life after warming

The Cautious Case for Climate Optimism

Believing in a comfortable future for our planet probably means some giant carbon-sucking machines.

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Sven Schabbach/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Sven Schabbach/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow/Sven Schabbach/Getty Images

Adapted from The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, to be published on February 19 by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells.

It’s not too late. In fact, it never will be. Whatever you may have read over the past year — as extreme weather brought a global heat wave and unprecedented wildfires burned through 1.6 million California acres and newspaper headlines declared, “Climate Change Is Here” — global warming is not binary. It is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a question of “fucked” or “not.” Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.

A century and a half after the greenhouse effect was first identified, and a few decades since climate denial and misinformation began muddying our sense of what scientists do know, we are left with a set of predictions that can appear falsifiable — about global temperatures and sea-level rise and even hurricane frequency and wildfire volume. And there are, it is true, feedback loops in the climate system that we do not yet perfectly understand and dynamic processes that remain mysterious. But to the extent that we live today under clouds of uncertainty about the future of climate change, those clouds are, overwhelmingly, not projections of collective ignorance about the natural world but of blindness about the human one, and they can be dispersed by human action. The question of how bad things will get is not, actually, a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to forestall disaster and how quickly?

These are the disconcerting, contradictory lessons of global warming, which counsels both human humility and human grandiosity, each drawn from the same perception of peril. There’s a name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do — gods. But for the moment, at least, many of us seem inclined to run from that responsibility rather than embrace it. Or even admit we see it, though it sits in front of us as plainly as a steering wheel. That climate change is all-enveloping means that it targets us all and that we must all share in the responsibility so we do not all share in the suffering — at least not share in so suffocatingly much of it.

Since I first began writing about climate a few years ago, I’ve been asked often whether I see any reason for optimism. The thing is, I am optimistic. But optimism is always a matter of perspective, and mine is this: No one wants to believe disaster is coming, but those who look, do. At about two degrees Celsius of warming, just one degree north of where we are today, some of the planet’s ice sheets are expected to begin their collapse, eventually bringing, over centuries, perhaps as much as 50 feet of sea-level rise. In the meantime, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable. There will be, it has been estimated, 32 times as many extreme heat waves in India, and even in the northern latitudes, heat waves will kill thousands each summer. Given only conventional methods of decarbonization (replacing dirty-energy sources like coal and oil with clean ones like wind and solar), this is probably our best-case scenario. It is also what is called — so often nowadays the phrase numbs the lips — “catastrophic warming.” A representative from the Marshall Islands spoke for many of the world’s island nations when he used another word to describe the meaning of two degrees: genocide.

You do not need to contemplate worst-case scenarios to be alarmed; this best-case scenario is alarming enough. Two degrees would be terrible, but it’s better than three, at which point Southern Europe would be in permanent drought, African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple, or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres. And three degrees is much better than four, at which point six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously; the number of climate refugees, already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold, or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today. We are on track for more warming still — just above four degrees by 2100, the U.N. estimates. So if optimism is always a matter of perspective, the possibility of four degrees shapes mine.

It is unlikely, I think, that we reach four degrees this century. But this is what it would take to stay under two: a comprehensively decarbonized economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture, perhaps even a planet without meat-eaters. We also need overhauls of the world’s transportation systems and infrastructure. Every year the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets — enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, we each add five gallons.

If the task of reversing all that seems incomprehensibly big, it is. The scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history, including electricity and telecommunications and even the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. By definition, it dwarfs them, because it contains all of them — every single sector needs to be rebuilt from the foundation, since every single one breathes on carbon like it’s a ventilator. In October, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has only a dozen years to halve its carbon emissions to safely avoid two degrees of warming and all those “catastrophic” impacts.

Is it possible? The short answer is, technically speaking, maybe — though just maybe. But speaking practically, and politically, is another matter.

Let’s consider the tools at hand. First: a carbon tax. The very same day the IPCC released its “Doomsday” report, the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to William Nordhaus, who pioneered the economic study of climate change and is known today primarily for having championed the idea of carbon pricing. The premise is simple: Legislate a high enough cost on the stuff and the market will respond by producing less, then eventually none, of it. It is also an appealing proposition to those who don’t want to see the economy truly upended; to those who trust that market forces will deliver the outcomes they are predicted to; to those who believe that the world would trust action on climate only if it came for free or, better yet, with economic benefits; and to those who believe that action would otherwise involve, invariably, a trade-off — that climate action of any meaningful scale would be expensive, probably too expensive for any growth-minded country to countenance.

