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How Hot Will the Future Feel?


Even among the grim daily toll of pandemic deaths and job losses, the most fateful numbers in the news last week probably came from a huge study carried out by a team of scientists at the World Climate Research Programme. It wove together the warming that we’ve observed so far, the latest understanding of feedback effects from clouds and other systems, and the record of the climate in the deep past to conclude that doubling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (which, at current rates, will occur toward the middle of the century) will raise the average surface temperature on Earth between two and a half and four degrees Celsius. This is the first significant narrowing of that range in decades—ever since the nineteen-eighties, we’ve been saying one and a half to four and a half degrees. Now, though, researchers are essentially ruling out the bottom end of the range: two and a half degrees, now essentially the best-case scenario, is an enormous number. Dealing with the volume and complexity of data “was such a long and painful process,” one researcher, Kate Marvel, at NASA’s Goddard Institute, said. James Hansen, the former Goddard chief and the world’s premier climate scientist, said, “It is an impressive, comprehensive study, and I am not just saying that because I agree with the result. Whoever shepherded this deserves our gratitude.”

Indeed, they do. But, in truth, the numbers—what we might call pure climatology—can tell us only so much. What will haunt our future are two other variables, both of which are even harder to calculate. The first is: How much damage will that extra heat wreak? So far, scientists—who tend to be conservative in their forecasts—have under-predicted everything from coral die-off to Arctic ice melt. The past week, during which the Atlantic-hurricane alphabet hit “H earlier in the season than ever before, provided more reminders that even the one degree Celsius that the temperature has already risen is an awful lot. In China, record rains were powering remarkably dangerous flooding along the Yangtze River—by last weekend, people were beginning to raise fears for the Three Gorges Dam, the largest structure of its kind in the world.

But, again, the level of damage that comes from rising temperatures—let’s call it applied climatology—is not as telling, ultimately, as our collective ability to respond to that damage. The brittleness of political systems in the face of change on this scale is even scarier than the brittleness of dams. The Times Magazine offered a remarkable glimpse into such a possibility this week, with a long examination of climate migration—present and future—from Central America. As more and more people find themselves in zones too hot to support life, they will move, and, as we already know, those movements provoke both compassion and demagoguery. “The best outcome requires not only good will and the careful management of turbulent political forces; without preparation and planning, the sweeping scale of change could prove wildly destabilizing,” Abrahm Lustgarten writes. “The United Nations and others warn that in the worst case, the governments of the nations most affected by climate change could topple as whole regions devolve into war.”

The pandemic shows us above all, I think, that twenty-first-century survival depends on an ability to handle chaos: that our political leaders, and our other institutions, have to devote themselves as never before to humane competence. And, as this summer’s racial reckoning should remind us, the pain that’s coming needs to be distributed far more fairly. We’re fast running out of margin. The ability of political systems to respond to extreme stress can’t be predicted as numerically as the response of physical systems to extra carbon, but it will be measured, as with COVID-19, in deaths. Just on a much larger scale.

Passing the Mic

Robert Bullard is a genuine American hero, the kind of man who should be up on a pedestal. In 1979, he conducted a landmark study of the placement of waste dumps in Houston; it found that almost all of them were in Black neighborhoods, even though the city’s population was only a quarter Black. It was one of the first times that people started to talk about environmental racism; that this scourge—and its counterpart, environmental justice—is now much nearer to the center of conversation is in no small measure thanks to Bullard’s long career of scholarship. A distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, he and colleagues recently restarted the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which they originally founded in 1999.

Tell us about the National Black Environmental Justice Network. What’s your hope for what it can accomplish?

Racism is baked into America’s DNA. All communities are not created equal. The National Black Environmental Justice Network was relaunched in June, 2020, to mobilize forces to address urgent health and environmental threats converging on Black America. These multiple threats include rollbacks of environmental protections and regulations; government efforts to invalidate the Affordable Care Act; disproportionate hospitalizations and deaths of Black Americans from COVID-19; special health risks posed by COVID-19 to Black essential front-line workers, students, teachers, administrators/staff, and household members in school districts that are being unduly pressured to reopen; economic risks to small Black-owned businesses cut out of stimulus loans; heightened risks to Black coastal communities created by the new FEMA COVID-19 operational guidance, warning people to “shelter in place” during the 2020 hurricane season; theft of Black transformative wealth from environmental racism, racial redlining, and housing discrimination; and voter suppression, closure and consolidation of voting locations, and unavailability of absentee/mail-in voting, forcing Black people to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote during the era of COVID-19.

“I Can’t Breathe” has become a kind of slogan of the fight against police brutality. Can you explain what that phrase means in environmental terms?

America is segregated, and so is pollution. Some people and communities have the “wrong complexion for protection.” The phrase “I can’t breathe” took on a special meaning beginning in the nineteen-nineties, during “toxic tours” [of industrial sites in heavily polluted cities] and community protests against racist industrial facility-siting practices that turned people-of-color communities into pollution hot spots and environmental “sacrifice zones.” People of color breathe thirty-eight per cent more polluted air than whites. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately “burdened” with breathing air polluted by whites. Blacks are exposed to fifty-six per cent and Latinos are exposed to sixty-three per cent more pollution than they cause. Whites enjoy a “pollution advantage,” by breathing seventeen per cent less air pollution than they cause. People of color in forty-six states live with more air pollution than whites. More pollution means more illnesses and deaths. African-Americans are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma. Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma and ten times more likely to die from asthma than white children. Breathing is natural. Pollution is unnatural.

Just as with climate activism, there’s a powerful new wave of young civil-rights leaders. What should they all be asking of their elders?

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