‘The Economist’ Notices the Climate

Yves here. In about five years, climate change has gone from still having loud denialists to being accepted by all but total cranks, yet policy responses have barely budged. I suspect the near-term human costs won’t be heatstroke in the Mediterranean, but rising levels of water scarcity and starvation due to skimpy harvests.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

Global warming of 3°C is almost guaranteed before the end of this century “under policies in place.” What’s happening on the ground is less than half of what’s in store for the youngest of those alive today.

Even The Economist has noticed that the ravages of climate change are coming to this generation, not the next one:

Three degrees of global warming is quite plausible and truly disastrous

BY THE STANDARDS of the 21st century as a whole, 2021 will almost certainly go down as a comparatively cool year. By the standards of the rest of human history its weather looks disconcertingly like hell.

On July 20th, as Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland were still coming to terms with the fact that a stationary system of storms had turned entire towns into rivers and shredded the surrounding countryside, hundreds of thousands of people in the Chinese province of Henan were evacuated in the face of floods of their own; the city of Zhengzhou saw a year’s worth of rain in three days.

Also on July 20th Cizre, in Turkey, saw a temperature of 49.1°C (120°F), the highest ever recorded in the country. There has been barely any respite from searingly hot conditions along the northern Pacific coast of North America since the region was hit by an unprecedented heatwave two weeks ago, and already the region is bracing for another. Other places at high latitudes have been seeing similar—if less destructive—anomalies. In the first half of the month Finland experienced its longest heatwave for at least 60 years, with temperatures rising to the low 30°Cs in Lapland. On July 14th the country tossed and turned through its hottest night ever: two weather stations recorded temperatures no lower than 24.2°C.

On July 11th, a National Weather Service thermometer at Furnace Creek in Death Valley recorded a temperature of 54°C [that’s 129°F]. If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), that would tie a reading taken at the same location last year for the hottest formally recognised daytime temperature ever. On July 19th more than 40% of the Greenland ice cap had meltwater on it. The amount of sea-ice cover in the Arctic was as low as it was at the same point in 2012, which saw the lowest summer sea ice ever recorded.

This is what Earth looks like when, according to the latest data from the WMO, it is 1.1-1.3°C warmer than it was before the steam engine was invented. [emphasis added]

It’s fair to say that what we’ve seen this year will happen almost every year going forward — plus it will get worse. Note that Death Valley reached its all-time record — 54°C or 129°F — in both of the last two years.

Almost everyone alive today will see summers with no Arctic ice. That day is not far off. Almost everyone born today will see winters with no Arctic ice. Destruction of the white expanse of Arctic ice, which reflects solar energy back into space before it’s converted to heat — consider the difference between a white surface and a black surface on a bright day — is one of many accelerants our species is pouring with abandon onto the fire of our own demise.

It’s clear the editors of The Economists (this was an unsigned, editor-written piece) fully understand that the planet will soon be largely uninhabitable by our species, and in this century. They understand, for example, that while “‘tropical’ nights where temperatures remain above 20°C from dusk till dawn are … mostly the preserve of the Mediterranean shoreline” today, in a 3°C-warming world “they became a regular occurrence in the Baltics,” adding that it’s “the lack of enough cooling at night which, by and large, drives deaths during heatwaves.”

Deaths from heatwaves in the Baltic Sea region. Consider what that means.

If Estonians start dying from the heat, how many global others will already have died? In tropic and semi-tropic regions, high humidity will make working outdoors a form of execution. Where will those billions of souls, many of them in south Asia, go to escape? Do you think they will be welcome as they flee north?

Do you think we’ll be welcome in Canada when we flee north?

The Story Isn’t the Climate, But the Reaction to It

But the real story of this excellent and informative piece isn’t about the climate and what it will do to us. It’s about what the reaction to the climate will do to us.

Here’s its conclusion, its literal last words:

[T]he longer it takes to cut emissions, the more avoiding 3°C becomes something only achievable through the application of untested and in some cases troubling technologies designed either to suck carbon from the atmosphere in vast amounts or to throw some of the sun’s warming rays back into space. Humanity would find itself wedged between a geoengineered rock and a very hot place.

That leaves us exactly nowhere.

