Brooke Gladstone: The UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland concluded last weekend, the 26th Conference of Parties.
Alok Sharma: We know that this COP, COP26 is our last best hope to keep 1.5 in reach.
Brooke: That's 1.5 degrees Celsius, the amount of temperature change policymakers at the conference hope their collective action can achieve staving off the 2-degree change that spells out a certain planetary destruction. To get there, this year's conference featured speeches, negotiations, lots of pledges, not too dissimilar from last year's or the year before that.
President Obama: We have come to Paris to show our result. Nearly 200 nations have assembled here this week.
Yvo de Boer: In a few days, Copenhagen begins and I am more confident than ever before that it will be the turning point in the fight to prevent climate disaster.
COP President: The most important task in this conference is to establish a more concrete international framework for the protection of global climate.
Brooke: After more than two decades of these promises, it's worth wondering how much of this is all just hot air. According to the non-profit Climate Action Tracker, not a single country is on target to meet the 2015 Conference of Parties 21 pledge, also known as the Paris Climate Accords, and many aren't even on target for their COP3 pledge, the Kyoto Protocol from 1992.
Yet these summits are often still covered with breathless play-by-play analysis, juicy details about diplomatic attaches, late-night negotiations, and backroom deals. Which isn't without value, but it's worth asking: what are the stories being missed when all eyes are on the summit? To answer that, we called Nathaniel Rich, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, who takes a markedly different approach.
Nathaniel Rich: I think you could say that the last serious diplomatic meeting convened by the IPCC was the first meeting held in 1989 in the Netherlands. What was still on the table then was a pledge to have a global treaty that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that would have sanctions and repercussions for countries that failed to reduce their emissions based on the schedule being discussed.
Of course, it fell apart at the last minute. The US was mainly responsible for that. Ever since then, the conversation has been about voluntary pledges diluted over and over to the point where you have countries setting their own goals using language that cannot be more wishy-washy. The value of the meetings is geopolitical, symbolic largely and they are helpful in establishing global consciousness around the extraordinary dangers.
Brooke: Do you pay much attention to these climate summits yourself?
Nathaniel: Yes. I think the level of media discourse on climate politics generally, is humiliatingly low. The daily news report is solid. We get a fairly good sense of what's happening. I think there's less attention drawn to the fact that these meetings, just like every other climate conference that's preceded it over the last 30-some years, are more or less symbolic. They're covered often in the press as if it's the negotiation of armistice or an arms agreement when in fact they're much closer to diplomatic meetings between heads of state to express shared principles to say that we believe in human rights, say.
Brooke: Are you suggesting that these climate conferences emerge with nothing practical?
Nathaniel: I think there is some value to those statements. There's a reason why these diplomatic talks are held on any number of subjects, but to imagine that these conversations and these pledges are in any sense solving the problem technically, which is to say reducing emissions or leading to emissions cuts or leading to huge investments in renewable energy, for the most part, they're only doing so indirectly.
I think the great danger here both politically, globally but also journalistically is to think that this is where the action is happening. For instance, one of the big bulletins to come out of this meeting, this business about the explicit invocation of the term fossil fuels in a provision of the draft climate deal. The first collective acknowledgment, that nations must phase out burning of coal. Yes, it's an important thing to say that explicitly, but of course, that's been universally understood that we have to phase out coal since the late 1970s. The language is about 40 years behind the science.
Brooke: Your book Losing Earth, which followed an article that took up a whole issue of The New York Times Magazine, focuses on a few specific individuals at a specific time, 1979 to '89 when you write, "We actually had a chance of doing something about climate change," which I guess you don't much believe anymore.
Nathaniel: We had a much better chance in 1979, say to limit global warming to a fairly low number. Now, we have a pretty good chance of limiting global warming to under 4 degrees Celsius, which of course would be catastrophic. What's unique about the period between 1979 and 1989 is not only were we 40 years earlier on our CO2 pathways but there was already scientific consensus and even more importantly there was a serious bipartisan effort to develop a solution. The story is, "Well, why did we fail then when conditions, both politically as well as atmospherically," I suppose you could say, "were so much more promising than they are today?"
