In other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the summer has already seen its toll of heat waves and heavy rains. Record-breaking temperatures in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad this July had my colleagues blistering their hands simply by touching the handle of an office door. The coastal Indian metropolis of Mumbai experiences seasonal flooding every year, but was hit by a year’s worth of rain in the space of a month this summer. Higher-than-average rainfalls in the past weeks led to an arc of destruction from central Europe to the Turkish Black Sea coast to southern China, where, in a grim omen, rising waters submerged the toes of a towering Tang dynasty-era statue of the Buddha that has stood for more than 13 centuries.
“This year’s flooding has unfolded not as a single natural disaster, with an enormous loss of life and property,” noted the New York Times, “but rather as a slow, merciless series of smaller ones, whose combined toll has steadily mounted even as official reports have focused on the government’s relief efforts.”
Experts are broadly convinced that a steady uptick in extreme weather events of recent years is at least in part the result of man-made climate change. “It seems like every year re-ups the previous year in terms of pushing the envelope, in terms of how much fire we’re seeing in the landscape and how severe that fire is,” Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist, told the Guardian about the California wildfires.
Yet if you listen to the Republican National Convention this week, talk of the threat posed by climate change will be wholly, if predictably, absent. President Trump ranks as perhaps the world’s most prominent climate skeptic, while his administration has steadily loosened key environmental regulations throughout the country. Trump sees international efforts to curb carbon emissions as a threat to national interests. On Monday, he defended the continued exploitation of fossil fuels such as coal and oil as an economic good and dismissed calls for greater use of renewable wind and solar energy as “very heavily expensive.”
Counter to the mainstream global scientific and political consensus, the Republicans will probably spend more time at the convention attacking the supposed climate “extremism” of activist Democrats than reckoning with the planetary peril at hand. That may make for sound electoral politics for now, but critics bemoan Trump’s hopelessly blinkered approach.
“If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) said this weekend as hundreds of blazes ravaged his state.
“California has seen a significant uptick in large-wildfire activity because of a combination of climate change, land-use practices and other factors,” my colleagues reported. “Large fires have also increased across other parts of the West, which climate studies tie to human-caused climate change that alters the timing of precipitation, makes summers hotter and vegetation drier, and leads to more days with extreme weather that enable fires to spread rapidly.”
A lot of the damage can’t be undone. A team of British scientists recently released findings of a satellite-based survey that concluded that, just since 1994, about 28 trillion tons of ice disappeared from the surface of the planet. Extreme weather events that took place, say, once a century are now expected to become far more commonplace. A study published last month found that coastal flooding is expected to rise by 50 percent over the next 80 years, threatening assets worth about a fifth of global GDP.
My colleagues reported in July on another bleak study that concluded that “a doubling of carbon dioxide, which the world is on course to reach within the next five decades or so, would result in warming greater than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) relative to preindustrial temperatures” — and perhaps significantly greater. “That is the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth will suffer dangerous effects — disruptive sea level rise, intolerable heat waves and other extreme weather and permanent damage to ecosystems.”
In the face of such an immense threat, it can be difficult to imagine what is politically possible. But timidity may not be an option. Bill McKibben, a noted environmentalist, pointed to the limited environmental impact of the coronavirus pandemic — which dramatically reduced global trade and travel — as evidence of the need for far more transformative reforms.
“The bottom line was that emissions fell, but not by as much as you might expect: by many calculations little more than 10 or 15 percent,” McKibben wrote in the New York Review of Books. “What that seems to indicate is that most of the momentum destroying our Earth is hardwired into the systems that run it. Only by attacking those systems — ripping out the fossil-fueled guts and replacing them with renewable energy, even as we make them far more efficient — can we push emissions down to where we stand a chance.”
Making that case is far harder in an era of American political polarization, where even basic scientific guidelines about the pandemic got tossed as kindling into a raging culture war.
“We’ve known for a long time that simply communicating scientific facts is not enough to spur what science shows is the correct or rational behavior,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate researcher at Texas Tech University, told my colleague Sarah Kaplan. “Climate scientists were probably the least surprised people in the world when the response to the coronavirus became politically polarized. Because that’s what we’ve been living through for 30 years.”