We’re nowhere near to cutting emissions by design. The greatest cuts to emissions in this century are due to (heavily lamented) limits to economic growth cause by accidental crises — acts of God, if you will, like the Great Banking Bust of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic of the last two years, both of which most readers would gladly have foregone.

Yet this is the Economist, a bastion of rightthink for bankers and Western global leaders, the kind of people who go to Davos each year to design our future for us — and for themselves.

Where is the editors’ admonition to do something before the Economist‘s own readers take the planet where no man or woman, living or unborn, can ever follow?

Where’s the moral rejection, the shaming and the shunning, of the greed of its richest readers, a lust for money that will truncate the natural lives of most living souls, save only the geriatric few like Charles Koch?

(Though I fervently wish him the opposite, Koch will probably die long before his sins can be visited on him. Live long, Charles Koch. I don’t trust the afterlife to serve you the treat you deserve.)

It’s as if the Economist has decided to point out the soon-to-come wreck of the ship it’s sailing on, while neither getting off nor working its best to change course.

And that’s the reason we’re stuck where we are today. No one with real power wants to stop the wreck that even they know is coming. They’re content just to talk about it.

As to why this is true, that’s the subject of another piece ­— several in fact. Stay tuned for more.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Its not the first time the Economist has highlighted climate change. Its from memory, but aroundabout 1990 it ran a excellent series of special reports on climate change – emphasisiing, inevitably, market mechanisms to reduce emissions. The thing is, back in 1990 they were right, it would only have required a sensible restructuring of taxes and tax credits to have broken the link between growth and energy use. Back then, when I was more actively involved in environmental campaigning, I thought it was a sign of a major paradigm shift that the Economist was signalling the importance of change.

    I’m not sure when the change happened, but I think it was around the mid 1990’s when a combination of very low oil prices and a rigorous campaign by fossil fuel interests ensured that concern about climate change became a left wing, progressive thing, and so, by definition, anyone who identified as conservative or right had to be all in favour of it (or something like that). It definitely started in the US (even Thatcher announced her deep concern about what the science was saying), but had gradually seeped, mostly I think via the Murdoch newspapers into the rest of the Anglosphere, and then into other countries. It took a different form in different societies- in Russia there was an actively promoted belief in the 1990’s that climate change was good for Russia, it would open up vast areas for agriculture (they forgot about water and wildfires), and China thought they could engineer their way out of it. The Japanese, as usual, thought it didn’t apply to them ‘cos they are so special. In Europe, as usual, you had a muddle of confused policy objectives that meant for every step forward (building wind turbines) there was two steps back (encouraging grossly unsustainable agriculture policies).

    Whatever the reason, we lost a good two or more decades – two decades we could not afford. It was always inevitable that some series of cataclysms would ensure that things would swing around the views of the major opinion formers, but by definition, that would be too late.

    1. deleter

      You think that in 1990 we could have “broken the link between growth and energy use” with some tax credits
      and restructuring?
      I’d like to see the evidence for that. Seems like that link is baked in to the entire 250-odd year hydrocarbon
      bubble we’re now seeing the end of.

  2. Hank Linderman

    Climate change is the only issue that matters. Are there any *easy victories* possible? That is, meaningful changes in how life is lived that result in progress? The word *easy* is relative…

    Mandated synthetic kerosene for aviation: https://www.transportenvironment.org/news/lufthansa-takes-first-steps-towards-non-fossil-kerosene (5% in 5 years is not nearly aggressive enough.)

    Elimination of single use plastics. The ramifications are huge, including reduction of global food shipping. But, will consumers be willing to do without raspberries from Chile in February?

    Aggressive ocean plastics cleanup: gather, recycle, reuse.

    The realization that average citizens have almost no way to make a difference is distressing. Eat less meat, bicycle or walk when you can, but how effective is this?

    I’m getting on a bus today with the UAW, traveling from Louisville to Alabama to support striking mine workers. Yes, we need to end coal asap, but workers aren’t the problem. There is some level of irony.