Over the past several years, there has been a raft of papers showing that the intuitive terms of that bargain are backward: Faster action on climate will save or gain the world enormous amounts of money ($26 trillion in potential growth by just 2030, according to one estimate; those $600 trillion in damages avoided by the end of the century, according to another). But the labor involved in such a transformation makes it seem burdensome anyway, and so the hope of the market solving the problem on its own — with the help of just a little incentive-setting — has prevailed, at least among a certain set.

In January, 45 economists described by Bloomberg as both “an all-star lineup” and the world’s “economic brain trust” united behind the cause of a gradually increasing carbon tax, though they did not name their starting price, which is a crucial variable. For his part, Nordhaus has identified pricing for an “optimal” scenario: between $35 and $229 per ton of CO2, a tax that, by his own estimate, could result in 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. That is 1.5 degrees warmer than that island-nation “genocide.”

A carbon tax is hypothetical for Americans, which may be one reason they tend to be optimistic about it. But there are already, today, many places with existing carbon pricing — South Korea, Japan, the E.U. None of their emissions are declining fast enough to meet a goal of two degrees, according to the carbon-watchdog site Climate Action Tracker. It is conceivable, even probable, that at much higher levels of taxation, the impact would be clearer. But as Jay Inslee, the governor of bright-green Washington State, which tried and failed to enact such a tax in 2018, recently put it, “To actually get carbon savings, you have to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable.”

The longer we wait, the steeper the declines will have to be. If the world as a whole had begun decarbonization in the year 2000, when Al Gore collected half a million more votes in the presidential election than George W. Bush, emissions would have had to fall by 3 percent per year to achieve climate stability at two degrees; if we begin now, we will have to cut them by 10 percent each year; if we wait another decade, the cuts will be enormous, 30 percent per year, to even hope for warming levels below “genocide.” Last year, Nordhaus’s own nephew Ted wrote in Foreign Affairs that the dream of keeping the world under two degrees of warming, under any approach, was simply naïve.

The carbon tax is the solution favored by business. On the left, another possible approach has emerged: massive public investment and public works, both directed toward replacing dirty energy sources with clean ones and producing, along the way, an entirely renewable economy. In other words, the Green New Deal.

The term may seem like a response to our very present tense of climate panic, but it has bounced around for a while. It was used by Van Jones, Obama’s green-jobs adviser, in 2008 and formed the centerpiece of Jill Stein’s 2012 and 2016 campaigns, not that too many people took note. This year, under that same banner, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has rallied an astonishing level of political and policy energy around it — Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have already endorsed the plan, and many of their fellow aspiring nominees will surely follow. Their endorsements were for only a set of goals, as the proposal was still being hammered into legislation when they attached their support. The initial concept offered only one extremely ambitious goal — decarbonizing the American economy entirely by 2030 — and a number of other commitments that have excited many on the left whose political priorities may not be so climate-focused. That is: to use the economic stimulus of green-energy investment “to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth, and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.”

These proposals are worthy, invigorating, and — believe it or not — popular. I’m all for them. Unfortunately, they are also, on their own, not enough. As a strategy of avoiding that same threshold of two degrees of warming, the investments of a Green New Deal are what logicians call “necessary but insufficient.”

This is not a reflection of the modesty of the legislation, which is not at all modest — in fact, it is perhaps the most ambitious bill put forward in congress in three quarters of a century. It is simply a reflection of the scale of the challenge. In its report, the IPCC compared the transformation required to stay safely below two degrees to the mobilization of World War II. That mobilization was unprecedented in human history and has never been matched since. That time, there was a draft, a nationalization of industry, widespread rationing: The entire American nation turned single-mindedly toward the relevant threat, as did the entire Russian nation — and the two of them, almost inconceivably, in retrospect, allied. That is the kind of mobilization the sober-minded scientists of the world believe is necessary today — to get to half of our current emissions by 2030. Is it possible? Well, just about anything is possible, as the total mobilization of the nation in World War II shows you. But it recently took New York City 45 years to build three new stops on a single subway line.

