Liberal Columnist Voices Climate Despair Sentiments

It’s bad enough that too many appear insufficiently concerned about climate change impacts, but what really hurts is when those duly concerned are on verge of throwing in the towel.

They’re the kind of sentiments that those seriously concerned about climate change impacts and public attitudes have come to fear: Other concerned people in effect opting-out because they just can’t take it anymore.

“I already know what’s happening and about to happen,” columnist Katha Pollitt writes in the liberal magazine blog under the auspices of The Nation magazine. “Reading the fine print is just going to make me feel sadder than I already do, without giving me any action I can take to do more than give me the illusion that I am making a difference.”

Ouch. She notes a number of issues — the Vietnam War, violence against women and children — where “educating and mobilizing the citizenry has begun to transform society …. But climate change is different,” she maintains. “Individual action — even the individual actions of hundreds of thousands of people in concert — won’t be enough,” because, she argues, the issue is just too big, too pervasive, encompasses just too many players and “too profitable …. Too many people are making money out of feeding the insatiable consumer demand for more.”

Pollitt opines that “our poor old Earth would mostly muddle through” if a sweeping range of largely draconian measures were taken, and taken soon. But she isn’t optimistic they will be.

In an Earth Day column pointing to climate change as “the tragedy of the commons for the entire globe,” she says motivations to prompt needed behavioral changes hold little hope, and “the incentives are almost all the other way.” Don’t look to federal and state governments to heed her call … they “are largely industry’s captives.”

“Too many competing interests and no sufficiently powerful international mechanism” to define and enforce a global course of action,” she despairs. “By the time the collective damage is done, it will be too late to undo it.

“I hope I am wrong,” Pollitt concludes, perhaps the only sentence in her column that virtually everyone can agree with.

And, she failed to mention: By the way, have a Happy Earth Day. Have a nice day.

Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Liberal Columnist Voices Climate Despair Sentiments

  1. John Shade says:

    I think a lot of people could cheer themselves up, if that’s what they want, by studying the case for alarm over our impact on climate a little more carefully. It really is an astonishingly weak case. My astonishment arises because of the political success it has achieved.

  2. Jeff Severinghaus says:

    Despair is premature. After a few hundred million people die the public will wake up and enact a revenue-neutral carbon fee, assessed at the well-head, with rebates to all citizens and tariffs assessed at the border for imported fuels from countries without such a carbon fee. Quickly this will drive the whole world towards such fees. Exxon is already planning for such a fee in their business model. Think of how hard it was to end slavery. We had to fight a horrible war over it. Should the abolitionists have given up in the face of such overwhelming odds? (The parallels between slavery and global warming are striking.) Slavery powered our early economy in the US. Fossil fuels led northern industrialists to realize that they no longer needed slaves, so they partnered with abolitionists. Fossil fuels are now the muscle that powers our economy. Do you think those who are heavily invested in this system are going to give up without a fight? Or, just as southern slaveowners chose to do, will they fight it tooth and nail? Regarding the inevitably damage to the planet, not all is lost. Carbon can actually be removed from the atmosphere – nascent technology to do this exists (see Klaus Lackner’s inventions, Columbia University). If we clean up after the Industrial Revolution, then we will be in a position to approach the developing world on a moral footing about emissions reductions. No one needs to starve or live in the dark or thwart their ambitions for a better life. We just have to clean up after ourselves.

    • Lewis Gannett says:

      Jeff, your analogy to Abolitionism is apt, and I fear that you are also right to say that carbon interests, like slave owners of yore, will not give up without a fight. Would it require a few hundred million dead to win that war? What a provocative thought. I suspect however that war analogies will only take us so far. Maybe we should think along the lines of controlled demolition. Why don’t we deliberately (and artfully, insofar as possible) collapse the world economy? That would help to get rid of the fossil-fuel problem. Is this unthinkable? Yes. But should it be? That depends on the degree to which one buys mounting scientific evidence that carbon business as usual–and even substantially diminished business as usual–will render much of the planet uninhabitable within the not-distant future. If it comes down to the end of carbon capitalism vs. the end of civilization, which should it be?

    • Paul Quigg says:

      What kind of CC impacts will kill “a few hundred million people”? Have any weather events to date been positively attributed to CC? None that I know of. What kind of climate event, or events, could cause such devastation? If we are dumb enough to continue to build in weather sensitive zones without proper planning we could lose a few thousand. If we have a prolonged drought in some area our sophisticated transportation systems could deliver supplies to the affected areas. Katrina was the result of political corruption and poor engineering, Sandy’s super storm devastation, was confined to areas of reclaimed rivers and marshes, and Fukashima was a tsunami, with few radiation deaths. We are losing millions of people today from poor sanitation, preventable disease, conflict, auto accidents, etc. Do we divert resources from these problems to cool the air a bit in 2100?