    1. Christopher Horne

      In many caves, the temperature remains in the 50’s F.
      Some caves also feature underground rivers. This being the ‘genetic century’, the cuisine could turn out to be quite tasty. Antarctica, anyone?
      83 to 73 million years ago, dinosaurs lived in the antarctic. Mankind can

  3. Skunk

    The ultimate procrastination and the illusion of control. There are people even now who propose that we can address the problem with new technological fixes, such as by putting reflective material into the atmosphere. I’ve always thought that part of the problem has been the difficulty of communicating climate stability. Climate change is not just about warming, but about losing the relative stability of the system. People can’t always understand that a polar vortex winter can be a sign of climate change. At the same time, the corporate elite almost certainly overestimated their control over the future situation, having unleashed something they can’t fully imagine.

    1. Acacia

      Good points. For restoring climate stability, the only technological fix that sounds remotely plausible is very large-scale carbon sequestration, though there was an article recently posted here on NC concerning advances in soil science that cast doubt on some current hopes. Even if carbon sequestration can be figured out (and it feels a little bit like the science of perpetual motion to me, i.e., how do we devise tech that removes more CO2 than the electricity to power it produces?), it really feels like a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-it-works type of response.

    2. WalterM

      Right or wrong, I think we’re gonna do it. Governments will belatedly realize that we/they are in a bind, and will shoot sulfur or metallic particles high into the atmosphere. (The SF writer and physicist Gregory Benford calls it “veiling the tropics”).

      It will be a crapshoot. It probably will lower the overall planetary surface temperature, quite possibly in a fairly controlled way. In the best case (no side effects, eh?), it could give us a few decades to actually fix the problem. In less good cases, with unknown side effects, who knows what could happen? Bad.

      My suspicion is that this won’t destroy humanity much faster than unchecked climate change (optimism, right?). I think that we should heavily fund research into geoengineering ideas, and call it a backup plan to rapid decarbonization, degrowth and climate mitigation—that’s what it *should* have been, if we were really going to tackle the climate seriously. The idea of it as a “moral hazard” to greener policies doesn’t fly anymore when there is this degree of danger. However, I don’t have confidence that responsible research will be done.

      In summary, we will fool around, we will try it, and we will see what happens. Will we still be around for a long term follow-up? Hmmmmm….

      1. Mantid

        Walter, Nice sentiments but no way will governments cooperate and do anything near this. There’s no money in it. Contrast with how we as a planet have responded to a small time pandemic – relative to planetary burning. It’s been 1.5 years and no one agrees on anything. Moneyed interests control the debate, people all over protesting and refusing, and science is debated – rightfully so. Consider this Covid confusion and extrapolate it for 10 years.

        Do you think anything will be different much less better?

        With CO2 soon to go up past 420ppm, no way Jose, as they say.

        I feel the only way to deal with this massive collapse of nature – all nature (not just humans) is to completely localize. Stop all distance travel, go completely organic with food production, re-learn and teach “handy” skills, and cross your fingers. –

        Now what well respecting Californian (just as an example, some of my best friends are Californians) will trash their Ford truck or soccer mom SUV and start commuting by bike? Just is not going to happen.

        My only hope is that we don’t become as hot as Venus. I doubt if we can even stop that in time. Sad state of affairs.

  4. Eustachedesaintpierre

    It’s hard for me to be optimistic given the Covid-19 performance, the world’s present leadership & Ka-ching being of the utmost priority. Just reading through the answers given to a list of questions by Dr. Aaron Bernstein director of Harvard Chan C-Change that do appear to make a lot of sense, but at the end of the day only serve to confirm that we have a mountain to climb with all of us tied to the same rope.


  5. Eric Anderson

    In a world of individual rights, the only way change happens is through someone else’s sacrifice. But, since people don’t tend to willingly sacrifice what they already possess, it becomes a global game of chicken. Or, more accurately a global war of attrition.

    Has anyone read any lit re the global CO2 reductions based on widespread plague/famine/ecological disaster? I mean, we all have to absolutely know in our bones that’s the elite’s long game. Business as usual “in my elite neck of the woods” while those “others” over there suffer the consequences.

    It seems we are caught in a war in which the siege engines are powered by the negative externalities manufactured by the elite. Same as it ever was?

    And btw … I sue to gaze out my window this morning here in the inland Pacific Northwest and it looks more like Mordor than anything I’m accustomed to. Blue skies, they ain’t shining on me.

