Adjusting to Apocalypse

Societies are going to adjust to climate change in some way — it’s up to us to push that transformation in a progressive direction.

Chris Hickman / Flickr

Chris Hickman / Flickr

The news that a section of the West Antarctica ice sheet is now irreversibly melting into the ocean is awesome and terrifying. As a vivid illustration of the scale of climate change, it merits the aghast reactions that I’ve seen from the lefties around me.

Yet I can’t help but think about what I wrote recently, about another prediction of ecologically driven disaster. That prediction of civilizational collapse turned out to be based on tendentious speculation, while the findings about the Antarctic ice are the product of extended research by two separate teams of serious researchers. So in this case, it’s tremendously valuable to know what’s happening no matter what the political impacts are.

But I once again wonder if the publicity around these findings will wind up doing much good. It certainly could, if the combined enormity and easy comprehensibility of this new finding gets more people to take climate change seriously.

Yet I fear it will, instead, mostly be taken up by people who already make “being very serious about climate change” a significant part of their identity. And if the news is read in an apocalyptic way, it can as easily breed fatalism as political will.

While the irreversible nature of the melting ice sheet is touted above all else, just as important is the time scale over which it will unfold. The rise in sea levels, which could be five feet, ten feet, or even more, will occur over the span of a century or more. From the New York Times article:

The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the twenty-first century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.

While one hundred years is an infinitesimal amount of time in geological terms — hence what makes the phenomenon so shocking and important — it is nevertheless an extremely long time in the context of an industrialized human society. It’s hard to imagine human society dealing with environmental changes of this magnitude, but perhaps no more so than picturing the regimes of 1914 reckoning with the upheavals of the past century.

Societies will adapt, even if those adaptations will entail enormous expenses and dislocations. And indeed, adaptation is already happening. This mostly doesn’t mean fanciful geoengineering schemes, but rather things like the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development working with a water management expert to bring Dutch water-control techniques to the United States, or Congress debating the impacts of flood insurance policy on low income homeowners.

It’s true, as Matt Karp writes, that overturning the fossil fuel-based economy will require a monumental political struggle and a massive redistribution of wealth. But we should not think merely in terms of an epochal battle to either defeat Big Oil and “save the planet” or else perish. Equally important is to contest the adjustments and adaptations that we now know must be made, even if we could somehow decarbonize the economy tomorrow.

These adaptations will impose costs and burdens, and the ruling class will do what it can to impose those burdens on those who can least bear them. In other words, the politics of climate change are and will continue to be intertwined with class struggle across all domains, not just in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. I believe, of course, that socialism is also the best answer to the ecological crisis. But I also agree with Christian Parenti that “in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of totally economic re-organization.”

To me, Marco Rubio’s climate change denialism and Obama’s dithering over the Keystone pipeline are at least as terrifying as the latest word from Antarctica. As is the rise of a climate apartheid that allows the rich to evade the consequences of a warming world. Fortunately, our immediate political obstacles, unlike the movements of the glaciers, are at least potentially susceptible to change through collective action.

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