The Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Nature of Crisis – The New Yorker
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An idea beloved of the technorati is that we are actually living not on the earth we seem to inhabit but in a simulation. Elon Musk has said that it’s “most likely” the case, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has set the odds at fifty-fifty. If so, we’ve clearly reached the point where whoever is supervising the action has handed the game over to a bored supervillain who is wildly pressing buttons: Pandemics! Locusts! Firestorms!
The name of this newsletter is The Climate Crisis, but for the moment the emphasis is going to be on the last of those words. We need to understand how crises work, and, since I’ve been thinking about them for many years, I have a few thoughts to offer. This week’s reflection has to do with time, which is a variable we seriously underappreciate. We’re used to political debates that go on forever—when I was a high-school debater, in 1978, our topic for the year was “That the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to regulate the health care system in the United States.” We imagine that, if we don’t solve a political problem now, we’ll get around to it eventually. Meanwhile, we’ll chip away at it—delaying a solution extends suffering along the way, but it doesn’t necessarily make a problem ultimately harder to solve. Certain kinds of problems don’t work that way, however. Physical problems—climate change and the coronavirus being the pertinent examples—are all about time. And what’s striking to me is how similar these two examples are.
We know that the first cases of the coronavirus in South Korea and the United States emerged on January 20th and January 21st, respectively. The Koreans responded immediately, rolling out a widespread testing regimen; it was disruptive, but that nation “flattened the curve” and is now looking at the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. In this country, we delayed; the President didn’t want “the numbers” growing, and was convinced that it would somehow “go away” by itself, maybe when the weather warmed. So we wasted many weeks, during which time the virus gathered momentum. Now we face an incredibly costly (and far more disruptive) effort to keep it from taking down our entire society.
Similarly, with climate change, we had effective warning in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties. At that time, we could have made somewhat disruptive efforts to cut carbon emissions by a per cent or two a year—call it the South Korean approach. But we didn’t, and nor did any other country, for the same reason: the oil companies didn’t want “the numbers” (in this case, the profits) to change. So they promoted a farrago of lies intended to quiet people’s fears, and the climate crisis gathered momentum. We’ve emitted more industrial carbon since 1988 than in all of prior human history, utterly failing to flatten the curve. (In fact, we call the diagram that outlines our dilemma the Keeling Curve, and it just keeps rising.) As a result, we now have to act in far more disruptive ways.
This lesson about time has been very hard-earned, and we dare not forget it. In the case of the virus, we need to keep moving with all speed to distance ourselves. If you’re a city councillor or a mayor or a President, the correct answer to “when” is “right now.” (Actually, “last month.”) And, in the case of climate, we need to start moving with all possible haste to transition away from fossil fuels. Using the current round of corporate bailouts to advance green energy would make sense.
Let’s assume that we are in a game, but one that we can control. Our goal has got to be not winning—what would that look like?—but simply to keep the clock running, preserving the chance to pass the action to the next generation.
Passing the Mic
Another variable, of course, is physical space. Global warming, as I’ve argued before, is shrinking the size of the board on which we play the human game. That may be most obvious along our coastlines, where the ever-more-rapidly-rising sea is suddenly shifting what had been a line constant throughout human history. The shift has been just slow enough that it’s been hard to picture—which is why the work of the photographer Virginia Hanusik is so interesting. You can see it here and here, and it’s worth staring at, because it’s both stark and subtle.
How would you describe your work on waterlines? Where did it come from?
My work really focusses on the coast as a liminal place, and the human engineering we’ve done to create a sense of permanence in spaces that were always meant to change. I began centering my practice around these concepts when I moved to Louisiana, and worked with groups that were mitigating the impacts of rapid land loss in the state due to environmental degradation from the oil and gas industries, sea-level rise, and the structural taming of the Mississippi River.
For the past couple of generations, the beachfront town has been the picture of ease and relaxation. Was that always the case? What do you think it will feel like a few decades hence?
The beach as a place of leisure is a constructed concept. I think that’s an important component of my work: exploring what places we value over others and understanding what are the economic and political reasons that establish what a desirable landscape is. In America, we started thinking about the beach as a real destination after World War Two, the rise of the automobile, and policies that encouraged development in flood zones.
Right now, I’m working on a project about climate adaptation along the Gulf Coast, and looking at how the history of flood-insurance policy drove home ownership in these flood-prone areas. Once those policies account for the real risk that climate change imposes, those landscapes are going to look completely different, with many people unable to afford the high premiums—and that’s a social-justice issue—if nothing is done to soften the blow. I’m trying to capture how these larger paradigm shifts in how we think about land are realized in the built environment.
Your background is in architecture. How should people who live near the coasts be preparing their neighborhoods for resilience?
I think of resilience as equitable access to resources, and inhabiting space that’s symbiotic with the natural world. We’re going to need a big ideological shift in how we value the coast, and people are going need to have the information and resources to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. You can already see real-estate values changing in cities like Miami, where developers are buying properties farther inland and pricing out less affluent residents of the community. We need policy to protect those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The invaluable climate expert Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic that, instead of bailing out the oil industry, it might make sense to nationalize it. She writes, “By taking fossil fuel companies under public ownership while they’re cheap to buy, the U.S. could ensure the country’s energy demands are met responsibly as it transitions to a net-zero emissions economy, without the need to appease those companies’ shareholders.” At current prices, you could snap up the top four oil producers in the United States for a mere three hundred billion dollars.