  6. Questa Nota

    How effective will non-China efforts be given the latter’s coal dependency? Reading various media climate articles leads me to consider that the dragon elephant in the room.

    1. Temporarily Sane

      Blaming China for their own glaring shortcomings is the self-styled advanced nations’ latest “innovation” in the face of huge global challenges.

      The current m.o. seems to involve pushing every blame China excuse out into the mediasphere and seeing what sticks in the public’s mind.

      The public, for its part, seems pretty willing to get on board with the scapegoating.

      What are the neocons and assorted China hawks going to do when they fail to “contain” a nation of 1.4 billion people, start a nuclear war? Just imagine how a President Mike Pompeo would handle that issue during a time of climate upheaval.

      It’s gonna be a long century. Or not.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I recall Adam Tooze making the same point as Questa Nota some time ago in one of his lectures — do not recall which one, sorry. Suggesting that China now holds the greatest degree of control over the future of global warming observes the current state of affairs. It hardly constitutes blaming China. Did China force the US and other nations to offshore all their industry, to China? China and India have been used by US interests to delay and avoid meaningful action by the US. They very probably will serve as scapegoats in the future as our oligarchs attempt getaways to their underground bunkers. [I would not call China the elephant in the room — as that does suggest some degree of scapegoating.]

      2. c_heale

        Well if China takes effective action there won’t be any manufactured goods to buy from there.

        1. Mantid

          I agree and am in complete accord. he only way out is if we stop buying all this sheit, all possible puns intended. I follow American baseball and one trinket that is sold to fans are “bobbleheads” of famous players. WTFunk? A complete waste of our planet! So sad.

          1. Christopher Horne

            The American economy is built on the notion of ‘convenience’. All other considerations, including price
            are secondary.

            1. The Rev Kev

              I think that you are right. That is what Amazon is all about – convenience. That and immediate gratification. And you can’t practice things like thrift and patience if ‘convenience’ is what you value the most.

  7. Code Name D

    Wasn’t there a paper a few months back that tried to make the argument that an 8 degree warming would only cost GDP 10%

    1. Eric Anderson

      I’m pretty sure you’re talking about Norhaus et al., which has been around for quite some time. And which, still forms the basis of the IPCC recommendations. Here’s a good primer on it from LSE: https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/news/a-nobel-prize-for-the-creator-of-an-economic-model-that-underestimates-the-risks-of-climate-change/

      And here is Steve Keen destroying his assumptions:

  8. Stephen

    Thank you for sharing the piece. Very minor quibble – “this was an unsigned, editor-written piece…”

    I’ve subscribed to The Economist off and on for several years, and I do believe every piece is unsigned. I don’t recall ever seeing a byline in the magazine. I could be wrong. Even the regular editorial columns are written under pen-names, which are inherited by the new writer when the previous retires or moves on.

  9. Bradley Lewis Mayer

    The pandemic test so far does not portend well. The pandemic can only be suppressed by a coordinated world-wide effort. So far, the wealthy countries of Europe and North America show not the least interest in such an effort, requiring the export of vaccine *manufacture and distribution* in-country, to the rest of the world.

    Likewise with climate change, a world effort is required.

  10. d w

    i suspect when the leaders of today come face to face with what they have wrought, they will just say nobody knew this was going to happen (sort of like nobody ‘knew’ that a pandemic was going to come …and that while plans were laid to address the it, some time politics gets in the way of life, they ignored that plan (since they just knew they were better planners….which turned out to be wrong…), then they fell back to who knew that this would happen, and Congress cut spending on health.

    1. Mantid

      Sounds like the US’s response to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq being a complete lie. Or 9-11 “who could have ever imagined this?”. It’s a cop out. For anyone, from me (let he who is without sin….) to Biden to say they never could imagine the fires on the planet right now, we know. We knew. We all knew.

  11. Mantid

    A great book I read has been revised and re-published. Six Degrees by Mark Lynas.

    Exceptional and does not hold punches. It’s been years since I read it but he speaks about fireballs flying through the air when we get to 5 or 6 degrees. People have been have seeing that in the form of fire hurricanes in Oregon and we’re only nearing a 2F degree rise.

    Based on what I see every day in NC and other publications, we’re doomed.

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