And if such a Green New Deal transformation within the U.S. were possible, it would affect only one country in the world, a country producing only 15 percent of global emissions. This is the second reason the Green New Deal is, on its own, insufficient. Last year, China was responsible for more than a quarter of emissions — and that figure does not account for any of the massive infrastructure projects the country is undertaking across Asia and Africa as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative to remake highways and ports and airports throughout those continents. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter, and China is now pouring more concrete in a span of three years than the United States poured during the entire 20th century.

Climate action does not just take place within nations but between them. Here too the hurdles are monumental. We have not yet really begun to consider the ways in which climate change will shape and distort our global politics — bringing carbon budgets into the architecture of trade agreements and peace treaties, reshaping rivalries between nations by literally reshaping their geographies, introducing in the face of drowning nations and uninhabitable cities in the poorest parts of the world the matter of climate reparations and the question of just who will pay. But the way our present politics is shaping our climate policy is already clear enough.

The Paris climate accords, signed nearly a decade after the Great Recession, seemed to mark the end of the long era of technocratic, neoliberal globalism. And yet, as a multilateral treaty negotiated on the principle of positive-sum cooperation, it reflects those values in almost every way. Distressingly, it also reflects the failures of those values. Just two years in, no major industrial nation in the world but India is on track to keep warming below two degrees.

In some places, government action is being lapped by market forces. In America, for instance, coal production is projected to fall faster than was predicted if Obama’s Clean Power Plan were enacted (which it wasn’t). Over the past 25 years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen so far that you can hardly measure today’s price using the same scales (since just 2009, for instance, solar-energy costs have fallen more than 80 percent). But over that same 25 years, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown at all, which means that, billions of dollars and thousands of dramatic breakthroughs later, the planet is in some ways no further in its “green-energy revolution” than it was when hippies were affixing solar panels to their geodesic domes. In fact, less far along, because the market has not responded to these developments by retiring dirty-energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is suicide. In 2003, Kan Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution found that the world would need to add clean-power sources equivalent to the full capacity of a nuclear plant every single day between 2000 and 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2018, James Temple of MIT’s Technology Review surveyed our progress; he found that the world was on track to complete the necessary energy revolution in 400 years.

That gap yawns so wide it could swallow whole civilizations, and indeed threatens to. Into it has crawled the dreams of those extraordinary technological fixes: If we can’t rebuild the entire infrastructure of the modern world soon enough to save it from self-destruction, perhaps we can at least buy ourselves some time by artificially cooling off the planet or maybe sucking some of its toxic fumes out of the air. If that seems too sci-fi for you, you are not alone; in 2018, Nature dismissed all such scenarios as “magical thinking.”

But if, today, you want to believe in climate hope — want to believe the planet can stay below two degrees of warming — it means believing in something more fanciful than decarbonization and clean energy. No matter how quickly we take action, and no matter how aggressively, the goal of a stable climate is functionally out of reach by any conventional method. We can implement the most aggressive climate policy yet conceived, doubling or even tripling the most ambitious decarbonization proposals being put forward today by the world’s greenest leaders, and we will still need some “magic.” Probably a whole lot of it.

The most promising variety of this magic is “negative emissions”: taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Once a last-ditch, if-all-else-fails strategy, negative emissions has recently been built into nearly all climate-action goals. This is a chilling fact, which almost nobody outside the climate world appreciates: Just about every plausible scenario for avoiding catastrophic change is built on these technologies, which we are only now beginning to test. Of 400 IPCC emissions models that land us below two degrees Celsius, 344 feature negative emissions, most of them significantly. The ones that don’t rely on negative emissions all require such sharp and immediate emissions drops it is hard to believe they could be produced by any policy on the table today. On your chalkboard, you can draw whatever carbon-emissions curve you’d like, but keeping the world safely under two degrees by conventional decarbonization alone probably means policies like an immediate ban on all new internal-combustion engines and much of the world’s heavy industry being suddenly shuttered or redirected by fiat.

What is more of a fantasy — that scenario or the “magical thinking” of negative emissions? Because it promises a sort of global extension on the project of decarbonization, that magical thinking has also been described as the ultimate moral hazard. It is. But the math tells us negative emissions is also a last, best, hope.