Brooke: It seems like the real sticking point has always been persuasion.
Nathaniel: Well, there has been a major shift in the last few years and one I did not foresee, at least not so quickly when I began writing Losing Earth, which is the emergence of this new wave of youth-led activism. It's remarkable not just because it's led by young people and that it's a global movement but the messaging has shifted dramatically between essentially, 1979 and 2018. The activist message was in appeal to reason. You see the early statements in the late 1970s about the problem.
The appeal to reason goes something like this, "We know what's happening. We know the world's getting warmer. We know why it's getting warmer. We know what we have to do, phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, essentially. The sooner we act the better off we'll be." As the years go on, that appeal becomes a bit more forceful, pitch increases to where you have our goal and inconvenient truth saying, "Look, here are some very dramatic photographs and videos and graphs showing how bad it's getting. You'd have to be crazy not to act."
Of course, they're right, but what we saw over the years is the political limitations of that argument, at least in the US. What's happened now with people like Greta Thunberg, The Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other groups is they've moved past that. Of course, they agree. It's crazy not to act, but their appeal is a moral appeal.
Greta Thunberg: You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. People are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. Thank you.
Nathaniel: Their message is, "Your betrayal of us," and it's usually directed at older generations, politicians, industry, "is harming us now. We're terrified for our lives, we're terrified to have children, and even more than that, you're neglect of this problem. Your failure to act is a betrayal of the fundamental values that you claim as the basis for our democracies and really for civilization." It's a moral approach and it's a much more personal approach and I think it's a more honest approach. I think you've already seen a major response both in the US and abroad, consider the saliency of the climate issue under Obama versus under Biden.
Brooke: That is partly because things have gotten much worse. There is an increasing severity of storms and obviously a broken record every year in terms of temperature. Is it the stories that are told or simply life on the ground?
Nathaniel: That's true, of course, it's worse every year but you can find those same headlines every year going back to 1988.
Brooke: Yes, but not necessarily in the heart of places where the US media live.
Nathaniel: Yes, I agree that's a factor. There's also been the biggest shift in the science or one of the major advances has been in the science of attribution. Now, you can have scientists saying, "Yes, we can say with much greater likelihood that this hurricane is more--" That's a factor, I think but I would argue that a bigger factor is the language that's being used.
The way that activists today talk about it is very different than they were talking about it during the Obama Administration. I don't think that's because of the journalism around it. I think it has to do with a younger generation coming into their own and not having the same hang-ups as previous generations, not feeling they have to convince Republicans that because there's a bad snowstorm that climate change is real. They don't really bother to get into those bad faith debates and they move straight past that into, "I am being harmed, you have failed." It's a different register, it's angry, it's personal, it's emotional.
Brooke: Exactly. I think that's partly because of the acceleration of the impact. Is that what you think is missing from climate change stories, this intergenerational tension?
Nathaniel: I think the intergenerational tension is an underreported part of it. Right now it takes this form of frustration and anger that previous generations have failed to solve this problem and they had a chance. What happens when you play this out another 10 years or 20 years, 30 years, and these teenagers and children, people in their 20s are now running the government? What happens to social security?
You can imagine any number of intergenerational arguments that this could spill into. I'm not saying any of these things will happen, that younger people will abandon the older generations or anything but I do think we're at the beginning of a much sharper form of intergenerational strife. I think that's just one of many manifestations of the anger.
Brooke: Your latest book, Second Nature is filled with strange stories, immortal jellyfish, phosphorescent rabbits. It describes a world in which "No rock, leaf or cubic foot of air on earth has escaped humanity's clumsy signature."
Nathaniel: It's a book about this environmental transformation. It begins with the acknowledgment that there's not any square inch of the planet that hasn't been altered by our presence and usually recklessly and unintentionally. There's stories about people who are coming to terms with that. I wanted to write about the ways in which people are navigating this new world, who have come to terms with the fact that there's nothing natural anymore, trying to figure out ways in which to live responsibly in a world that we are continuing to remake.
