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The End of the World Is Coming, and You Are Responsible

New climate-change narratives ordain humans with godly powers to undo and repair the planet. Is it science, or a new religion?

Sean Cooper
March 13, 2019
David McNew/Getty Images
Flames close in on cars parked along a country road at the Blue Cut Fire, Wrightwood, California, in August 2016.David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images
Flames close in on cars parked along a country road at the Blue Cut Fire, Wrightwood, California, in August 2016.David McNew/Getty Images

Let us now gather round the steel drum of fire and remember the moments of our lives before the climate apocalypse. It is perhaps 2045 or 2075, predicting the future is never an exact science, and you and I are among the lucky half billion, or not so lucky, to have survived the collapse of civilization. We avoid wolf packs, ration freeze-dried meals, and reminisce about mundane comforts, like long hot showers and take-out Vietnamese food.

It’s almost difficult to recall the high-volume chatter that had once streamed through our mind’s eye, the news websites and social platforms that had begun to monetize the uptick in climate disaster media, the bundled up packages of commissioned and crowdsourced videos and images of towns made uninhabitable, evacuations captured in real-time courtesy of omnipresent drones. We hashtagged our outrage and dismay. Some of us took out our Amazon credit cards to donate to the most worthy cause or charity, but we had otherwise internalized the agony and drama of global suffering as content, clicking off when bored.

This certainly could have all been avoided. If only the political class of the Western world hadn’t become the plaything of fossil fuel corporations! We are conversant with the basic factual one-two-three on climate change because we feel dutifully obligated to know, and we keep our fingers crossed that we won’t wind up dead in biblical floods or worse as survivors of whatever comes after. We know that our use of fossil fuels emits too much carbon into the atmosphere; it’s heating the world and pushing us ever closer to mass calamity, casualties, pain; the only way to stop it is an enforceable global treaty getting us off of fossil fuels, onto renewables.

In the narrative of our great slide over the cliff’s edge the present moment is notable in that it offers glimmers of quiet hope in the potential of a Green New Deal, with the United States finally leading the way. Concurrent to any social and political movement there’s a rash of topical books hitting the shelves. Every month brings us a new slate of titles informing us in great detail of how exactly civilization will end, or not end, thanks to the ingenious and industrious effort of other people. But let us not forget the truism, born out as always by recent memory, that we should be cynical and suspicious in our current affairs, if only to temper the disappointment that never seems to go away.

The two most prominent titles of this year—The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, and Losing Earth, by Nathaniel Rich—began as blockbuster magazine articles. A deputy editor at New York Magazine, Wallace-Wells wrote for that publication in 2017 a graphic account of the scope of suffering that unmitigated climate change will soon bring, which per Wallace-Wells is now the most-read story of all time on the magazine’s website. For Rich, a novelist, his article on the missed opportunity in the 1970s and ’80s, when U.S. politicians failed to midwife a global treaty at a key climate change summit, appeared last year in The New York Times Magazine, which gave over an entire issue for the effort. Perhaps with the acute awareness of our imminent demise the authors turned them into books with unusual haste.

In the padding of the original articles with fresh statistics and extended commentaries, both books carry with them a brooding quality, a heavy guilt not so much the authors’ as one that’s projected upon an audience already quite aware of climate change. Indeed, these books are not written to convince those in denial or uncertain of the science. These are for the well-initiated, and in their pairing we have something of a unified view of how we’ve gotten to where we are and where we’re going. Or, if not that, then at least an idea of how our past and future will be successfully packaged and sold to us, the knowing general audience.

In an unusual gambit Rich concedes at the outset to the redundant futility of a detailed narrative on a world altered by climate change. “Nearly every conversation that we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979,” he writes. “We are well-enough acquainted by now with the political story of climate change, the technological story, the economic story, the industry story. They have been told expertly, exhaustively, by journalists and scholars.” To compensate for the climate-soaked reader’s inevitable fatigue Rich deploys a twinkling cinematic plot, a three-act hero tale with an unusual ending.

