It’s climate week here — feels like every week is climate week now, doesn’t it? — so it was hard not to think about the countless globs of wadded, befouled boreal marching their way through Manhattan’s intestines. All that forest, flushed. All that carbon, loosed to the atmosphere. The city, like the planet, was a cauldron of chaos and order, problems and solutions. Climate Week NYC had no center; it was happening all over, in dive bars and churches and five-star hotels. Visitors had come here to lobby, to rage, to perform, to watch and wonder: Are we at the beginning of something, or the end of it? (The suspense is killing us.)
On the other side of Grand Central, the movements of heads of state snarled mile-long stretches of avenue, idling traffic, driving up the city’s emissions. In Central Park, a Danish artist gave out brushes of blue paint for passersby to illustrate their exhalations in vertical streaks on a winding 600-foot long canvas, to show that we’re all connected by breath, or something. Down at a forum in FiDi, analysts and PhDs spent five hours talking about how blockchain might save the planet, one virtual ledger at a time, by turning us from energy-sucking humans into efficient end-users, ratepayers, stakeholders.
“It’s an infrastructure for trust,” said a blockchain expert for PG&E, the California utility. Boy, do we need something like that right about now. By mid-century, 100-year floods could happen every year in cities like Los Angeles, according to a climate report just released by the United Nations. We are not making the future easier for ourselves.
The year 2050 loomed large in New York this week, on the trashed ancestral lands of the Lenape tribes, who were invoked at multiple events. The weather was gorgeous, but the atmosphere alternated between hot and cold: People rejoiced in solidarity in the middle of First Avenue, got drunk in Chelsea while toasting “asset tokenization platforms” that will somehow save the rainforest, sobbed into the arms of strangers in a midtown session titled “Expressing Climate Grief.” In the basement theater at Alvin Ailey, dancers performed “Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet” by D.C. choreographer Diana Movius. They rushed like meltwater, slapped the ground like calving glaciers, died at the lip of the stage like desperate polar bears.
Greta Thunberg’s jeremiad at the U.N. seemed to echo between skyscrapers for days.
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” said the teenage Swedish activist Monday, her voice and eyes tight with anger and sadness. “How dare you!”
Oh, how they dared. A couple blocks south of tissue talk was “the hub” for Climate Week NYC, in a conference space adjacent to the office of JPMorgan Chase. The hub was decorated with logos of such corporate partners as Ikea, which uses 1 percent of the Earth’s wood every year (by 2030 it hopes to make all its products with 100 percent renewable or recycled material). There was seltzer on tap and whole grapefruits for the taking, debates about how capital investments will either save us or smote us, sessions with titles like “Facilitating Investments toward a 1.5 Degree Future.”
The talk from the stage was both energized and anxious. We know what we have to do, but we don’t have the constitution, infrastructure or technology to do it yet. The time to act is now, but in some ways it’s too late.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” said former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Wednesday, after noting that one pathway to getting to net-zero carbon emissions would require the removal of 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by mid-century. If we dispose of that geologically, we’d fill 88 billion barrels of supercritical carbon-dioxide per year; that’s the equivalent of two and a half times our yearly demand for oil.
It’s all too much to think about. But the people at Climate Week NYC thought about it anyway, all day, every day. Felt it, too.
“I’ve had so much eco-anxiety and dread this week that I needed something like this,” said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director for D.C. organization Mighty Earth. She was sitting with a whiskey and soda at the New York Comedy Club, ready to watch a medley of stand-up and sketch comedy about something that is no laughing matter.
“If you want to save some money at Christmas, you can say Santa Claus died in a wildfire,” quipped comedian Chuck Nice, who organized the event to experiment with ways to engage a public that is too busy or too daunted. He was preaching to the choir, though, which was made up of carbon consultants from Switzerland and climate-science majors from Columbia University.
On the barricaded campus of the U.N., some nations made promises to do more, and better, and faster. But there was also a kind of farcical dread. President Trump mocked Thunberg, the teen activist, on Twitter late Monday night. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered an ornate digression about a dystopian future.
“It is a trope as old as literature that any scientific advance is punished by the gods,” Johnson declared, as his U.K. delegation watched with mystified smiles. “When Prometheus brought fire to mankind — in a tube of fennel, as you may remember, with his brother Epimetheus — Zeus punished him by chaining him to a Tartarian crag, while his liver was pecked out.”
Speaking of livers: On the third floor of the Standard High Line, the specialty cocktail was called a “lift ticket,” perhaps in deference to the Davos regulars attending a reception for “climate leaders” Wednesday evening. Vodka, elderflower cordial, cucumber, lime. The vodka ran out by 9:30 p.m. There was a speech about a new virtual currency whose value will be put in a perpetual trust for forests around the world, so that the worth of your phantom coins will fall if the trees do.
“I didn’t understand one effing thing that was said in the last 14 minutes,” actor Rainn Wilson said afterward at the microphone, the Hudson River like a velvet carpet behind him. Wilson, best known for his role as Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” would be on his way to Greenland on Thursday morning with a entity called Arctic Basecamp, which has been trying to bring the faraway urgency of Arctic issues into fancy, climate-controlled rooms like this one.
Venture capitalists took selfies with scions of royalty and empire, who’ve realized that it’s not enough to passively fling money at the problem from on high.
“Unfortunately, or fortunately, climate week is in the hub of New York, where these elite do come,” said Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, who created a fund to build cyclone-resistant housing in Fiji (and is the daughter of the Prince of Monaco and granddaughter of Grace Kelly). “We in this room have money that can be put towards initiatives but, as we’re seeing now, it’s not happening fast enough. So I wonder: If we changed the scale of these events, and had them out somewhere — where people had to take their time to go, and learn more about — would that make a difference?”
On West 43rd Street, at “Expressing Climate Grief,” a man wept as he mourned the fact that he never knew his grandfather, a coal miner in Pennsylvania who died from extracting fossil fuels. A Boston woman named Rachael Petersen was sitting across from him because she’d googled “grief,” “despair” and “climate week.” Petersen works for a foundation that directs philanthropic dollars to climate projects, and had spent the week in meetings with CEOs and government officials.
“I’ve noticed this weird thing: The further I advance in my career — the more power in the room — the less emotion is present,” she told the others. “The asymmetry between the urgency I feel and the dispassion of leaders makes me feel crazy. I guess today, in this exercise, I was reminded that I’m not crazy.”
The session involved 60 seconds of silence every 20 minutes, so people could take a breath and rest their minds. But in the Anthropocene, this era in which humanity has remade the Earth, one minute of silence can be deafening. You think about how there are 3 billion fewer birds today than in 1970. You think about how millions of kids are mobilizing against the problem because they’re worried about not having a future. You imagine all those airplanes above the clouds, spewing poison. You imagine all those ballerinas below, dancing a requiem, as remnants of the boreal flow behind the walls.