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After Alarmism (by David Wallace-Wells)

The war on climate denial has been won. And that's not the only good news.

(This piece is from January 2021 but still a very good read in context with what we are struggling with today, i.e. July 2022). Follow David on Twitter

For Jason Hickel and Julia Steinberger, growth itself is a problem; they’ve proposed a model of “degrowth,” a sort of retreat from consumption by the world’s wealthiest 10 percent, who contribute half of all emissions…Nils Gilman has described “avocado politics” — green on the outside, brown pit at the core.

Polly Higgins campaigned for a legal regime built around the principle of “ecocide,” and Olufemi Taiwo has suggested the only way to avoid an era of climate colonialism is through climate reparations.

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At two degrees, it’s expected that 150 million additional people would die from air pollution, that storms and flooding events that used to hit once a century would hit every year, and that many cities in South Asia and the Middle East that are today home to many millions would become so hot during summer that it often wouldn’t be possible to walk around outside without risking death by heatstroke.

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Elizabeth Kolbert says warming in the global South will be “an unmitigated disaster.” Under a White Sky is one of several major books on warming being published this winter, presumably timed to the inauguration of a new climate-conscious president. But unlike Michael Mann’s The New Climate War or Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, it marks a notable turn in perspective for its author.

The new book begins from the premise that the world is already past a point of no return: “Humans are producing no-analogue climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future,” she writes. The book’s key question is: What innovations will we jerry-rig, and what risky interventions will we conscience, as we slide down the precipice? Her ambivalent response is “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control.”

This emphasis is understandable, since if greenhouse-gas emissions are not restrained, successfully adapting to climate change will be impossible for most of humanity.

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We’re used to the Hollywood ending,” Kolbert tells me. “Oh, you know, at the last minute, something comes and saves us. That just isn’t happening.” To her, the course is almost laughably clear. “Adaptation — well, you know, duh, of course, we’re going to have to do it. We are doing it.

Perhaps, she allows, over many lifetimes, given a relatively quick carbon exit followed by large-scale negative emissions, the climate that has prevailed for all of human history might conceivably be restored. But the timescales are so long that generations would be spent neck deep in the big muddle, with many drowned along the way.

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The challenges will grow, in some cases exponentially, but the larger blueprint of adaptation is there for all to see, a photonegative of all of the impacts scientists have told us to expect even over the next few decades: heat stress and sea-level rise, wildfire and river flooding, agricultural decline, economic stagnation, migration crises, conflict, and state collapse.

Those models suggest unmitigated warming could cost global GDP more than 20% of its value by the end of the century; limit warming to two degrees and climate change would still kill as many people each year as COVID-19 has. You don’t do adaptation on top of that, Hsiang said. Those figures already reflect the adaptation.

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The Army Corps proposal for South Florida doesn’t even aim to protect Miami Beach, with flood barriers erected instead on the mainland and the barrier island left, presumably, to fend for itself. This is in the world’s richest country. Places like Bangladesh or Myanmar, barring meaningful climate reparations, will likely focus on flood-alarm systems, concrete bunkers, and a goal of managed retreat.

They include more widespread air conditioning and public cooling centers; better public communication and water-drinking campaigns; and reworking the elements of urban infrastructure, like asphalt and black roofs, that amplify dangerous temperatures.

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This is what climate advocates mean when they talk about managing a “just transition,” and, in recent years, they have broached the thorny subject of adaptation through the language of climate justice: Who is protected? Who is exposed? At what cost? And to whom?

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Planting forests at a scale large enough to meaningfully alter the planet’s carbon trajectory, for instance, could elevate food prices by 80 percent. Reforestation might require, according to one recent review, land between five and 15 times the size of Texas. Decarbonizing America’s power sector with renewables, a recent Princeton study suggested, would require 10 percent of the country’s continental land — though another research project suggested it could create as many as 25 million jobs.

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