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Crisis? What Crisis?

Osita Nwanevu
13 min read
Crisis? What Crisis?

Hey all. Let's hop to it.

Recent Work

My long review essay on the work of early American historian Alan Taylor, "the history wars," and American nationalism is available online and in September's print issue for New Republic subscribers. It's been my main writing project for the last several months, and I'm eagerly awaiting August 24th, when it'll be available online to all readers.

I was also recently asked to participate in a roundtable with UPenn's Victor Pickard and Free Press' Mike Rispoli on the state of journalism and the prospects for a publicly-funded industry, which I wrote about for TNR in April. It's up at Popula.

Politics

It’s been nearly 100 degrees in the mid-afternoon for the last several days in Baltimore ⁠— another dismal stretch of one of the warmest summers in memory. As the IPCC’s latest report this week reminded us, this is also likely to be among the coolest, most temperate summers of the next century. At The Atlantic on Monday, Robinson Meyer summed up their findings. “Earth is likely hotter now than it has been at any moment since the beginning of the last Ice Age, 125,000 years ago, and the world has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius, or nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the Industrial Revolution began—an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘rapid’ change with no parallel in the Common Era,” he wrote. “What’s more, the recent spate of horrific heat waves, fire-fueling droughts, and flood-inducing storms that have imperiled the inhabited world are not only typical of global warming, but directly caused by it.”

One of the worst updates in the report pertains to sea level rise, which is likely to be more dramatic than the IPCC once expected:

Most researchers now believe that the oceans will rise roughly half a foot more than once projected. In a relatively optimistic “intermediate” emissions scenario, for instance, the IPCC once projected that oceans would rise about one and a half feet by 2100. The new report finds that just under two feet is more likely, and two and a half feet is not out of the question.
The authors could not eliminate from their models the small chance that some of the largest glaciers in West Antarctica could catastrophically collapse this century. In that scenario, humanity could see more than six and a half feet of sea-level rise by 2100 and perhaps as much as 16 feet of sea-level rise by 2150.

In climate policy terms, the IPCC’s most critical finding is that the 1.5 degree target for limiting warming set in 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement is out of reach ⁠— we absolutely will breach it, perhaps by 2040, although it’s up to us whether we pull warming back down by reducing emissions dramatically. That’s not the trajectory we’re on, needless to say ⁠— under current policy, we’ll reach 3 degrees of warming by century’s end. Last month, The Economist offered a picture of what a 3 degree world might look like:

Richard Betts, a climatologist in Britain’s Met Office who has led several surveys of the impacts of high-end global warming, says that beyond 2°C small but densely populated regions of the Indian subcontinent start to be at risk of lethal and near-lethal wet-bulb temperatures. Beyond 2.5°C, he says, places in “pretty much all of the tropics start to see these levels of extreme heat stress for many days, weeks or even a few months per year.”
In less humid places, heat depletes water supplies. A modelling analysis of water scarcity at 1.5°C, 2°C and 3°C found that two-thirds of humanity will experience progressively drier conditions as the climate warms. At 3°C, periods of dryness currently treated as exceptional 1-in-100-year events are projected to happen every two to five years in most of Africa, Australia, southern Europe, southern and central United States, Central America, the Caribbean and parts of South America.
[...] Cities, and indeed low-lying countries, which might hold their own against the 30-90 centimetre sea-level rise expected by 2100 in a 2°C world, might well have to throw in the towel faced by four or five times as much. As with wet-bulb temperatures, there are limits to the extent to which adaptation can offer hope once the world gets to 3°C. And even when lives can be saved, places cannot. Coastal cities that hundreds of millions now call home would be changed utterly if they persist at all. Nor could the indigenous cultures of the Arctic or the rainforest survive in anything like their current form. Much of the Earth-as-was would be forgotten, as well as lost.