A stable climate will require some of these carbon-capture machines (top left). Or sulfur (top right) to cool the pollution earth. Or both. Photo: Courtesy of Carbon Engineering (machine); Getty Images (landscapes).
A stable climate will require some of these carbon-capture machines (top left). Or sulfur (top right) to cool the pollution earth. Or both. Photo: Cou... A stable climate will require some of these carbon-capture machines (top left). Or sulfur (top right) to cool the pollution earth. Or both. Photo: Courtesy of Carbon Engineering (machine); Getty Images (landscapes).

There are also other approaches: “Unconventional” is actually a pretty big buffet. In Silicon Valley, where the cult of the history-bestriding founder strangely hasn’t produced much interest in saving the planet, little time or money has been targeted toward climate solutions. But this fall, the start-up incubator Y Combinator called for proposals in four areas, hoping to invest in companies that would suck carbon out of the atmosphere by expanding the reach of the ocean’s phytoplankton (which naturally absorb CO2 in the ocean and turn it into oxygen) or reengineer it to do so more prolifically; by making the world’s rocks massive carbon sinks; by inventing new enzymes that would filter the air; and by flooding large areas of the world’s deserts with beds of algae engineered to absorb all that CO2.

Among climate scientists, these are considered Hail Marys — worth exploring but unlikely to change the course of global warming on a large scale — although the two approaches these scientists consider more practical are likely to strike you as Hail Marys, too. The first is to cool the planet with a program of suspended particles — that is, polluting the air on purpose, likely with sulfur, to reflect sunlight back into space. This prospect, called “solar geoengineering,” would allow us to continue to produce at least some carbon. It has also been received by the public as a worst-case scenario near science fiction — and has, in fact, informed much of the recent sci-fi that has addressed itself to the climate crisis. And yet it has gained a terrific amount of currency among some of the most concerned climate scientists, many of whom describe it as an inevitability — it’s just so cheap, they say. Even an environmentalist billionaire, going rogue, could make it happen on his own.

Once we began such a program, we couldn’t stop, at least not suddenly: Even a brief interruption would send the planet plunging several degrees of warming forward into a climate abyss. (The system would also be vulnerable to terrorism, war, and political gamesmanship, as even its advocates acknowledge.) In the meantime, intentionally polluting the atmosphere with sulfur could cause many premature deaths through its direct effect on air quality. (The research on this is quite spare, but already millions die each year, globally, from aerosol pollution of similar kinds.) A 2018 paper suggested it would also rapidly dry the Amazon, producing many more wildfires, each releasing much more carbon into the atmosphere. The negative effect on plant growth would entirely cancel out the positive effect on global temperature, according to another paper; in other words, though it would keep the temperature down, at least in terms of agriculture, solar geoengineering would offer no net benefit at all.

Advocates of solar geoengineering describe the costs as small, but they are one reason negative emissions, by contrast, has such an intuitive appeal: It would not require wholesale immediate transformation of the world’s economy, though changes to that economy could mean we’d require less negative-emissions help, and it would not merely mask the problem of warming but address it directly by actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Negative emissions comes in basically two forms. The first is “natural,” or natural-seeming: using revitalized forests and new agricultural practices to more aggressively photosynthesize the carbon in the air, then using those plants as fuel in processes that immediately capture the carbon released. This is called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS. The second is technological: deploying machines to remove carbon from the atmosphere, which is called, simply, “carbon capture and storage,” or CCS. These machines, which already exist, come in different types and work in slightly different ways, but the effect is in all cases the same: They reverse the arrow of industrial time. Coal is condensed carbon, and beginning in the 18th century, we harvested it from the ground and began burning it for energy, releasing CO2; these machines suck that CO2 out of the atmosphere and condense it, using chemical and mechanical processes, into coal-like pellets or bricks, which we could then bury back underground.
(Sometimes the by-product is liquid, but the idea is the same.)

How safe is it to count on negative emissions? Neither method of carbon capture has yet been demonstrated to actually work at real scale. The natural approach, though adored by environmentalists, faces perhaps stiffer obstacles: One researcher suggested that to achieve even what is asked of BECCS in the Paris accords would require using a third of the world’s farmable land, and a 2018 letter in Nature Climate Change described the forestry and agricultural technologies, as imagined, as “difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries” — that is, deploying them at scale would impose such devastating costs in terms of forest cover, biodiversity, agriculture, and fresh water that doing so “might undermine the stability and resilience of the earth system.” Which means, among other things, we probably shouldn’t think of this as an alternative to rapid decarbonization but something to deploy, at the margins, alongside it.

