The Limits of “Experiencing” the Climate Crisis

While most of the world bakes, burns, and floods, the US East Coast, the cockpit of American capitalism, has largely avoided extreme weather events, lulling many into a false sense of security. Confronting the climate crisis requires thinking beyond our everyday experiences.

Passengers from New York City arrive at Union Station May 18, 2015 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. Across much of the planet, the summer offered glimpses of the hellscape promised by our civilization’s current “business as usual” approach to the climate crisis.

Another summer, another terrible warning. And yet, there is little political response. Solutions move slowly, if at all.

Central in this dilemma is the problem of experience; or rather the limited utility of experience alone in understanding both the scientific realities of climate change and the political-economic realities of its causes and possible solutions.

As Karl Marx put it: “If there were no difference between essence and appearance, there would be no need for science.”

Let us begin with the weather and then address the economy.

Extreme Peripheries

In India, this summer brought record-breaking monsoon rains and mass flooding. Three million people were displaced, whole villages destroyed, many scores killed. Across the Arctic, from Siberia to Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, hot weather has spurred on an unprecedented number of fires. Even Greenland had fires. By mid-summer between 250 and 300 fire “hot spots” were being recorded everyday — four to five times higher than most previous years. In Siberia, as July ended, about three million hectares, or an area larger than Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, was burning.

Worse yet, soot and ash from the fires, traveling hundreds of miles and settling upon Arctic ice will, by darkening the ice, absorb more heat and accelerate melting. On the first day of August, Greenland’s ice sheet released an estimated 12.5 billion tons of ice into the ocean, the largest single-day volume loss on record. As one climate scientist pointed out, the amount of ice lost on July 31 and August 1 was enough to cover Florida in almost five inches of water.

Rapid ice sheet melting means rapidly rising sea levels. According to one recent report polar ice sheet melting has already contributed a half-inch of sea-level rise since 1972. And in a sign of acceleration half of that total occurred in only the last eight years.

Strange Calm in The Northeast

Amidst this panorama of doom appears a grave political irony: the US Northeast and mid-Atlantic, though they have experienced very dramatic average warming as well as record-breaking winter cold snaps recently, have largely avoided truly destructive extreme weather events since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

California suffers regular massive forest fires, much of the Midwest is water logged and ripped up by tornadoes, the Gulf Coast and Carolinas have been hammered by hurricanes. But in the Northeast megalopolis, the BosWash Corridor, a strange illusion of normality prevails. Even as the Northeast has seen the greatest increase in average warming of any region in the country, it has managed to avoid prolonged, deadly, extreme heat waves.

For the fifty million people who live there and depend on the regional infrastructure, not suffering catastrophic floods or fires or deadly heat waves is a blessing. But this relative calm also helps instill political somnambulism.

Clearly polluter-funded disinformation is the primary reason people are not more worried about climate change. But the lack of catastrophic extreme weather in the Northeast also plays a role.

All over the world, but especially in the United States, people tend to discount scientific abstractions and instead rely on their own, immediate, empirical experience. In the country’s most important center of political, financial, and media decision-making, this obtuse empiricism amplifies polluter-promoted political inaction.

In other words, if Wall Street were flooding, DC’s roofs were being ripped off by monster winds, and New Jersey’s suburbs were burning while scorched black bears galloped toward the sea, we would likely see far more pushback against fossil fuel-funded disinformation. We might even see new social movements emerging among beleaguered renters, workers, and indebted homeowners. With movements we would see the more urgency and action from politicians, pundits, and other members of the professional-managerial class.

Sloppy Jet Stream

To some extent the Greenland thaw, the European heat wave, the Artic fires, even the intensity of the South Asian monsoon, and the illusion of relatively normal weather in the US Northeast, all seem to be linked by the phenomenon of an increasingly erratic northern polar jet stream.

Jet streams are the systems of winds that move eastward across the Earth. They are formed by a combination of the spinning of the Earth on its axis and the temperature differentials between the equator and the poles. The northern and southern hemispheres each have a polar and a subtropical jet stream. The northern polar jet stream plays a major role in governing day-to-day weather across the northern hemisphere.

The bigger the differences in temperature between masses of air, the stronger and faster are the winds of the jet streams. But now, anthropogenic climate change is heating the poles faster than the lower latitudes; and the Arctic is heating faster than anywhere else.

This northern warming diminishes the temperature differentials that power the northern polar jet stream. As the northern jet stream weakens, it slows. As it slows, it starts to wobble and shift course. Or at least that is one prominent scientific theory attempting to explain the increasingly weird and wavy behavior of the northern jet stream.

Scientific debate about jet stream patterns is hampered, in part, by lack of detailed historical data. Unlike surface temperatures and sea levels, the jet streams, occurring as they do up in the atmosphere, have not been measured in great detail over a long period.

This sloppier, meandering northern jet stream seems to be shifting further north over Europe and Russia, allowing hot air to push up from the south. This summer’s European heat wave is associated with this trapped or “blocked” jet stream. This pattern of warm, dry air reaching unusually far north is also accelerating the rapid melting of Greenland’s ice sheet.