The conditions described here would bring about a global political, economic, and social breakdown. Even if we started doing everything right and sharply cut emissions tomorrow, the level of warming we’ve already baked in would still put the systems and institutions sustaining stable civilization under significant stress in the years ahead. The question isn’t whether we’re headed for a grand catastrophe ⁠— that catastrophe is well under way. What we’re deciding ⁠⁠— mostly passively ⁠— is just how bad things will get.

Appropriately, climate experts the world over have taken to calling the situation we face a “crisis.” Some climatologists and environmentalists have long worried that a tone of alarm might counterproductively discourage climate action ⁠⁠— either by provoking further disbelief or engendering a sense of hopelessness. But the thin silver lining to the ever-worsening news we’ve been getting on the climate front is that activists and policymakers are more engaged than ever. Obviously, we’re not close to being scared fully straight. But the arrival of a crisis mentality has elevated climate as a political issue and deepened the ambition of climate proposals.

That’s not to say that climate despair and existential angst about where we’re headed hasn’t taken a toll on people ⁠— it has, and it’s only going to get worse. But the first obligation of a journalist is to deliver truths as one sees them⁠— however bad they might make others feel, however inconvenient the facts may be. It’s often said these days that we’ve entered a post-truth world— that our grip on reality has been newly and critically undermined on the one hand by misinformation from bad actors and, on the other, by a philosophical assault on the notion that things can be held true to begin with. Readers of my work already know that I find this perspective unpersuasive for reasons particular to each argument but also for the general reason that truths are always endangered. We’ve never lived in a world where facts didn’t have enemies or were strong enough in themselves to fend their enemies off. That said, the idea that things have always been bad is never a very compelling defense of a bad situation or a very good excuse for leaving the nature of a bad situation unexamined. And I think reasoned discourse is facing a few challenges today that are especially worth noting.

One I’ve written about before is a kind of bias against stridency that emerges in our debates on certain issues ⁠— affective critiques that identify alarm and outrage as evidence of insincerity or stupidity. Matthew Yglesias’ newsletter this week on the rhetoric of crisis is a decent example of this. “I think there are a lot of writers around these days propagating a fundamentally false and unsubstantiated notion that we are living through some acute ‘global social, political, and economic crises,’” he writes. “I would say that we are living through some problems that are both serious and difficult, but not necessarily any more serious or more difficult than the problems of the past, and certainly not serious in a way that should cause one to doubt the basic tenets of liberalism.” He goes on to write, correctly, that irresponsible catastrophizing has real costs. The War on Terror, for instance, was a grotesque overreaction to 9/11 that further destabilized the globe and further deranged American politics. And on the right today, Yglesias argues, panic over social progressivism has encouraged “conservative pundits to embrace Hungarian nationalism and bargain-basement Portuguese fascism.”

Curiously though, in the very same piece, Yglesias also accuses others who’ve suggested a fascist turn on the right of hyperbole:

I think that the United States is not under siege from a neo-fascist movement personified by Donald Trump. And I also think it is a sign of the distemper of our era that I am 100% certain me saying that will be read as apologizing for Trump or supporting Trump when genuinely all I mean is that in a normal political arena, you have a party that you support and a party that you don’t support. I think it is perfectly possible to simply not support the Republican Party because you think their policy ideas are bad.
And it’s important to understand that Republican Party presidents are always psychologically experienced by their most strident opponents as the leading edge of a fascist reaction, just as conservatives experience everything from FDR to Medicare to Barack Obama as the leading edge of a socialist takeover.
What I think is going on here is that both American political coalitions have one foot planted firmly in the liberal camp and then various tendrils extending into various non-liberal ideologies. The readiness with which each camp accuses the other of having completely abandoned liberalism is in a way simply a sign of how firm liberalism’s grasp over the American political tradition is. We don’t have robust traditions of Christian Democracy or Social Democracy in the United States, so every deviation from a narrow debate of market liberals versus social liberals plays as a defection to Hitler or Mao. But this basic tension is not new; today’s progressives are fighting Trumpian fascism in exactly the sense that the progressives of 15 years ago were fighting Bushian fascism. I think if you want to say we are perpetually teetering on the brink of toppling into right-wing authoritarianism but thanks to our heroic efforts we keep avoiding that outcome, that’s fine. But I think a more enlightening interpretation of events would be to say that we have been living through strong directional progress toward more diversity and more cosmopolitanism but that when you push things forward, you end up with some overreach (both substantive and political) and then some blowback.