The hero, in this case, is Jim Hansen, the folksy son of an Iowa waitress and bartender who after a studious youth montage of classroom and graduation scenes found himself in the 1970s at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, running computer simulations of our warming planet. According to Hansen’s models, we were on track for a 3-degree-Celsius warming by around 2035, which was a critical threshold for untold global destruction. Although scientists knew man’s fossil fuel habits were dangerously warming the planet as early as the 1930s, for the sake of dramatic tension Rich sets Hansen’s discovery of the approaching 3-degree rise as revelatory. For Hansen, “a guileless atmosphere physicist,” the challenge is to try to “warn humanity of what was coming.”

Hansen is aided in his quest to defeat ignorance by a group of top scientists and science agency officials, a boy’s club called The Jasons. “The Jasons were like one of those teams of superheroes with complementary powers that joins forces in times of galactic crisis,” Rich writes, addressing himself to the audience for Marvel Comics superhero movies. Together, The Jasons and Hansen seek to convince Washington that we are doomed. Through a series of conference room meetings with slide projectors, meetings in backroom offices, and meetings before congressional subcommittees, Rich shows Hansen and his squad of scientists quibbling over report language and how best to communicate the stakes of their findings to a political body that would only take “decisive action … during a crisis.”

Rich keeps reminding the reader of his story template, writing that while “Hansen could occupy the role of hero,” there were worthy foes to oppose him. “A villain was emerging too: Fred Koomanoff, Reagan’s new director of the Energy Department’s carbon dioxide program, a wolf asked to oversee the henhouse.” Koomanoff and other administration figures hostile to the factual claims of the science community do what they can to undercut Hansen, chopping at his NASA funding and spinning his congressional testimony. But Hansen’s warnings, widely covered in the media, garner support from the public as well as both sides of Congress. Then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush seizes on the groundswell of publicity around climate change during his campaign, and vows to enact regulations on carbon emission once in office.

Once elected, however, Bush is at best uninterested in environmental policy, and his chief of staff, John Sununu, takes up the job of super villain, doing whatever he can to blunt Hansen and his widening coalition seeking a global agreement on carbon regulation. The climatic showdown between Hansen and Bush’s administration takes place at a 1989 diplomatic summit in the Netherlands, where representatives of 65 countries have come together to sign a binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent before 2005. In the end, Hansen and the others lose out to the White House, which had roused Russia, other Soviet republics, and Great Britain to join them in endorsing a toothless treaty with no enforceable limits.

The point Rich wishes to make with the book is that in 1989 there was never a better time for political action on climate change. The public was in favor of emissions regulation. Politicians from both sides knew it was prudent. And even fossil fuel corporations had resigned themselves to the inevitable fate of regulation. So what happened? Despite their public statements of support, the political establishment didn’t think the long-term stability gained by curbing emissions was worth the painful cost of short-term changes to a society built on fossil fuels.

Since then, there have been similar diplomatic summits, the Paris Accord included, but the agreements have been weak at best, while carbon emissions continue to climb. As Rich notes, since the 1989 gathering in the Netherlands, “more carbon has been released into the atmosphere … than in the entire history of civilization preceding it.” Like Bush on the presidential campaign trail in the ’80s, nations have recently taken up the mantle as world leaders in climate change action, Canada, Denmark, and Australia included, but they continually fail “to honor their commitments.” Because, even when there are agreements made, Rich points out, they’re inherently flawed by the lack of enforcement. ‘There is no global police force, and no appetite for economic sanctions or military action triggered by a failure to meet emissions.”

A strong wind blows embers around a resident hosing his burning property during the Creek Fire on Dec. 5, 2017, in Sunland, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Imagess)
A strong wind blows embers around a resident hosing his burning property during the Creek Fire on Dec. 5, 2017, in Sunland, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Imagess)

Rich’s ultimate solution to the broken political system is a peculiar one. As “we face the prospect of civilizational death,” he writes, “it brings into relief a dimension of the crisis that to this point has been largely absent: the moral dimension, which is to say, the heart of the matter.” But for Rich the moral responsibility doesn’t fall squarely upon the political class elected to serve and protect its constituents. Rather, the moral failure is found among us, the constituents. ‘“Nobody who lives on the electrical grid can be let entirely off the hook; certainly not any American,” Rich says. From the “moderator of a presidential debate” who doesn’t ask candidates hard enough climate change questions to the magazine “editor who fails to assign” enough climate change articles—everyone is complicit. Even the destitute among us are villains, as “a homeless person in the U.S. today consumes twice as much energy as the average global citizen.”