Because it would not require cannibalizing the world’s farmable land, direct-air CCS seems somewhat more appealing, but in that way, too, lie obstacles — enormous ones. There is not much carbon in the air, all told, just 410 parts per million, but it is everywhere, and so relying on carbon capture globally could require large-scale scrubbing plantations dotting the earth wherever humans are emitting carbon. We are very far from that. One estimate suggests that, to have hopes of staying under two degrees through carbon capture, we would need to open new full-scale plants at the pace of one every working day for the next 70 years. In 2018, the world had 18 of them.

We will likely get more soon. Last June, a breakthrough in carbon capture was published by a team of scientists led by David Keith to much fanfare: “It’s Possible to Reverse Climate Change,” ran one representative headline. The paper showed that Keith’s company — called Carbon Engineering and backed in part by Bill Gates — could already remove carbon directly from the air at a cost of between $94 and $232 per ton. A short learning curve from now, Keith says, and you could get reliably under $100 per ton. At that price, it would, in theory, be possible to totally neutralize the entire global emissions level at an annual cost of about $3 trillion.

This is an enormous amount — about 3.75 percent of global GDP. But it is cheaper than the carbon tax the IPCC proposed in its “Doomsday” report, which is much higher than anything William Nordhaus would’ve accepted: somewhere between $135 and $5,500 a ton by 2030, a price the panel said may have to grow to $27,000 per ton by 2100. The price of implementing carbon capture is also considerably less than some estimates of global fossil-fuel subsidies, direct and indirect, which run as high as $5 trillion annually. (One could imagine that money being immediately redirected toward carbon capture to solve the problem in one fell swoop.)

But there are still problems of scale. We’d have to power all those direct-air-capture devices, which could require doubling our current global energy use — and we’d have to find a way for all that energy to be clean. We’d have to dispose of the carbon, which could require a waste-management infrastructure two to four times the size of today’s oil and gas industries just to put away their waste. And, as Keith points out, even that $94 per ton is still considerably higher than the cost of putting the carbon into the atmosphere in the first place, which means it doesn’t really make sense, economically speaking, to do it globally. Better to find ways to avoid putting the stuff into the air to begin with — and better to rely on carbon capture as one tool among others to help those sectors we can’t clean up quickly enough, rather than as a cure-all to clean up the mess of our entire fossil economy. For his part, Keith thinks it makes more sense to use solar geoengineering and to bring in large-scale carbon-capture only later in the century, when we’ve already thoroughly zeroed out on emissions and the technology itself would be, presumably, even cheaper. In the meantime, climate change will likely continue to pummel us, so much that the new world we find ourselves stepping into may feel so alien from our own it might as well be another planet entirely.

In 1950, walking to lunch at Los Alamos, the Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the architects of the atomic bomb, found himself caught up in a conversation about UFOs with three other scientists — so caught up he drifted off in thought, jumping back in, long after everyone else had moved on, to ask, “Where is everybody?” The story passed into scientific legend, the interjection now known as Fermi’s paradox: If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer may be as simple as climate. Nowhere else in the known universe is a single planet as suited as this one to produce life of the kind we know. Global warming makes that suitability seem much more precarious.

The astrophysicist Adam Frank calls this kind of thinking “the astrobiology of the Anthropocene” in his book Light of the Stars, which considers climate change, the future of the planet, and our stewardship of it from the perspective of the universe — “thinking like a planet,” he calls it. “We are not alone. We are not the first,” Frank writes in the book’s opening pages. “This — meaning everything you see around you in our project of civilization — has quite likely happened thousands, millions, or even trillions of times before.”

What sounds like a parable from Nietzsche is really just an explication of the meaning of infinity, and how small and insignificant the concept makes humans and everything we do in the space of such a universe. In an unconventional recent paper with climatologist Gavin Schmidt, Frank went even further, suggesting that there may even have been advanced industrial civilizations of some form in the deep history of this planet, so deep in the past their remnants would have long been reduced to dust below our feet, making them permanently invisible to us.