While there’s a substantially more interesting challenge to make to all this, it’s worth saying first off that the claim that the right’s opponents always see fascism on the march simply isn’t true. Left-liberal debate over whether Trump is or might become a fascist has been heated and interminable. Personally, I’ve come to find use of the f-word suspicious as I think it’s often deployed to imply that Trumpism is a foreign, semi-novel import to our politics rather than the organic and inevitable product of American conservatism. My critique of those who use it isn’t a tonal one ⁠— I just think they’re missing the forest for the trees. I’m less worried about the antics and rhetoric of conservatives than I am by the structure of our political system and the way it deforms political outcomes and incentives. That’s the engine empowering and radicalizing the right to begin with. A sharp, well-researched, and prescient bit of reading I’d recommend on this is a 2015 piece rather alarmingly titled “American democracy is doomed.” It’s by one Matthew Yglesias. The bolding here is mine.

Back when George W. Bush was president and I was working at a liberal magazine, there was a very serious discussion in an editorial meeting about the fact that the United States was now exhibiting 11 of the 13 telltale signs of a fascist dictatorship. The idea that Bush was shredding the Constitution and trampling on congressional prerogatives was commonplace. When Obama took office, the partisan valence of the complaints shifted, but their basic tenor didn’t. Conservative pundits — not the craziest, zaniest ones on talk radio, but the most serious and well-regarded — compare Obama’s immigration moves to the actions of a Latin-American military dictator.
In the center, of course, it’s an article of faith that when right and left talk like this they’re simply both wrong. These are nothing but the overheated squeals of partisans and ideologues. At the same time, when the center isn’t complaining about the excessively vociferous complaints of the out-party of the day, it tends to be in full-blown panic about the state of American politics. And yet despite the popularity of alarmist rhetoric, few people act like they’re actually alarmed. Accusations that Barack Obama or John Boehner or any other individual politician is failing as a leader are flung, and then abandoned when the next issue arises. In practice, the feeling seems to be that salvation is just one election away. Hillary Clinton even told Kara Swisher that her agenda as a presidential candidate would be to end partisan gridlock.
It’s not going to work.
[...] The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.

Yglesias said this week that he’s changed his mind about all of this. Of course, he has every right to. But it’s worth asking why he did. Did he reason his way to a new position? Is it really less plausible in 2021 than it was in 2015 that our political norms and institutions are breaking down? Not a single word of this week’s piece is committed to an actual assessment of Trump’s activities in office or the aftermath of last year’s election. Yglesias does say that he fears being called a Trump sympathizer. I’m quite sure he isn’t one. I’m also sure the task of framing those troubled by post-Trump politics as hyperventilating idiots would have been a smidge more difficult if that material had been reckoned with. As I’ve said, I don’t think Trump is the locus of the political problems we’re facing in this country. But I do think Trump’s presidency illustrated cracks and fissures in the bedrock of American politics that seem likely to widen over time and that rightly troubled the Matthew Yglesias of 2015 ⁠—  back when, as he said himself, it was still provocative and contrarian to suggest that things were going to fall apart.

Just about everyone believes that now. I believe it fully. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that it’s conventional wisdom or that there are more diverting takes to be had. I don’t care whether it comes off as shrill. I don’t care whether I sound like an alarmist. I write it because I think it is true. It’s not clear to me what Yglesias actually believes. But I do strongly suspect that if everyone did take things down a notch or two ⁠— if we all really did relax and come to understand our political situation as fundamentally normal ⁠— we’d soon hear from that first Matthew Yglesias again, scalp afire, about all the places where the sky is falling in.

