New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong

The real climate danger is that a vicious right-wing minority will impose an order that privileges the affluent few over everyone else.

The classic image of eco-apartheid, from the perspective of the sky, in São Paulo. Luiz Arthur Leirao Vieira

The New York magazine piece “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells selectively fetishizes natural science and is socially and politically hopeless.

I’ll leave the science to Michael Mann, who lays it out on his Facebook page. Yes, obviously, absent any real action to reduce emissions we’re fucked. BUT: That is not going to happen. The actually realistic danger zone is a combination of too little decarbonization, too late, in the context of hardening inequalities of class, race, and gender  —  in short, eco-apartheid. Those brutal inequalities, and the bullets that maintain them  —  not molecules of methane  —  are what will kill people.

And that climate violence would not come because of an absence of emissions reductions. It is fully compatible with a huge reduction of emissions. Though of course, the less we slash emissions through a broad program of egalitarian economic intervention (or “democratic ecologies”), the more violence there is likely to be.

What’s more, eco collapse won’t come from unabated warming because there is zero change of us hitting 4 degrees C absent a massive  —  and potentially horrifying, but also potentially life-saving  —  series of efforts at geo-engineering. A single poor country could pump the atmosphere full of sulfur, blocking much sunlight. That would be hugely dangerous. It’s also conceivable that sunlight could be dimmer for five years to buy us time to zero out carbon. We should do everything possible to keep from going there; that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

I don’t support geo-engineering or eco-apartheid. But those are the most probable nightmares. And the former might, in the context of a very brief and targeted and clever intervention, help prevent the latter. (Though, as is clear from everything I’ve said or written, I support the crushing consensus of all good-willed people that we should go all in for decarbonization incredibly hard and fast.)

The word capitalism appears four times in this many-thousand-word piece. Ostensibly a discussion of what humans are doing to themselves, it instead fetishizes a convenient slice of the natural science, combined with a digest of the thinner and less critical strand of climate social science.

Is it true that virtually everyone grossly understates the dangers posed by climate change? Yes. But is the gravest threat pure runaway climate change? No: it’s too little, too late, plus race and class war, plus experiments with the planet. It’s the danger, essentially, of a vicious right-wing minority imposing the privilege of the affluent few over everyone else. That’s the real and scary (and political) story.

When climate politics meets the aspirations of the global majority through “democratic ecologies,” we can fight off eco-apartheid and decarbonize prosperity.

And it follows from that that the solution isn’t a better grasp of the science. It’s political campaigns that foreground equality and prosperity and hope. Apologies for the self-quotation, but I’ve just written on this subject:

No matter what the earth system’s tipping points ultimately are, every fraction of a degree of warming that we avoid means saving millions of lives  —  people who could play in the cities where, we hope, we’ll have killed the patriarchy dead. Every inch of sea level rise that we avert keeps that much more of New York —   and Miami, and Shanghai, and Dhaka, and Ho Chi Minh City  —  from crumbling. Each extra ton of fossil fuel that we keep in the ground means more homes near water’s edge will stay upright. Each unit of energy that we never use, because we organize our cities more fairly and efficiently, buys us time to build smarter infrastructure, cleaner energy. And as we race to stay safe, the fight against racism becomes a fight against eco-apartheid.

Every bit of victory is worth winning. That’s how I see Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position” in the twenty-first-century: carbon trench war. From each dug-in position, the chance for a sudden surge forward. We don’t know when that moment comes. But we fight stubbornly until it does, so that we’re ready. To keep up our spirits, we share stories: about flashes of heroism and about long uncertain living, about liquid dangers and warm pleasures.

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Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2.

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