The extreme weather of the last year has been so terrifying, and so very extreme, that it is tempting to look at the string of disasters around the world and think: Climate change is here. Certainly that’s what Jerry Brown meant when he described the wildfires ravaging California in the fall as “the new abnormal.”
It will only get more so. We have already exited the environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unplanned bet on just what we can endure. By the end of the century, if warming continues unabated, wildfires could burn 64 times as much land in California as they did last year, which was more than a million acres.
But climate change isn’t binary, and this is one of the five major misapprehensions even engaged liberals have about warming. It’s not a question of whether it will happen or not, or whether it will be like the 2018 wildfire season or 64 times worse. Climate change is a function that will get worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gas.
No matter how bad it gets, it will always be the case that the following decade could bring more suffering — or less. And believe it or not, the amount will always be up to us. Climate change may seem intimidatingly large, but the responsibility is entirely ours.
If warming continues unabated, by the end of even this century, no life will remain untouched.
But these are just the direct repercussions, and the fifth major misapprehension is that science is even capable of containing and describing the sum total of the assaults. In fact, the indirect effects may be even more profound: on our psychology, our culture, our sense of place in nature and history, our relationship to technology and to capitalism. Not to mention our geopolitics.
The arrival of roughly 2 million Syrians in Europe unleashed a global wave of populism; some experts believe warming will produce a hundred times as many refugees. What will a migration crisis of that scale do to global affairs?
Meanwhile, what will it mean for the way we eat to see “carbon-free” food advertised in the supermarket, or the way we travel and do business to see carbon budgets made central to any new trade deal? As real life becomes more and more apocalyptic, what will become of science fiction?
We have reshaped the world’s climate. The question is: How will climate change reshape us?