The paper was meant as a thought experiment, pointing out how little we can really know from archaeology and geology, not as a serious claim about the history of Earth. It was also meant to be uplifting. Frank wants his book to offer what he believes is the empowering perspective that our “project of civilization” is profoundly fragile and that we must take extraordinary measures to protect it. Both points are true, but nevertheless it can be a bit hard to see those facts as encouraging: If there have really been trillions of other civilizations like this one, somewhere out there in the universe and including possibly a few scattered in the dust of the earth, it does not bode well that we don’t yet see the trace of a single one that’s survived.

That is a lot of despair to hang on “trillions” — in fact a lot to hang on some very speculative math. Fatalism has a strong pull in a time of ecological crisis, but even so it is a curious quirk of our present predicament that the transformation of the planet by anthropogenic climate change — that is, climate change caused by humans — has produced a vogue for Fermi’s paradox and so little for its philosophical counterpoint, the anthropic principle. That principle takes the human anomaly not as a puzzle to explain away but as the centerpiece of a grandly narcissistic view of the cosmos: However unlikely it may seem that intelligent civilization arose in an infinity of lifeless gas, and however lonely we appear to be in the universe, in fact something like the world we live on is a sort of logical inevitability, given that we are asking these questions, because only a universe compatible with our kind of conscious life would produce anything capable of contemplating it like this.

This is a Möbius strip of logic, a gimmicky tautology rather than a claim based strictly on observed data. And yet, I think, it is helpful — by which I mean hopeful — in thinking about climate change and the existential challenge of solving it in the decades ahead. There is one civilization we know of, and it is still around and kicking — for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it?

Of course, a sense of cosmic specialness is no guarantee of good stewardship. And “thinking like a planet” is so alien to the perspectives of modern life — so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system — that the term sounds at first lifted from kindergarten. But reasoning from first principles is reasonable when it comes to climate; in fact, it is necessary, as we do not have very long to engineer a solution. This goes beyond “thinking like a planet,” because the planet will survive, however terribly we poison it; it is thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all.

The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it, but, if we think like one people, all the relevant inputs are within our control and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth. Only an acceptance of responsibility. When J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of Los Alamos, later reflected on the meaning of the bomb he and Fermi had helped bring into being, he famously said he was reminded, in the flash of the first successful nuclear test, of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” But the interview occurred years after those tests, after Oppenheimer had become the pacifist conscience of America’s nuclear age (for which, naturally, he had his military clearance revoked). According to his brother, Frank, who was also there, when Oppenheimer watched the detonation of the device nicknamed “the gadget,” he said only, “It worked.”

This can work too. No single solution alone is sufficient, but the solutions, plural, are here already. As climate activists often say, we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic change. It’s true: a carbon tax and government action to aggressively phase out dirty energy, even outright ban much of it; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture. We just need to choose to implement them — all of them — and quite fast. But of course political will is not some trivial ingredient always at hand. We probably have the tools we need to solve global poverty, epidemic disease, and the abuse of women, as well.

That the solutions are obvious, and available, does not mean the problem is anything but overwhelming. We may never be quite able to hold in our heads the full scope of climate change, never be quite able to see it all fully, and if global warming continues on anything like its present track, it will come to shape everything we do on the planet, from agriculture to human migration to business and mental health, transforming not just our relationship to nature but to politics and to history, and will prove to be a knowledge system as total as “modernity.”

How will we navigate that system — or understand our place within it? Even before the age of climate change, the literature of conservation furnished many metaphors to choose from. James Lovelock gave us the Gaia hypothesis, which conjured an image of the world as a single, evolving, quasi-biological entity. Buckminster Fuller popularized “spaceship Earth,” which presented the planet as a kind of desperate life raft in what Archibald MacLeish called “the enormous, empty night”; today the phrase suggests a vivid picture of a world spinning through the solar system barnacled with enough carbon-capture plants to actually stall out warming, or even reverse it, restoring as if by magic the breathability of the air between the machines. The Voyager space probe gave us the Pale Blue Dot — the inescapable smallness, and fragility, of the entire experiment we’re engaged in, together, whether we like it or not. Personally, I think climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power and, in so doing, calls the world, as one, to action. At least, I hope it does. But that is another meaning of climate change’s kaleidoscope, which makes it so we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever seeing it clearly. You can choose your metaphor. You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.

*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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