But for the last half-decade or so the jet stream over the East Coast of North America has been normal and even sometimes dipped unusually far south relative to the whole pattern, pulling down cool polar air with it, occasionally giving us those old-school wintertime polar blasts. Along with fewer hurricanes making landfall, all of this is providing the Northeast megalopolis with the illusion of normal weather.

We say “illusion” because, as the Washington Post recently reported, the Northeast is actually much hotter than it was a century ago and is heating faster than anywhere else in the lower forty-eight states. In fact, the average temperature in New Jersey is now 2 degrees Celsius hotter than it was a hundred years ago.

Knowledge vs. Experience

According to Media Matters, only twenty-two of the fifty largest US newspapers covered the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report. Among other things, that report announced a new, lower, threshold for dangerous climate tipping points: 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, rather than the previously estimated 2 degrees Celsius.

The failure of more than half our top newspapers to cover this is partly the product of the well-funded climate-denial machine detailed by Naomi Oreskes in her book Merchants of Doubt. And it is partly due to pressure from right-leaning owners and advertisers. And partly due to the careerist obedience of too many reporters and editors. That said, one cannot but suspect that the broader American propensity for obtuse empiricism also helps reinforce the denial.

This obtuse empiricism is a mentality best summed up as, “If it’s not happening to me, right now, it must not really be happening.” It is the mindset displayed by fossil-fuel-funded Republican Senator Jim Inhofe throwing a snowball on the floor of the Senate during the cold and snowy February of 2015. And while it is tempting to cast climatological empiricism as a rube’s problem, the truth is we all suffer from it.

Nor have our scientists always been helpful in disabusing us of our experientially based misapprehensions. For too long meteorologists and climate scientists, though transcending a simple experiential empiricism, nonetheless adhered to an overly rigid esprit de corps of scientific detachment, which caused most to stay politically mute.

Thankfully that is now changing. Over the last two decades Jim Hansen has famously led the way, acting as something of a climate science Paul Revere. In 2017, thousands of scientists marched and rallied in DC and hundreds of other cities to demand climate action. Now, Michael Mann of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State has called for better and more truthful coverage of the inextricable articulation of a changing climate and extreme weather events.

From Economic Illusions to Real Solutions

The key question in regard to climate mitigation and adaptation is: what should governments do? The short-term answer, counter-intuitively, is: governments should do much of what they already do, but in a completely revolutionary fashion.

Here again, illusions distort and confuse. As with unusually cold winter blasts amid historically high average temperatures, so too with understanding how capitalism actually functions — each requires getting beyond the immediate experience of events. Because very often, isolated events and the appearances they produce are really just symptoms of deeper, harder to comprehend historical dynamics.

Like so much of global capitalism, the climate crisis is not the product of the “free market.” The alleged free market is itself largely produced by state policies. At every turn in its development capitalism has been structurally dependent on state policies and subsidies for its survival and reproduction. This is historical fact, but not something one readily “experiences” in everyday life.

Consider energy subsidies. In May 2019 the International Institute for Sustainable Development published a major study called, Measuring Fossil Fuel Subsidies in the Context of the Sustainable Development Goals, it estimated global fossil fuel subsidies from governments to industry at approximately $400 billion annually. Redirecting these subsidies towards clean energy would radically accelerate the already occurring, but dangerously slow, transition off of fossil fuels.

But we never “see” or “experience” this subsidy racket. Quite the contrary, the landscape of fossil fuel capitalism is illuminated with neon signs for Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell. Its roads are clogged with vehicles bearing private corporate brands like BMW, Ford, Toyota. Everywhere one is confronted by visual testaments to private economic power.

Yet, behind every one of these brands is a history of public bailouts, handouts, tax breaks, publicly funded technological inventions, lucrative public contracts, donated public land, publicly built infrastructure, and publicly funded wars of conquest.

Missing from the landscape are neon signs for the lavish state subsidies and public infrastructure, the crypto-socialism that continually helps reproduce ExxonMobil, et al. Private interests appear to animate everything. But that is an illusion: experiential empiricism led astray by surface appearances, and concocted spectacle.

The strangely good news in this nightmare is that the policy tools we need to build climate solutions already exist. They are, in fact, being misused to drive the climate crisis.

We need states to shape energy policy differently, by penalizing fossil fuel production and use, while radically expanding subsidies for, and public purchasing of, clean energy and technology.

We must use the existing apparatus of subsidies and planning to shift from gray to green energy. And we must use state policy to achieve what the late labor leader Tony Mazzocchi called “a just transition” and what others have called “climate justice.” After all, an energy transition alone will not bring social justice. One could imagine a solar-powered form of highly repressive neoliberalism.

Yet there is strange empowerment in realizing that we already live in a mixed economy. There is no “free market” in energy. States are already very actively shaping energy policy, everywhere. Call it socialism for the polluters, or gray-energy socialism.

States will only drive a just energy transition toward a green socialism by active and enlightened national planning and international coordination, and only if they are spurred on from below by well-organized and powerful social movements.

In the United States, the land of well-funded climate denialism and folksy empiricism, those movements, alas, might not arise in full force until every region is in crisis and BosWash is both burning and flooding.

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Dante Dallavalle is an adjunct professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York.

Christian Parenti is associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011). His forthcoming book is Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder (Verso, Summer 2020).

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