Climate Change’s “Smashmouth Realities”

September 3, 2021

I’m often overly optimistic about our prospects at this moment, but it certainly seems that this summer’s onslaught of climate extreme impacts has raised the bar for urgent action.

Above, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s trenchant comments included in a report on the tide of calamities, below, a Columbia University climate scientist’s dark foreboding that, in addition to a climate crisis, we have entered a “dystopian moment” of ascendant ignorance.

Adam Sobel in CNN:

I’m a climate scientist and on Wednesday night, I watched the rain outside my New York City window break the local record for the most accumulation in an hour. It was an event that caused catastrophic flooding and infrastructure failures across both the New York Metro area and a wide swath of the Northeast US, delivered by the remnant of a powerful hurricane that had visited even greater destruction on Louisiana a couple of days ago. This is the point in the news cycle when I would normally be called upon to explain why, in a warmer climate, hurricanes and heavy rain events get more extreme.

I can’t do it. Not today. At this dystopian moment, I’m just not feeling it, and I don’t think I’m alone. I have many friends and colleagues who study extreme weather, in academia, government and the private sector. I think I can speak for many of us when I say we’re stunned. 

You’re almost certainly aware, if you’re reading this, that climate scientists have been warning for years that human-induced global warming will bring us a future of these faster and more furious extreme weather events. When asked, we try to explain to what extent they are representative of those trends, vs. accidents of nature. Of course, they’re generally both at the same time, to varying degrees, and in my answers, I try to capture the nuances of that tension.

But now the events are coming with such speed and ferocity that those nuances seem pointless.

The nonstop, compound environmental disasters of this summer alone — the fires, heat waves, droughts, floods and hurricanes — would probably have been enough to shock us. But they also come after a year and a half of a pandemic. Even worse, they come atop an ongoing crisis for our democracy that is preventing us, as a nation and a species, from effectively meeting any of these challenges.The news about the floods here in the Northeast, the fires burning in the West and the too-slow relief and recovery from Ida in Louisiana are competing for our attention with the news that the Supreme Court and Texas state legislature have managed, at least for the moment, to effectively annul Roe v. Wade, dealing what looks to me like the worst blow to gender equality in my lifetime. This just after the same legislature passed another law that imposes harsh new restrictions on voting, a move supported by a constituency that still maintains that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The same state government, and others like it, have done everything in their power to support those who resist mandating lifesaving public health measures on Covid — masks and vaccines — even as cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge.

With this retrograde faction as powerful as it is in our national politics, we’re supposed to solve the climate problem?I know this is an unhelpful attitude. And notwithstanding all the bad news, there is, simultaneously, tremendous positive momentum on climate. The President and a Democratic majority in Congress are taking the issue more seriously than ever before, and the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills offer a potentially historic opportunity to make investments in clean energy, climate adaptation and climate justice that start to take the scale of the problem seriously. The youth climate movement is energized and inspiring. Flat-out climate denial is waning.

In the big picture, the climate problem is, in principle, solvable. With existing technology and resources, and sufficient collective effort and political will, we, the human species, have what it takes to modify our energy system to minimize future warming and adapt to protect those most vulnerable from what can’t be prevented. But many among us, including those in positions of great power, don’t want to do those things — or even things that would seem much more personally immediate, like encouraging vaccination against Covid-19.

Trying to convince them feels pretty hopeless. It seems that part of the reason they don’t want to support scientifically proven measures is because those of us they dislike say they should, or would share in the benefits. Solving the climate problem requires not just trust in science, but shared values and a will to collective action for the common good. These are all in short supply. That scares me, way more than the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does.

There’s no benefit in giving in to “doomism,” either about climate, per se, or politics. The only rational response is to do what we can do, within the boundaries our individual and collective circumstances impose upon us, to make positive change. Speak out, organize, give money, vote. 

Let’s all get to it, however we can.But on days like this, it’s hard.

Let me add a note of (ok, incurable) optimism, based on recent experience.
I spent the evening last night in a tiny township hall, deep in red rural Michigan, at a meeting of the Washington Township Planning Commission.
The purpose of the meeting was to consider a new proposed zoning ordinance for large solar installations in the township. It’s no secret that there is a large and well organized, fossil fuel funded effort to create phony, Facebook fueled “grassroots” opposition to clean energy, and I’ve been in my share of meetings, particularly related to wind energy, where the scenes get pretty ugly in the same way we’ve seen local school board meetings turn ugly with the participation of an angry, ignorant, and darkly threatening element.