      • Lewis Gannett says:

        Paul Quigg asks, “What kind of CC impacts will kill ‘a few hundred million people?’” One answer: starvation and disease. How can we know that this might happen? It’s already happened, scientists tell us, albeit on smaller scales. Some of the more recent findings concern drought, famine, and the collapse of Ancient Egypt. One should bear in mind that the most serious effects of climate change won’t come from violent weather, coastal inundations. The basic ability to grow food will be a much bigger problem, of which the current California drought is probably a preview. And of course, with hunger comes disease. So this is nothing new. Famine and plague have wiped out entire societies: why suppose that we are immune? That said, I must concede a point. By the time that hundreds of millions are dying from the effects of a hotter world it will be much too late to do anything constructive about that trend. We must act now. With all due respect, Mr. Quigg: It is imperative that policy makers not listen to you.

  3. Lewis Gannett says:

    Katha Pollitt has been writing for the Nation for a long time. I’ve always thought of her as sensible. She’s not an ideologue; not a utopian. Pollitt’s Earth Day column will make waves I think, especially since it arrives in tandem with the NYT Sunday Magazine’s nod to Earth Day, a remarkable story about a man named Paul Kingsnorth, a veteran UK environmentalist. Both Pollitt and Kingsnorth have concluded that the fight against climate change isn’t going to work: that it’s way too little, way too late. As Pollitt puts it, governments of the world *in theory* have time to reduce carbon emissions sharply enough that life on Earth can continue in more or less recognizable form. But since the time frame within which that must happen is only two or three decades, getting it together doesn’t seem probable. So Pollitt, like Kingsnorth, has given up, essentially. They both say that they have better things to do with their lives than waste effort on a hopeless and profoundly depressing cause. Is it scary to hear that kind of opinion from intelligent, informed, progressive thinkers? You betcha. We are going to hear a LOT more of it very soon. And in fact, there’s a rapidly growing body of like-minded thinkers who aptly enough call themselves “doomers.” The name notwithstanding, these people tend to be smart and rational. A science educator named Guy McPherson has emerged as their point man. The more programmatic doomers don’t allow people to talk about solutions on their Internet discussion groups. They don’t think solutions exist, and demand that members get used to it. I know; I was (very politely) kicked out of one such group, the Near Term Human Extinction Support Group. Why did they ask me to leave? Because I don’t think it’s too late, and said so.

    But I DO think that the traditional approach to fighting climate change is desperately wrong. The traditional idea has been that we must educate the public about the issue. If only people truly understood the science, a great groundswell of opinion would force politicians to take on the oil people and change business as usual. Bullshit! Most people already know that we’re in huge trouble: the theme pervades popular culture. The problem is that they don’t know what to do about it. And the fault for that lies not with them–how do average people figure out how to handle climate change?–but with leadership. The fault, in short, lies with Barack Obama. His failure to lead on climate is the greatest political failure of the 21rst century. Does that sound crackpot? A little uni-dimensional, maybe? Well probably! So, here’s an idea. Maybe you’d like to join Katha Pollitt and Paul Kingsnorth for tea some afternoon soon, and get of load of what *those* wild-eyed extremists have to say.

    I won’t join you for tea because I haven’t yet given up. This is what must happen. The President of the United States of America must go to the United Nations to tell the world that a giant killer asteroid is hurtling at Earth. The asteroid is named Climate Change. We must cooperate immediately to deal with this mortal threat.

    Is that such a wacky idea? Obama could decide to do it in five minutes.

    Here’s a thought. Maybe he actually will do it.

  4. gws says:

    well, in the absence of contrary evidence, i.e. there is no global movement away from fossil fuels and none currently in sight — in fact, as Hansen points out repeatedly, fossil fuel consumption is still increasing rapidly — there is no reason to be “happy”. People like Pollitt and others do not express “despair” though, but a good dose of realism. IMHO, anybody expressing “hope” (see recent NYT comment on that) or the like with respect to an imminent change to business-as-usual fossil fuel consumption is unrealistic at best.

  5. Paul Quigg says:

    Katha Pollitt should read more fine print and less “Summary for Policy Makers.” She would find that uncertainties are piled on uncertainties, which are edited out by “delegates” and “government representatives.”
    The future is unknowable and any projections beyond 20 to 30 years dissolve into chaos. This is serious business, and climate activists are starting to read their own stuff, and now they are stuck with “the end of the world as we know it.” They have chosen fear as their choice of argument, and with little hope for serious mitigation they are stuck with despair.
    Ever since Al Gore raised that “cherry picker” up to the roof and people took him seriously, or started laughing, the global warming movement has gone downhill. The science of climate change is completely lost in the media as various words or graphics or whatever are touted as the way to get the attention of the “climate fatigued” public. Just look at the recent articles in this Forum.
    Fear not, the future has infinite possibilities.