There's a story for instance about a young chef who devotes himself to making meat grown in a lab. He's the son of a Midwestern butcher. Comes out of this old tradition of cooking meat in Illinois and he devotes his life to this new technology of essentially creating meat in a lab using cells cultured from living animals, not slaughtering a single animal ultimately mass-producing meat. This is an industry that's starting to get regulated around the world and introduced to markets. There's something very weird about the idea of eating lab-grown meat for instance. There's something very strange about a lot of these new technological interventions that we're making.
Yet we also have to understand that there's nothing natural about mass agricultural practices, about raising cattle on enormous plots of land and committing them to these merciless conditions and eating them. There's nothing even natural about cattle as we know it. In the first place, these are species that have been bred into existence by human beings. The stories are often, I think you used the word weird. There is something extremely weird and eerie about where we're going. I wanted to understand that and wanted to better understand how people will increasingly navigate a world that is entirely built and administered and governed by human beings.
Brooke: You're writing about climate change this way because this is the writer that you are. Do you consider whether or not this is an impactful way to inspire action or do you just leave that to others?
Nathaniel: That's irrelevant to what I do, I would say. In some ways, the most analogous example is cold war, fear of a nuclear bomb. What did the literature look like? You had certainly very strong activist literature but you also had a robust literature about nuclear dread. You had novels, you had a white noise where even if it wasn't Dr. Strangelove, it was still about living at a time when some bureaucrat somewhere could press a button and destroy humanity. That transformed the human psyche but it was very profound effect on the way people thought about their lives and live their lives. You have a huge literature about that.
When it comes to climate, you have a strong activist literature but you don't have this literature of how this is changing our inner lives, who we are. I think you could also talk about this in terms of the civil rights era. Of course, there's a huge body of political writing, but you also have novels about what it means to be Black in America in this time, also to be white in America in this time. What are the ways in which the racial crisis in America disfigures inner lives of people who live in this context?
Brooke: I got to think that something else that has had a huge impact on you, you grew up on the East Coast in a family of writers but you've spent the last dozen or so years in New Orleans. You have no intention of leaving.
Brooke: What is it about that city?
Nathaniel: I moved to New Orleans in 2010 and there were still those Katrina marks on buildings everywhere where FEMA would come in and they'd write how many bodies had been found. That absolutely affected me and it gave me, I think, a heightened understanding of the ways in which trauma of these disasters and fear about the next disaster, filters into just your daily life in unexpected and surprising ways.
I was having a conversation with this scientist at Tulane when I was writing a story for Second Nature about this plan to try to save the coast south of New Orleans which has been disintegrating for a century. Louisiana has the world's most ambitious climate mitigation plan essentially to try to rebuild the coast by redirecting the flow of the Mississippi River and pumping sediment into these depleted marshes.
It's a fascinating story but in the context of writing it, I interviewed this coastal scientist at Tulane who told me essentially it's too late. He said we're screwed. That line was on the front of the times picky and that we've already crossed the tipping point to rebuild the marsh. As fast as we can rebuild the marsh, rising seas will undo any progress we make. I said, "What's the point of this then? It's a $50 billion plan that renews every five years."
He said, "Well, it will buy us time. It won't be completely ineffective. It will probably buy us a few decades and those decades will be the difference between a lot of suffering and death and harm because it will allow people to make provisions. If New Orleans is going to exist in a century, it will probably be as an island city in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico." I was, of course, horrified by these proclamations and as a property owner in New Orleans, terrified.
He said, "Cities are like people. They are born and they die and that's been true all of civilization." If we think about cities as having a lifespan like a human being, it might have some of the other effects of when we think about mortality which is to give us a greater appreciation for what we have, to help us make decisions guided by sense of morality, a sense of our values. In fact, a lot of I think the culture of New Orleans does derive from this sense that we're not going to be here forever, that we're constantly under great threats. We have to live as well as we can and live as responsibly as we can while we're here.
Climate change psychologically, I think you're right, it forces similar kinds of reckoning. We have to think, which is not to say that we're doomed by climate change but it does force you at least to consider the idea of civilization, mortality. If you're able to look at that squarely which is very hard to do, I think it does have the power to change the way we live today.
Brooke: Thank you very much.
Nathaniel: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Brooke: Nathaniel Rich is both a journalist and a novelist. He's a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. His most recent book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade.
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