But that was not the case last night.

After a quick read-through of the new ordinance’s high points, the board voted unanimously to adopt and recommend to the Township board, which in all likelihood will approve, paving the way for a utility scale solar development in a county that already has hundreds of wind turbines.

In and out in 30 minutes. A small crowd of supporters expressed general satisfaction, and the board was grateful.

The co-location of solar and wind is a trend here, taking advantage of the same grid connections that attracted the turbines, as well as generally favorable local boards who have seen massive clean energy benefits.

It’s not big enough, fast enough – yet, but it’s progress.

Washington Township Planning Commission, Gratiot County Michigan

26 Responses to “Climate Change’s “Smashmouth Realities””

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    With the obvious and spectacular effects of AGW, The latest crock is, ‘we can’t stop it’. Anyway.
    Suggest bringing in the term ‘quitters’ into any such conversations.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      it’s not like we can just walk away and not play

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I suspect a lot of the ‘we can’t stop it’ talk is from people like me, who cycle through anger, frustration and despair on a regular basis.

      I’m a Have. I’m retired and I own a house with a garage. I was able to afford installing a Level 2 charger in my garage when I bought my Leaf in late 2014. This year I’m going through the expense and rigamarole of replacing my gas furnace, water heaters and cooktop with electric.

      All this, and it’s a drop in the bucket floodwater.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Not at all RWC. Off course we can’t stop what has already started and will get worse. It is the EXCUSE for inaction which is ‘annoying’. We can mitigate it, lots of positives these days, meanwhile enjoy the warm fuzzie of diverting a raindrop from the flood, I do. Love being a Have.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Just as long as you make the distinction between an excuse and the common response to depression and/or the governors of multiple states actively making things worse (COVID, unemployment support, kissing up to fossil fuel donors).

        • jimbills Says:

          “lots of positives”

          It’s how the positives are promoted, though. One would think Europe is well on their way to being carbon neutral from the stories we hear, but here is where they really are:

          We like the positive stories because they make us feel good. We get to breathe a sigh of relief and relax a little. I’m uptight by nature, but I think we can’t relax for a second – especially when in context, those positives don’t push the needle nearly far enough. I see complacency as the enemy – and positive stories as an opiate to create complacency. It’s in the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals interests to foster that complacency.

          It’s like the Amazon ads about their ‘green’ measures. While it’s good they are doing those things, the ads are meant as a salve for their customers (and thereby to maintain sales volumes for themselves) – a way to relieve the conscious or unconscious consumer anxiety about buying a ton of stuff that is mined from third world countries, manufactured overseas, shipped across oceans, delivered in wads of packaging, and which will be used maybe twice before it is either forgotten, discarded, or breaks down. We get to ignore all those hidden emissions and environmental effects because we believe Amazon is using an EV to deliver it.

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Yep! Agree. Meanwhile support and improve the positives. As often noted, despair is a stone bitch.

  2. jimbills Says:

    “overly optimistic”

    On the actual science of climate change, I wouldn’t say that. I think you follow closely and acutely what most scientists are saying there.

    I have problems with the messaging and solutions mostly. On messaging, some (far more qualified than myself) scientists and climate professionals are saying that we need to provide a sunny side about climate change – that the public can’t be too scared or they’ll just go nihilistic. I disagree with that fundamentally in two ways: one, all signs point to the public not being scared enough about climate change, and as climate change has a delayed effect from emissions to climate reaction, they need to be scared well in advance of the full development of the issue. Two, all people react to problems according to their own personalities. Yes, some will go nihilistic. But more, and these are the ones that count, will understand that a problem needs action. That’s what happened with Greta, for instance. Not everyone in a horror movie just freezes and resigns themselves to the chainsaw.

    I strongly believe the public needs to be scared witless. Then, they might (just might) employ the will to react positively. I think that’s a far more plausible scenario than everyone just resigning themselves to disaster. We are, in fact, resigning ourselves to disaster by continuing the hopium that this or that solution is just around the corner, or how some miniscule action or agreement or economic trend is going to save the day.

    On solutions, I understand the want to justify and react positively to agreements like Paris and politicians like Biden. They are far better than many alternatives. I just think the public shouldn’t be confused into thinking these are real solutions. They are, at best, half measures, and at worst, delay tactics to prevent what really needs to be done. We are headed to major environmental impacts, and we can’t confuse the public by telling them we are on the right track, or at least implying we are on the right track with the many positive spin messages, when we are not. Major change is required urgently.

