Climate Change, ‘Ordinary Time,’ and Earthrise

The timescales of global warming

"Earthrise," tilted sideways, as seen by the astronauts of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968 (NASA)

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So, Paris happened. The last time I wrote, there was no international diplomatic framework for addressing climate change. Now there is.

If I haven’t sent anything to this list in a while, it’s because I was covering the talks for a larger audience. You may be interested in the two stories that concluded that coverage:

  • After the talks ended, I summarized the two weeks, and tried to answer the only question that people asked me while covering Paris: Is hope about climate change now possible?
  • I also prepared A Reader’s Guide to the Paris Agreement, which walks through some of the toughest issues that negotiators confronted. I’m proud that it’s one of the few Paris explainers that included text from the actual agreement and the context necessary to (I hope) understand it.

I’d also recommend you read Michael Liebreich’s reflections on COP21 at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

But now it’s a week or two out, and the euphoria has diminished. The Paris agreement inaugurates a new calendar for addressing climate change—with rounds of talks in 2018, 2023, 2028, and beyond—but for it to come to fruition, that calendar will depend on Democrats winning the White House next year and on climate working very differently as a U.S. political issue. In the medium term, it will also rely—not to put too fine a point on it—on the weakening of the global far right and on the maintenance of world order. This may all sound a little grandiose, but that kind of comes with the long-timescales and globally-organized-civilization thing.

Of course, the other thing that comes with long timescales is time. So in these unseasonably warm days of expectation and rest at the end of the year, as Paris stops being news and becomes a political tool or obstacle, I’ve been thinking back to a phrase that also occupied my mind as the talks began. It’s my favorite Church idiom: “ordinary time.”

As a proper term, ordinary time denotes the longest season of the liturgical year, which is, in fact, one season split into two parts. The first section of ordinary time spans from the end of Christmastide, in January, to the beginning of Lent, in February or March. Ordinary time resumes after Pentecost in the early summer, and then it lasts again until Advent, in November.

Maybe it’s my limited experience, living only a few places in the eastern half of North America, but to me that phrase, shorn of context—ordinary time—captures what it’s like to live under axial tilt, in the Earth’s temperate latitudes, during the two seasons that start with a solstice. At the nadir of winter or zenith of summer, every week does seem ordinary. The nature of the world does not seem to vary from Wednesday to Wednesday: It stays hot and sunny or it stays cold and dark. But in the spring, the light and the weather one morning can vary wildly from the light and weather the next. The graph of sunrise and sunset times, after all, approximates a sine curve.

To take it further from its Church meaning, “ordinary time” not only communicates something like “the time when nothing particularly special is happening,” but also emphasizes ordinal-ness: the time when we count up.

And it’s pleasant to count up. Counting up means the newspaper’s “Best Books of the Year” feature comes out every December. It means making notches in the wall as kids get taller. It means normal politics still applies, and that not all your time needs to be devoted to the public good: You can still withdraw for a time, care for family and friends, preserve your home.

It’s not an original observation to say that climate change requires action during ordinary time, that if you wait for the crisis (whatever the “crisis” is), it’s too late. I saw a few writers compare COP21—a conference “to save the world”—to a last-ditch diplomatic meeting to stave off nuclear war. But that isn’t quite it. If negotiators were preventing war, we’d be out of ordinary time, in extraordinary crisis. Instead—despite El Niño, despite the Chennai rains, despite the Indonesian fires and Ethiopian famine—society continues, teetering between ordinary time, our semi-performative forever-crisis, and reckless emergency.

The awfulness is that, despite the long and worrisome decades involved in discussing climate change, we only know the present. We don’t know when we will slip out of ordinary time, and guessing about future historiography only serves contemporary politics. A friend remembered the “Four Quartets”:

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

And as the talks ended, I thought of a different snippet of verse, the closing monologue from Nixon in China. Chou En-Lai wonders what will come of diplomacy with the Americans:

How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.
Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Just before dawn the birds begin,
the warblers who prefer the dark,
the cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.

To work—but please, this week, to rest. If you’re looking for something to read before 2016, try Carrie Frye on the balloon explorers of the Arctic; or Elizabeth Kolbert on the siege of Miami, which is self-recommending.

* * *

And since this letter hasn’t been crypto-spiritual enough, a final note: NASA released a “new Earthrise” last week, which I found unconvincing. (Among other oddities, the Sahara looks too green.) But I’ve been reading lately about the first Earthrise photo, in Michael Poole’s tremendous 2008 book, and learned of an episode I hadn’t before heard.

Forty-seven years ago, Apollo 8 broadcast from their final orbit of the moon. Hours before, they had glimpsed and photographed Earthrise for the first time. You can watch this broadcast on YouTube; all of this is famous space history.

But I was not familiar with William Styron’s account of watching the transmission:

It was an icy Connecticut evening in a house filled with noisy festivity. My host—a teacher of renown whom I greatly esteem—has a mind of generous curiosity and of eclectic concern, but is a man with a blind spot, at least at that time; he had found the space program a technocratic scam, overblown, financially extravagant, and basically a bore. As close as we always had been we rarely spoke of the astronauts and their flights. I had trouble that evening making him interrupt the party so that we could turn on the television set and follow the progress of the Apollo module as it began its circuit around the moon. Suddenly, there before us was that stark sphere, the craters, the jagged shadows that one knew to be chaotic mounds of rubble, the glistening white landscape projected against a backdrop of unfathomable darkness. The murmur and laughter of the party diminished and died, and we watched in silence while William Anders spoke the words from Genesis:

In the beginning God created
the Heaven and the Earth,
And the Earth was without
form, and void…

Ceremonial words tend to sound hollow and inappropriate, generally because they are predictable, touched by the stale hand of prearrangement. But these words, spoken at one of history’s truly heroic ceremonials, seemed entirely appropriate, and I remember that a chill coursed down my back and an odd sigh went through the gathering like a tremor or a wind. Then how was it possible to be more deeply affected, to discover a pitch of eloquence more grand than those incantatory lines? Simple. Listen to Frank Borman, whose cheery valedictory brought home the reality, nearly lost in the sheer awesomeness of the occasion, that we were witnessing the exploits not of some crew of demigods or archangels, but of mortally fleshed men like those of us gathered around a winter’s fire: “Goodbye, good night. Merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”

I glanced at my host, the mistrusting and scornful teacher, and saw on his face an emotion that was depthless and inexpressible.