grandiosity, each drawn from the same perception of peril. There’s a name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do — gods. But for the moment, at least, many of us seem inclined to run from that responsibility rather than embrace it. Or even admit we see it, though it sits in front of us as plainly as a steering wheel. That climate change is all-enveloping means that it targets us all and that we must all share in the responsibility so we do not all share in the suffering — at least not share in so suffocatingly much of it. Since I first began writing about climate a few years ago, I’ve been asked often whether I see any reason for optimism. The thing is, I am optimistic . But optimism is always a matter of perspective, and mine is this: No one wants to believe disaster is coming, but those who look, do. At about two degrees Celsius of warming, just one degree north of where we are today, some of the planet’s ice sheets are expected to begin their collapse , eventually bringing , over centuries, perhaps as much as 50 feet of sea- level rise . In the meantime, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable . There will be , it has been estimated, 32 times as many extreme heat waves in India , and even in the northern latitudes, heat waves will kill thousands each summer. Given only conventional methods of decarbonization (replacing dirty-energy sources like coal and oil with clean ones like wind and solar ), this is probably our best-case scenario . It is also what is called — so often nowadays the phrase numbs the lips — “ catastrophic warming .” A representative from the Marshall Islands spoke for many of the world’s island nations when he used another word to describe the meaning of two degrees : genocide . You do not need to contemplate worst-case scenarios to be alarmed;
this best-case scenario is alarming enough . Two degrees would be terrible, but it’s better than three, at which point Southern Europe would be in permanent drought , African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple , or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres. And three degrees is much better than four, at which point six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously ; the number of climate refugees , already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold , or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today . We are on track for more warming still — just above four degrees by 2100 , the U.N. estimates. So if optimism is always a matter of perspective, the possibility of four degrees shapes mine.
- Summer '20
- Global Warming