    I don’t mind little improvements like your experience above. That’s great. Every little bit counts. I get triggered, though, when I see a post about how Americans care about climate change (when their votes hardly reflect that), or posts about how Obama was playing 3D chess (when history won’t judge him highly on climate change action), or how solar is taking over (when we are building just as much, if not more, NG), or how oil demand is peaking this year, and so on.

    I also understand that major change isn’t really feasible politically in the world we live in. But, it just irks me to no end when people fool themselves into thinking the wrong things just because it’s preferable or convenient (such as thinking we are on the right track when we are not), I worry that is what is happening in the public with the positive spin stuff, and I see how major industries and powerful figures in the world would much prefer this sort of delusion in the public’s attitude.

    • mbrysonb Says:

      I’m feeling the same way. It’s not fun (at least not for me) to be pessimistic, but the course of events, e.g. a small town in central British Columbia coming within a whisker of 50 degrees C one day and burning to the ground the next, seems to be outrunning our progress in reducing emissions– and not by a small margin. If we can’t get deniers and others reluctant to impose a rapid shift in our energy infrastructures to budge under these conditions, BAU will go on far too long. More and worse are already baked in, but we still seem to be letting far too much new fossil fuel development to roll on. There’s a lot of money underwriting the ongoing extension of that project, and many governments (e.g. in Alberta, where I live) are also fully behind it… This has to stop, but I’m not at all confident that it will.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Over the past couple of weeks, the API (American Petroleum Institute) has been flooding TV in the Washington DC area with ads for buying American oil and gas rather than from “foreign” sources. Who do you think they’re trying to convince of the “wisdom” of doing that?

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Huh? How is it even an option to choose the source of oil and gas? They’re commodities on a global market? Even at the end-user level, nobody has a choice which gas lights their stove, and they pull into the fuel station which is either most convenient or has the lowest prices.

          Of course this is probably targeted at the great number of politicians and their staff that live in the area, who are involved with some obscure rules about regulating or taxing ports under Title 13, Sect %*&@#$, chapter π subchapter blitzen….

          • J4Zonian Says:

            Of course API knows all that. The appeal is to jingoism (and anti-Islam and racism and capitalism aka freeedumandemocracy, since most oil comes from either Islamic-majority countries, or Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria…) It has less to do with choosing one source of gas (ie oil) over another than with choosing gas (and you know, gas), period (associating that unconsciously with patriotism).

            I’m guessing they’re trying to head off electrification of transport and buildings, stop city governments (NY, NY!) from banning new gas connections, trying to stop them comminist windmills from killing Rocky the flying squirrel. Of course none of it makes the slightest bit of sense, but that’s what the whole post-Al Gore disinformation campaign has been about; it’s what ads are for: to get people to turn off their conscious minds and critical thinking, and just do what they tell you, want what they tell you to want, think only of what they stick in front of your face.

            I remember a few years ago—quite a few—I was aghast to find out during a rare few weeks of exposure to TV, billboards and—aargh!–car dealerships that the world was awash in SUV ads, and despite 99.99% of US SUV driving occurring on flat concrete and macadam in urban areas, every ad was about the big honkin machine surmounting some impossible bouldery mountain peak. And in EVERY SINGLE AD, there was a bicycle! Now how does that make any sense, except in some bizarre Bernaysian focus group process about creating associations with freeeeedum…er, Freiheit und Lebensraum?

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Thanks for saying all that.

      While climate scientists have been forging ahead with ecological knowledge, they haven’t done as well judging, monitoring, and acting wisely on emotional responses. Where they have it’s usually been ignored or misreported. It certainly isn’t their field, but it may also be because they’re both personally inclined and professionally induced to approach their subjects unemotionally, and that’s become a stereotype media has reinforced.

      Everyone who doesn’t want to face the only solutions that will work is trying to minimize the direness of the crisis and paint a smiley face on it. And people suddenly being told the truth about climate often are driven out of the “normal” zone into dissociation, either spinning up into a hyper-response of fear or into hypo-response of numbing, which can come off as apathy, denial, despair, or depression.

      Because we want people to be useful rather than obstructive in all those ways, they need to be treated like warriors rather than victims. They need to be told the truth and not have that face painted over it, but as I’ve been saying for years, they need to be told the truth in safe circumstances where their reactions can be tracked and how much truth how fast they’re told can be modulated. A multi-day workshop or ongoing support group can help; it can become an action group for both personal and political change, and link to others for wider action.

