Climate change news has become a bigger vice for me than even crappy genre fiction, and in celebration of Earth Day, I’d like to note a longstanding issue I have with these stories.
For some scientifically literate people with a good imagination, it’s enough to know that major disruptions to the mild and stable climate we’ve enjoyed for the past ten thousand years would be disastrous, without needing to know the exact form such disasters would take–but that’s not most people. And there’s precious little in the news that really brings home what the actual lived consequences might be like. Take, for example, the Earth Day article Vox released, the big above-the-fold listicle. Item number one is about the size of the plastic pollution problem. It’s gotten to the point where most drinking water contains microscopically small plastic fibers. Well, so what? Presumably you, and I, and countless others have been drinking it for years without visible side effects. I had to do more googling to find that these contaminants can be carcinogens. And even now that I’ve done this, it’s hard to keep myself from thinking, so what? Doesn’t everything give you cancer? I guess I could keep researching and find the numbers somewhere on exactly how cancer rates have been impacted, but I’m on vacation.
Item number two is a reminder that the last male Northern White Rhino is dead. It then goes on to say that there are Southern White Rhinos left, and the northern one was a mere subspecies. Also, the planet is now short a bat species, a kind of gecko, and two kinds of skinks. I feel vaguely that these must be terrible things, but it sounds like we have more rhinos on the backburner, and I don’t know what a skink is.
Item three is about the ecological recovery of a handful of species, and the discovery of some brand-new ones. Once again, nothing that an actual human’s day-to-day might be impacted by.
Item four is about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and how it will raise sea levels by twenty feet, but most people who are alive now will be dead by the time that happens.
Item five is about seagrass bouncing back. Whoop de doo, I don’t know what that is either.
Item six is about Hurricane Maria and the devastation it unleashed on Puerto Rico, which is definitely good as an example of the kinds of consequences actual humans might have to live with.
Item seven is about the search for new planets, which to me feels like a sad abdication of responsibility to our current planet, but I suppose could be construed as uplifting to other people.
It is a little unfair of me to crap on these journalists too much, because part of the problem is the reticence of scientists themselves. Their job is to be absolutely correct, and they can’t know with any great confidence the behavior of big, complex systems like the planet and the global society supported by it. With that said, a few things are well-established enough that I think journalists could focus on these to encourage people to actually care, particularly feckless Americans:
1. Climate-driven migration. If you’re an American who dislikes Mexican immigrants, boy have I got some news for you! From https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/how-climate-change-affecting-mexico: “In fact, climate change may lead to a 40 to 70 percent decline in Mexico’s current cropland suitability by
2030. Worse, this could soar to an 80 to 100 percent decline by the end of this century. We’re talking about Mexico potentially losing over half its workable farms in less than 12 years – and all of them by 2100.” Where are people going to go? Probably here. I’d like to think that America will recognize that its profligate and disproportionate guzzling of fossil fuels is ultimately what’s responsible for Mexican climate migrants fleeing north in search of cooler temperatures, and that it will therefore react in a humane and rational manner, but I’m not stupid.
2. Decreased crop yields. From https://www.carbonbrief.org/warm-spells-arctic-stunt-crop-yields-across-us-study-suggests: “Analysing data for US annual harvests of corn, soybeans and wheat, the study finds that yields were approximately 2%, 4% and 4% lower, respectively, in “warm” Arctic years compared to “cold” years.” (Of course, that figure will only get worse as time goes by, and it will be far, far worse for the more southern parts of the globe.) Percentages are such dry things. But hydrating them into stories that can convey what it’s actually going to be like to live in a world defined by those percentages is the kind of thing that journalists can excel at. Not being a journalist, my best guess, alas, is that I won’t get to live in a world where I can continue to have matcha pancakes with lavender syrup for brunch.
3. Disruptions to global supply chains. I have actually never even seen an article about this, and I read a lot. But I’d like to see someone write about this. Is a highly complex, highly interconnected global society that’s getting its ass kicked by climate change going to still have iPhones, or raspberries imported from Chile? Suppose Shenzhen, home to many an iPhone factory, is hit by a massive, climate-change-supercharged storm one year. (As it will be, since it’s a coastal city.) Are the dudes at Apple even thinking about this?
4. What an actually sustainable civilization would look like. What the hell does this look like? Will we still be able to have streaming services like Netflix? I actually think we might not, since the manufacture of electronics and maintenance of data centers are both so carbon-intensive. Probably we won’t be able to travel as much, drive as much, or move as much. There might not be any more flights across country to visit family for the holidays. Certain parts of the country just might become uninhabitable, because the cost of keeping on the AC or the heat will be too high. How would the kinds of homes we build change, how would our urban planning have to change? What will commutes look like? What will happen to art, music, and fashion, when everything becomes more expensive? I think that your average well-meaning liberal thinks that they’ll get to live the exact same lifestyle, but they’ll have to remember to bring their own shopping bags to the store, and everyone will have solar panels. I suspect–I know–an honest examination of this question is going to piss off a lot of people. You can already see this in the battles between young environmentalists who want to build denser housing, and their older counterparts who still think of a single-family home and two cars as the American Dream.
It seems to be de rigueur at the end of most professionally written climate stories to end on a note of optimism, to talk about how there are still rhinos left, or how new technology is imminent, but I’m not a journalist, so I won’t.