Elevating the issue of climate change above simple party politics or fossil fuel greed and into the rarefied moral strata follows Rich’s fetishization of the hero storybook model. “We can call the villains villains, the heroes heroes, the victims victims, and ourselves complicit,” he writes, endeavoring to pen a suprahero narrative whereby you and I, the morally bankrupt citizens, can rise above our own inherent flaws and help create a society that is more morally pure.

“A human problem requires a human solution,” Rich says with chilling, ominous undertones. “One of the most effective weapons is mortal shame. Shame may have no influence on the handyman of industry, but an appeal to higher decency can work on the human beings who vote in elections.”

Once society no longer tolerates those weak enough to still desire fossil fuels, then the political and industrial class will have to follow. Otherwise, pragmatic appeals to those who control the power and money will be meaningless.

Like Rich, David Wallace-Wells wants to cut through the deadlock on climate change with a direct appeal to the human condition. However, rather than run the risk of promoting an elite moral class that bestows upon itself the privilege of shaming others, Wallace-Wells seeks to rouse us into action by making us afraid. Very afraid. Because as he opens the book: “It is worse. Much worse than you think.”

“The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming,” Wallace-Wells writes of our shared future, for we are “a civilization enclosing itself in a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage.” Over 12 snappy sections Wallace-Wells documents in horrendous, suffocating detail the biblical events of death and decay that await us right around the corner. We’re stepping onto an entirely new planet, one ravaged by fires, floods, tsunamis, droughts, famines, and temperatures so hot that “humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around outside without dying.”

Perhaps because Wallace-Wells is the bearer of such bad news, he connects with us as a complicit bad actor. “I toss out tons of wasted food and hardly ever recycle,” he confesses. “I leave my air-conditioning on.” For those fastidious eco-lads and green ladies of the Western world, Wallace-Wells points out that all their effort to save the Earth one person at a time doesn’t really matter. In the grand scheme of carbon emissions, “the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much.”

It doesn’t matter how we change our day-to-day bad habits, Wallace-Wells assures us. We are all together hurtling toward a world of “suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia.” The ominous tone and details of our pain is his operating principal. “If this strikes you as tragic, which it should, consider that we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all,” Wallace-Wells writes, noting that currently available technology combined with proper emissions regulation and a shift to greener production of food and energy can save civilization from collapse.

Similar to Rich’s shaming of the commonwealth, Wallace-Wells hopes that a critical mass can be terrified into mass action, engendering “a renewed egalitarian energy” that uses “technology to chase every last glimmer of hope for averting disastrous climate change.” In this way, Wallace-Wells mimics Rich’s suprahuman hero tale; he just sees fear to be more effective than shame to rouse the citizenry, in order to achieve a more elevated state of being. “We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods.”

The temptation to confront the realities of climate change by venerating those engaged with the confrontation is one that has been indulged by climate change observers for quite some time, going back to Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, whose 1989 The End of Nature is an obvious touchstone for both Rich and Wallace-Wells. In his book, McKibben evokes the post-nature capacities of modern man as an all-powerful being that must no longer use its powers for evil. “We are in charge now, like it or not. As a species we are as gods—our reach global,” he writes.

With a nod to McKibben’s idolization of the progressives who posit themselves capable of correcting an ill society, Wallace-Walls concludes that if “humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it.” But the path Wallace-Wells sees to successful implementation of the proper technologies and regulations is a familiar one: “voting and organizing and political activity deployed at every level.”

Yet, if we are already fully capable of fixing the problem with the tools at hand, and our political system is in fact equipped to enact the changes once they’re demanded by the majority of the voting public, one might fairly question whether shame and fear are the best or even the only methods to catalyze us into action. To put it another way, perhaps the hero tales are themselves nothing more than distractions, useless provocations of a readership that already knows what’s at stake—a knowledge that will be slower to convert into meaningful action if it is driven by fear of what might come and shame of what we are already. Tormented by author-induced fear and shame, it wouldn’t be surprising if guilty readers chose to have another hamburger.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.