      For those in touch with both our phenomenal logistical ability to reduce and sequester emissions, and the enormous and increasing power of those blocking that, emotions can be even more fraught. But we have a huge advantage because we’ve been titrated slowly into the knowledge, adapting to it by bits as it got worse and scientists found out more, and we’ve had time to adjust to the reality that many people are now going to find themselves thrust into. They’ll need help getting accurate information, which is hard to come by in our society. But even more important is that they’ll need help with the emotional adjustment, and that’s damned near impossible for most people to understand, let alone obtain.

      • redskylite Says:

        Maybe we need more people with wider skillsets . . .


        ”I’m a traditionally-trained scientist and I study the impacts of climate change my whole career and I don’t know how humans work.”

        • jimbills Says:

          She’s describing siloization – the educational process where individuals become highly specialized in their fields, but they don’t know hoo-haa about other fields. We live in an extremely complex society, and we need that specialization to advance scientific fields further, but we also need multi-disciplinary thinkers – and we have close to none of those. There are no paying jobs (or close to none) for them.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            And just like everyone needs to be able to read, do math, and do critical thinking, every human needs to know about the 2 systems in the world that they have the most, and most important, contact with—ecology and psychology. It’s both symptom and cause of our monumentally screwed up world that only 2 of those 5 things are taught at all in most K-12 schools, and those aren’t usually taught very well, and only really even tolerably well to about 1/4-1/3 of students. Since no amount of schooling can teach more than fraction of a percent of what there is to learn, the most valuable things anyone can come out of school with is a desire to learn more and knowledge of how they and others do that. The most effective thing the vast majority of schools do is to kill those 2 things.

            I’ve been incorrigibly interdisciplinary my whole life and it’s caused a lifetime of struggle. (Any profession that requires a license and an approved course of study is in a never-ending territorial war with the professions on every side, and reacts with viciousness to anyone trying to cross or worse, straddle, borders.) The only way to succeed most of the time is to create one’s own job (which can also be very rewarding).

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      What James William said.
      Pleasing trend from IPCC et al saying ‘we believe it is happening and should do something about it’, to ‘It is happening and we must unarse and do something NOW’. Most pleasing.

  3. jimbills Says:

    Texas, too, but then Texas is about as effed up as it gets. I see a lot of ads from Energy Citizens here:

    Here’s one:

  4. greenman3610 Says:

  5. redskylite Says:

    “Avoiding street flooding can be achieved through increasing the capacity of street gutters and the sewer system to take up the runoff water from streets. This can be done by widening or adding new gutters, but also by having larger-diameter sewer pipes in the roads.

    And then you can make the ground more absorbent by planting more trees on streets and putting in permeable surfaces. For example, rather than concrete parking lots, put in gravel which is a permeable surface that allows the ground to absorb water.”

    • mbrysonb Says:

      All true, of course– but there are limits, whether for farming in drier conditions, managing fires in hot, drying forests, keeping people from dying of heat stroke in the summers to come etc. Given where we are now, we’ll need to do all these things, but the limits of their effectiveness will be reached and surpassed if net GHG emissions don’t get to zero by mid-century (of course sooner is better). Unless tied to increasing taxes on carbon emissions and investment in a new energy economy, these measures are just a massive subsidy to the carbon fuel industry–which will still be bankrupt in the end, one way or the other, i.e. either as part of a world-wide collapse, or as an industry that our civilization has left behind as no longer fit for purpose.

  6. redskylite Says:

    We seriously need to re-plan our cities and surrounds.

    “The study warned wetlands were facing growing threats from continued urban development, with 22 of the largest 32 cities in the world – including London, New York and Tokyo – built on low-lying land around estuaries, which puts them at increasing risk of flooding in a warming climate.

    It said climate change was driving increases in the magnitude and frequency of storms, as well as sea level rise. ”

  7. jfon Says:

    Last year, New York was getting a third of it’s power, carbon free, from Indian Point’s two reactors, each of which produced about one and a quarter times as much power as all the wind turbines in the state. Now, with the blessing of the local Democrats, those have largely been replaced by three newly-built gas plants. The same scenario is playing out in California, with Diablo Canyon, currently ten percent of that state’s power. ( San Onofre, already destroyed, made another ten percent.) This is blatant hypocrisy.

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