Readers, even Yglesias’ readers, don’t have an inexhaustible patience for this routine, and while he was obligated by his brand to say something arch about climate this week, he wisely avoided committing fully to his letter’s initial argument ⁠— that the notion we’re living through some “acute ‘global social, political, and economic crises’” is “fundamentally false and unsubstantiated.” As logically as it might have proceeded from that claim, the idea that climate change isn’t really a crisis would not have gone over very well ⁠— especially given that Yglesias has rooted his criticisms of the Sunrise Movement and other climate activists in recent years in assertions that he understands the gravity of our situation better than they do.

Instead, he went after a different target ⁠— not climate change’s validity as an acute crisis, but the notion, popular on the left, that climate change is a problem too big for liberalism to solve.  “It’s a tragic situation,” he writes, “but the conceptual and technical resources to address it are all clearly present within liberalism.”

Of course, pure laissez-faire can’t address pollution. But given a reasonable policy background, privately owned business corporations (“capitalism”) have done a great job bringing down the cost of photovoltaic panels, developing electric vehicles that people want to drive, creating promising fake meat substitutes, and otherwise creating the building blocks of a sustainable economy.
Liberal ideology is also very capable of grokking the most important complementary policy we haven’t had all these years — a price on carbon that would raise the price of greenhouse gas emissions to something closer to the real social cost of emissions. Pricing alone is not an adequate solution to the issue, but it would hypothetically be a huge force multiplier for other efforts. In the crudest terms, that’s by encouraging conservation which would have extended the life of our global carbon budget and given more time for innovation and deployment policies on other fronts to work. But pricing would also directly accelerate deployment by changing the cost-benefit ratio systematically in favor of clean technologies.
Now of course we don’t have carbon pricing, and I think we never will because it’s hideously unpopular. But that’s the essence of the climate crisis — not an ideological crisis for liberalism, but tragically a crisis of mass indifference.

It’s not really obvious to me what explaining the implausibility of liberalism’s ideal solution to climate change does to defend liberalism’s capacity to address it, but I will say that Yglesias is right that we have or are already developing much of the technology we need to turn things around. Even without the inducement of carbon pricing, clean energy has gotten much cheaper, there are more electric vehicles around, and so on. The problem is that the building blocks of a sustainable economy are not presently being assembled into a sustainable economy. And the major obstacles to seriously embarking on that project are the corporate opponents to climate policy and our consumptive habits. The fact that other less liberal, less capitalistic societies than ours also haven’t gotten a handle on emissions doesn’t actually exonerate liberal capitalism in any way, especially given the likelihood that large-scale climate adaptation ⁠— which Yglesias doesn’t really address at all ⁠— is mostly going to be a job for the state. The pandemic has been highly instructive here. In a miracle of medical science, Big Pharma managed to produce COVID vaccines at an extraordinary pace.  But the wider response and recovery have required an unprecedentedly large government intervention into our social lives and the economy. And each day, the calls from the center and the right to bring that intervention to a close grow louder and louder.

I think it’s reasonable to believe that managing climate impacts will demand even larger departures from politics and economics as usual. Whether those departures will be departures from “liberalism” is another question ⁠— one that hinges upon what we take liberalism to mean. If it means free-market capitalism, then yes ⁠— for starters, an economy that fails the struggling in ordinary times isn’t going to rehouse and care for hundreds of thousands or millions of climate refugees from inundated coastlines. (I don’t really think liberalism and capitalism are inextricable or synonymous at all, but that’s a topic for another evening.)

But whatever one happens to believe about what addressing climate change will take, it should be clear to all by now that it is a world-historically significant and genuinely novel problem ⁠— a problem not diminished, as Yglesias suggests at the end of his post, by the fact that it has been produced by the prosperity and rising living standards it now threatens. I and most call it a crisis. We may have others afoot. If I think so, I’ll say so.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Good night.