothing had happened. Puerto Rico's awful fate under Maria was rendered even more horrific by a political response that began with indifference and then degenerated into overt denial. We can almost imagine Trump staring at the smouldering piles of rubble where the Twin Towers had stood, and not merely crowing about how his buildings had moved up in the list of tallest skyscrapers, but actively denying that anyone had died in the World Trade Center at all. Now imagine the rest of us, knowing there was going to be another 9/11 every few years, pretending that it wasn't going to be us who gets targeted next. NYC Flood Plain in the 2020s

Source: NYC Flood Hazard Mapper

Beyond Despair

I know it doesn't sound like it, but I'm an optimist. The reason I love technology and popular culture so much is because I never stop being inspired by what humans create. But I try to be pretty good at seeing where society is heading, and judging where our tastes and trends will take us over time. Usually, that just requires looking at patterns of the past, and learning from that history. This time, I don't think that works.

There isn't going to be a last-minute reprieve on climate that lets us keep living in the world we used to have.

Today's political environment demands that scientists still talk about the steps it takes to limit global temperate increase to 1.5° C. That is not going to happen. I don't even think we're  going to limit the increase to 2°C within my lifetime. I believe the millions of climate-chased refugees around the world today will be joined by tens of millions more tomorrow. I believe the increasing frequency of sectarian or regional violence instigated by climate-driven disruption of access to water or food will result in more large-scale conflicts. I think governments, even in wealthier or recently stable regions, will be destabilized by the stresses climate disruption places on infrastructure for food, water, transportation, immigration and trade.

But I do also think some large-scale changes in behavior wil happen faster than we've ever seen in human history. Solar power will gain efficiency and drop in cost at a rate that mimics the progress in smartphones over the last decade. While it'll still be an expensive and resource-intensive effort to create all these solar cells, they'll be able to beat fossil fuels in every regard — including cost — much sooner than people expect, and with far greater impact than we might predict. I'm not quite as bullish on the path for invention and innovation around removing carbon from the environment, but I wouldn't entirely bet against it, either.

The undermining of the United States' political credibility in the world, and the weakening of its cultural domination over the world, will also yield some benefits in mitigating climate disruption as fewer cultures seek American-style consumption as part of their lifestyles. Not craving giant cars and meat-filled meals will be good for the world, and we're already seeing that shift happen within the United States as well.

All this could add up to enough to have a huge positive impact in just a few decades. That will, sadly, not be enough to save the millions of lives that we'll see lost to climate disruption in the next half-century. But it's possible that millions of people may still be living in Manhattan in 50 years. I'd put the odds at a little less than 50/50.

Higher Ground

I don't know how this plays out. Not a day goes by that I don't grieve for the horrible tragedies my son is going to have to watch unfold during his lifetime because of our collective shortsightedness and failure to act. The reckoning now is whether what's left after all that chaos still resembles the society we have today (yes, even with all its grave and awful injustices) or if the jolt of these changes is too extreme. It's possible that things become so unpredictable and contentious due to climate change that we never find a new political or cultural stability during his lifetime.

It's hard to believe these things and still have hope, even knowing that our privilege and access and good fortune and talents isolate us from the worst that will come. As a New Yorker who lived here at that time, I still use 9/11 as a reference because it really did change my whole life and my whole perspective. But as the climate evolves, there's a 9/11 every week.

This year, it's wildfires and hurricanes and typhoons and floods and every single one is a record breaker — until next year. I don't know how to say it to make people understand, this isn't about "this year". This is the rest of our lives. I don't even think it makes sense to talk about "preventing" climate disruption now. It's here, and it's already unavoidable for those lowest in society, literally or figuratively. The question is how we move on to preparing for it, for building resiliency into all the institutions and infrastructures that will need to evolve, and how we care for those who are most vulnerable as we keep moving down the path we've chosen.

Honestly, that thought doesn't depress me (though I understand why for so many, it will). It's simply the work in front of us, the task we have to do. I don't feel hopeless because there's no point to feeling hopeless. We simply have to build a world that keeps working while the one that we have today starts to disappear.