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Beyond the Knife’s Edge: The Language and Politics of Ecological Brinkmanship

We’ve been hearing for some time now that the world is at a critical juncture in the timetable of decisive action regarding climate change. The “knife’s edge” of this timeline—the final, razor-thin boundary separating our ability to reverse course from a long, fatal plunge into ecological disaster—has been evoked, perhaps quite properly, by commentators far and wide with increasing frequency and breathlessness over the last few years, if not decades. It’s worth asking, then, how wide the knife’s edge really is, and at what point we’ll have actually, finally, gone past this ostensible point-of-no-return.

The latest entry in this prolonged saga of self-flagellation is President Trump’s decision this week to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a decision that (while not surprising) has invited countless characterizations as variously “disgraceful,” “a suicide note to the world,” and a “crime against humanity,” none of which qualify as particularly controversial, and none of which are necessarily wrong. This inevitability (opposed, curiously, by such unlikely quarters within Trump’s own camp as former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson) was the most serious and most recent in a long line of US leadership failures on this front that could previously be characterized as “too little, too late,” but have now entered into a far more actively regressive realm.

To be sure, the unilateral decision made Thursday, in the face of all good evidence and an overwhelming worldwide consensus, represents a new low of cowboy-arrogance and science-rejectionism on the part of the US, to our everlasting and ever-growing shame. The only other countries in the world to opt out of the Agreement are Syria and Nicaragua, who combine to make up a small fraction of the emissions output that the US represents. The consequences, regardless of any future reversals by future administrations, aren’t going to be good. The talk of economic advantages is the standard nonsense.

This episode, despite the severity, is far from the only time in recent memory that the apocalyptic outcome has been suggested. The casual observer may be forgiven for perceiving that we seem to reach some new, final moment of reckoning on the climate change question once or twice a year. Back in 2012 former NASA researcher Bob Watson claimed that we’d already missed the deadline to avoid the tell-tale 2 degree Celsius warming point that would ultimately signify “dangerous” levels of climate change. By his count, 2010 marked the year by which the major contributors to worldwide climate change (read: the rich countries) should have significantly curtailed their greenhouse gas emissions if we realistically hoped to avoid the eventual catastrophe. Indeed, Noam Chomsky in January 2011 characterized the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives the previous November as “kind of a death knell for the species.” You have to assume he meant that at least mostly literally.

If these luminaries sound alarmist to you, at least they’re not alone. The language of imminent, irreversible, and total disaster has long been attached to discussions of climate change, as most people can recall without particular reference. The sense of urgency, at least, has been around for well over a decade, if not longer. In 2007 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that there “could be as little as eight years left” to avoid that 2 degree harbinger. If any coal-rollers remembered that warning by 2015, you can probably imagine their self-satisfied disdain yourself.

This is not to say that those dire warnings were not, in large part, justified. But it’s easy to see why some people, long-enshrouded in end-of-times language concerning a topic they badly misunderstand and have been trained to laugh about, become resistant to ongoing warnings that have started to seem like a broken record with no in-your-face evidence to back them up. They don’t care about a disaster that they can’t see, or that is mostly still waiting in the wings, even as they’re told for the umpteenth time that the beginning stages are currently unfolding around them. So when these same people yet again hear the renewed refrain of this ticking time-bomb as they read coverage of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, they’re already tuned out from the message of the accompanying condemnations.

If the language is what’s turning people off, perhaps we could just try the boring facts. As a half-baked thought experiment, let’s assume that the worst really has already come to pass, that it’s too late to avoid whatever fate accompanies a long-term 2 degree Celsius warming. What might we expect to see?

NASA is commendably restrained in stating their position that climate change is guaranteed to offer a wide range of changes for the planet: some good, some bad, but on the whole probably mostly bad. The full effects will only be known by direct observation of this scary, high-stakes, irreversible experiment, as it’s run on our planet. That is the very conservative, optimistic view. The non-sensationalist one.

As if that’s not bad enough, others (who are less constrained to speak in certainties) foresee devastating effects rippling out from the minimal guarantees outlined by NASA. Chomsky’s “death knell” refers, among other things, to a predicted melting of the Himalayan glaciers, which would “[destroy] the water supply for South Asia.” The resulting competition for water, which is already a major issue in India, among other places in the region, could easily lead to a clash between India and Pakistan, who, Chomsky ominously reminds us, are both nuclear states. You throw in the mass exoduses that are predicted to occur from such low-lying places as Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands and other places, and you are looking at a refugee crisis that will make today’s Syrian situation in Europe look like a minor rehearsal. These are just some of many examples.

You can see that what may at first appear to be mere sensationalism (death knells and what-not), may, upon further elaboration, bear serious consideration. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to separate the known, minimally inevitable reality, which is already serious enough, from overly grandiose proclamations about our looming fate. Like Al Gore’s flawed, over-the-top predictions in 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, any inaccuracy (real or imagined) threatens to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the issue among an American public that already possesses a misplaced skepticism and borderline hostility toward mainstream science. In Gore’s case, the film probably hurt his cause more than helped it, and gave the wider American public an unfortunate primer on the subject that included just-around-the-corner predictions that then promptly failed to pan out. That’s still the main association many Americans have with the concept.

Let me try to return to the question posed at the outset. Have we really, for the past decade plus, been on an environmental knife’s edge, and if so, at what point will we have gone past it? The answer, predictably, is not clear-cut. If you look at this period in reference to a long enough (perhaps geological) timescale, then yes, it seems fair to describe the past many years as a virtual instant of time in which decisions will have been made with magnificent, perhaps everlasting, consequences. We failed to make the drastic changes that the experts deemed necessary to avoid the drawn-out, one-time-only experiment that we now face, and the coming decades will increasingly reveal that to a public that will perhaps slowly come to accept the reality of the situation only as the metaphorical and literal floodwaters rise around them.

This article does not contain any real solution to the problems it has attempted to highlight. Maybe some people just can’t be helped. I doubt that a more cautious, nuanced elaboration on the prospects we’re facing will be any more effective at persuading a stubborn populace to reverse course on a topic they made up their minds about a long time ago. I’m not sure that a path toward environmental sustainability, to the extent that it limits damage going forward, can ever hope to rely on these people. The US (and by extension, the rest of the world), will have to take action in spite of the sizable segment of its voting population who refuse to recognize what everyone else already knows. We can only hope that happens sooner rather than later.

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