Not Doomed Yet: Clouds, and Sea, and a Lot of Africa

A summary of global-warming news for the week of October 26, for people who want to pay more attention to it

The Great Aletsch, one of Europe’s largest glaciers (Denis Balibouse / Reuters)

This is “Not Doomed Yet,” The Atlantic’s new weekly newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the science section; you can also get it in your inbox:

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My friend and former editor, Alexis Madrigal, coins “climate changey”: a word for when you’re not sure if the current heat wave, drought, or deluge is climate-addled or just-normal bad. It’s “a word that reflects the basic anxiety of not knowing what the weather means anymore.”

Alexis wants “climate changey” to stand in for both the weather and the mental state occasioned by it. I like Alexis’s phrase because it accepts this compression, the general smooshing of environment and interiority. This is what anxiety does: inflame the places where the mind touches the world, so that eventually every contact seems doom-laden and too-much-too-much.

Indeed, that’s not so far from what climate change does: A team at Harvard just announced that elevated CO2 levels can depress human cognition.

When some people discuss climate change, they lump it in with other modern-day types of precarity. It makes sense. Economic precarity robs its victims of stability, of the promise that tomorrow will be like yesterday, and that robs them of the ability to plan. That, in turn, causes anxiety—the fear that the far present will be so unbearable that current present should obsess about it.

But climate change isn’t like economic precarity in every way. It betrays people not of feeling good about tomorrow, per se, but of their time-scale. Climate change says that the far past will be very different from the far future. Climate change steals this sense of continuity.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about languages for this kind of shifting baseline. One way that climate scientists talk about change-over-time is through economic forecasts—through money. You have a dollar in your pocket, or something like it; things will also cost dollars in a distant place and time. But in the way that economic forecasts are familiar, they’re also flattening: They’re not so far from watching poverty or drone strikes get discussed in the bland language of contemporary U.S. politics. What manifests to individual people as a series of urgent, existential choices, full of specificity (“I’m doing this for this person/this house/this town”), becomes a half-bored, mostly jargon-y recitation of imperfect policy options.

Which is all to say that I have two features coming up this week or next about climate change—one on an emissions-mitigation plan, and the other on economic forecasting—and if I missed a newsletter or two, that’s why.

The Macro-Trends

The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. The Mauna Loa Observatory measured an average of 398.51 CO2 molecules per million in the atmosphere this week. A year ago, it measured 395.84 ppm. Ten years ago, it measured 376.93 ppm.

As the nights lengthen in the Northern Hemisphere, most of the world’s trees lose their leaves. Over the next few months, that lost biomass will decay, and about 2 ppm of carbon will rejoin the atmosphere. Though much of it will be reabsorbed in the spring as trees grow again, that means we’re back in the part of the year when carbon levels steeply increase.

Renewable-energy costs are plunging faster than anyone anticipated. In June and July, natural gas generated a plurality of electricity in the United States. The two months are the first and second time, ever, that any power source surpassed coal, which as recently as 2005 generated half of all American power.

In the United Kingdom, during the same time period, both natural gas and renewables generated more electricity than coal.

And on a somewhat less monumental note, two tech companies made major renewable-energy investments this week outside the U.S.: Google invested in Africa’s largest wind farm, and Apple said it would begin building solar projects to offset its manufacturing operations in China. Apple’s American operations, and its Chinese offices and stores (but not its factories), are now 100 percent carbon neutral—an Undeniable Good which is also an Undeniable Luxury.

The U.S. greenhouse-gas regulations start ambling down the long road to implementation. On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally published its Clean Power Plan regulations in the Federal Register. This oddly technologically specific mechanism turns the rules into law, which means that state governments and companies can at last sue the agency for over-regulation. The New York Times estimates it’s possible as many as 25 states will follow that path.

But two other worthwhile points in that Times story:

  • Coral Davenport, the Times reporter, confirms what I’ve previously noted here: that many states suing the EPA are still developing plans to comply with the new rules. (For Non-Americans: That’s the opposite of what happened during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, when many Republican-led governments so assumed the law would be overturned that they never developed state-level insurance marketplaces—and wound up having to join the centralized federal marketplace.)

  • Davenport also ratifies the hypothesis that the Obama administration waited as long as possible to publish the rules so that they could not be overturned before the UN Paris talks take place:

The Obama administration has sought to ensure that the rules will not come under question before that meeting. By delaying the official publication of the rules until nearly three months after they were announced, for example, the administration appeared to be trying to ensure that no major legal decisions to weaken them would be issued before the Paris meeting.

Before Paris

Six weeks until the most-anticipated climate talks since 2009. Preliminary talks in Bonn on climate finance (that is, how much rich countries should pay for climate adaptation in developing countries) have so far failed to reach an arrangement and are falling behind schedule.

This week in the Earth system

  • September 2015 was not only the hottest September ever recorded, but it deviated from the expected monthly average by a greater margin than any month since January 1880, when records begin. 2015 is virtually certain to be the hottest year ever measured.

  • In 24 hours, Hurricane Patricia transformed from a mild tropical depression to the most-intense hurricane ever closely measured. I wrote briefly about how it intensified so quickly; at Slate, the meteorologist Eric Holthaus explained how climate change shaped the storm.

  • Patricia’s worst section was small—less than 30 miles across—and it slid through Mexico without causing catastrophic damage. (Contrast with Typhoon Haiyan, the second-strongest storm ever recorded, which devastated Tacloban in the Philippines.) But as of writing, Patricia’s remnants stretch from Oaxaca to Tennessee.

  • One note: Patricia is, like, the symptom of El Niño. El Niño is warmer waters in the eastern Pacific; Patricia was in the eastern Pacific; hurricanes feed off warm water. Ergo.

  • The UN released a new estimate that, half a world away, the same El Niño could lead to 22 million Eastern Africans needing food assistance by January.

  • The fires in Sumatra and Borneo continue. Indonesia’s navy stands by to evacuate people from the poisonous smoke. The World Resources Institute now estimates that, since mid-September, the fires have added more carbon to the atmosphere every day than all U.S. economic activity. That means that, for more than a month now, the fires would rank as the world’s second-most carbon-emitting nation.

  • The Deep Space Climate Observatory has started to post its 11 daily images of “the fully lit disc”: the “Blue Marble” image. The yellowish, smoky center of this image is smoke from those fires:

The 1972 photo of Earth known as “The Blue Marble” is now ubiquitous, a cliché, shorthand for “everything that matters,” but without going into specifics. But as summaries go, the photo is weirdly editorial: we see clouds, and sea, and a lot of Africa. No mountains are visible, hardly any forests, certainly no cities. Nothing of any scale that we can apprehend directly. It’s strikingly humanity-free.

In this way, the photo makes a kind of political statement—a “truth claim”—which is both vague and hyperbolic simultaneously. This is the context, it says. This is the whole thing. But of course that’s ridiculous. It is obfuscatory in its apparent completeness. It’s a map of the planet’s color and brightness, at relatively low resolution. It is a context—we get to decide for what.