Thursday, July 13, 2017

Two points about that Jacobin climate change piece

Daniel Aldana Cohen, writing for Jacobin, is critical of The Uninhabitable Earth - a new piece on potential climate change outcomes by David Wallace-Wells. As far as I can tell, Cohen is making two distinct arguments - but while he scores a few point on the way, I don't think they amount to a case that DWW's article "gets it painfully wrong."

The political story

First, Cohen argues that "the real climate danger" will hit before any of DWW's worst-case scenarios. In a few cases, he probably has a point: if Bangladesh launches sulfates into the stratosphere, or if Pakistan starts a nuclear war over control of the Indus river, things could go wrong for the human species quite quickly. These risks are far more immediate than the remote Canfield ocean scenarios DWW goes into, and deserve our attention.

But DWW, we are told, hasn't just ignored a few specific threats. Repeatedly, Cohen insists that what DWW neglects is "the real...(and political) story"; thus, The Uninhabitable Earth is only "ostensibly" a "discussion of what humans are doing to themselves". Instead of grappling with things like "brutal inequalities" and "a vicious right-wing minority imposing the privilege of the few over everyone else," DWW has focused on "pure weather scenarios"; damningly, "the word capitalism appears [only!] four times in this many-thousand-word piece."

This framing turns Cohen's specific objections into a full-blown, systematic leftist critique - but not, I think, a fair one.

DWW is not ignoring "what humans are doing to themselves" when he writes about the ecological consequences of human behavior. To insist that he "misses the action around poli-econ" is to imply that the scenarios DWW surveys are not themselves political-economic outcomes - consequences of inequality and antidemocratic privilege. And DWW is quite explicit about this: he blames "fossil capitalism" for its "devastating long-term cost: climate change."

Recognize that DWW is taking on a political problem, and Cohen's left critique falls apart: DWW is neither ignoring the sociopolitics of climate change nor neglecting to implicate capitalism. Instead, he's just guilty of an analytical error. DWW has written about some of the dangers of climate change, but neglected a few of the most immediate.

The hopeless cause

Early on in The Uninhabitable Earth, DWW offers an important caveat:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.
And Cohen, for his part seems to agree: "obviously," he writes, "absent any real action to reduce emissions we're fucked." But even as he affirms DWW's account on the merits, Cohen thinks that it "is socially and politically hopeless" to have published it; what is needed, he concludes, "isn't a better grasp of science," but rather "political campaigns that foreground...hope."

It strikes me as odd to insist that DWW is pessimistically peddling "disaster porn" and to argue that he has omitted "the real and scary" story - dangers that are even more imminent. Still, setting that inconsistency aside, Cohen is raising an important question for the left: is the science of climate change so profoundly hopeless and depressing that we should just keep quiet about it, particularly when it comes to acknowledging some of the worst-case scenarios?

On one hand, climate science is objectively depressing - it's even depressing the scientists themselves. And it's true that hopelessness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Chomsky put it, "If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope." So I suppose that one can't entirely dismiss this objection, either; if your end-game is stopping climate change rather than education for the sake of education, perhaps it makes sense not to draw attention to the most intimidating worst-case scenarios.

On the other hand, however, I remain hopeful that the public can handle the science DWW lays out and continue with the hard work of climate change activism. Why? Ironically, because of Cohen himself: "Yes," he writes,
obviously, absent any real action to reduce emissions we’re fucked. BUT: That is not going to happen.
By the fourth sentence of his article, Cohen has conceded the entire premise of The Uninhabitable Earth - and he has demonstrated, through his own example, that one can be familiar with these scenarios and still expect to avoid them. Cohen has read the same scientific papers DWW has, and yet remains admirably committed to the fight against climate change. Can't we handle the truth, too?