This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang — that is, a sudden, universal catastrophe — but with a series of smaller, more local catastrophes that keep getting bigger and more widespread.
I’ve been seeing a surprising number of complaints about the amount of media space devoted to New York’s orange skies and red alerts. James Fallows, a former editor of The Atlantic, writes: “Everyone who has lived in a big Chinese / Indian city during the past couple of decades, or in Pacific NW / SF Bay area / SoCal during US/Canadian wildfires is thinking: Yes, we feel for everyone in smoke-ridden NYC! And, we can’t help but notice the diff in press attention.”
True. But air pollution in Asian cities has been created by local conditions. The recent intensified problem of wildfire pollution in the Western United States, by contrast, was indeed a harbinger of coming climate-related disaster, and should have been seen as such. The problem, however, isn’t that the air quality disaster in New York (and much of the Eastern United States) is receiving too much attention, but that its predecessors received too little.
Yes, it’s unfair that smoke-filled skies in New York, still the center of the media universe, get noticed in a way that comparable crises elsewhere don’t. But that’s a minor issue compared with the importance of learning from these crises, now that enough influential people have seen with their own eyes what’s happening.
So let me make a few points about this disaster, which has disrupted life for tens of millions and will no doubt turn out to have taken a serious toll on health, including a fair number of premature deaths. For the most part these points are almost embarrassingly obvious, but the politics of climate change have been largely about people denying the obvious until, and sometimes after, disaster strikes.
Climate scientists have been saying for decades that global warming would lead to a proliferation of wildfires. Last year a U.N. report warned of a “global wildfire crisis” as many forested areas become hotter and drier. The smoke-filled skies outside my window are, in effect, a validation of mainstream climate science: The experts didn’t predict this particular disaster for this particular week, but this is exactly the kind of thing they’ve been warning us would happen.
But don’t expect climate denialists, who at this point effectively control the Republican Party, to be persuaded. On Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani asked of New York’s orange haze, “Is it due to wildfires, climate change or something more sinister?”
Indeed, conspiracy theories about this disaster have been spreading like, well, wildfire. The Canada fires have been set by directed energy weapons (the updated version of Jewish space lasers); no, they’ve been set by government drones or antifa activists, or anyway they’re part of a plot to force people to wear masks again (which they should) and go back into lockdown.
Given recent political history, it would be a very bad idea to assume that such conspiracy theories, ludicrous as they are, won’t gain traction.
But back to sanity. I think it’s fair to say that even people who accept climate reality have tended to assume that really serious impacts still lie some years in the future; I sometimes find myself thinking that way, even though intellectually I know better. But it has long been clear that the damage from climate change will gradually build over time, as formerly freakish disasters become bigger and more frequent, as once-in-a-century floods, fires and droughts start happening every few years, affecting ever more people. The climate crisis will get much worse, but it is in fact already well underway.
And there are no safe places. Some people have tended to assume that a warming planet is only bad for faraway places that are already hot — India, say, or the Middle East — and might even be good for people living in colder climes. But right now Canada is on fire, and central New York State — heretofore famous for cold winters and lake-effect snow — has been hit as hard or harder than New York City.
Things could be worse. Indeed, things are certain to get worse: Even effective climate action now won’t be enough to prevent disasters from becoming even bigger and more frequent for many more years.
The good news, such as it is, is that we’re finally starting to see some real action on climate. All indications are that recent U.S. actions to promote an energy transition are working better and faster than even their proponents expected, with the private sector rushing to invest in clean energy, and there’s reason to hope that other nations will move down similar paths. So there’s at least some hope that we can still avoid utter catastrophe.
But our belated move to do something about global warming will at best slow, not reverse, the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so the climate won’t improve — at best, it will get worse more slowly. So for the foreseeable future we’ll be facing ever bigger climate-related disasters. And this future has already begun. Just look up.
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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman