“Climate change is an existential threat to humanity!”
No matter how many times I read that line, it fails to speak to me. For one thing, the idea it encapsulates is just too big; it’s too short a sentence to properly describe what’s about to happen. Oceans will rise, wildfires will spread, flash floods and mudslides and hurricane seasons more severe than ever before — that’s all intelligible. But adding them together and saying that “Humanity is doomed unless we do something!” just doesn’t mean anything to me. The scope is far too broad and ill-defined for the imagination to easily grasp.
Perhaps more to the point, I’ve lived my entire life under an existential threat known as Mutually Assured Destruction. And, let’s face it: Climate change pales before the spectre of nuclear war, and in more ways than one. The sea level rising a couple of inches is going to play merry hell with the sewers on Manhattan, but what’s that to me? Drop a low-yield nuke on Central Park, however, and the world’s financial systems will collapse overnight. It’s far more concrete, something I can get my head around, mainly because I’ve spent decades having nightmares about it.
I play Fallout 76, a post-holocaust game about surviving nuclear war and then, eventually, emerging to rebuild society. It’s Bombs Drop Day today, the 55th pre-niversary of our culture’s annihilation. Doubtless my parents would view the very concept of such a game as a form of sacrilege; perhaps they remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thirteen days when we were all perched precariously on the very brink of mutual destruction. Me, I like it because it implies that I’ll survive, and when I do I’ll be very good at rebuilding — and at fighting off the waves of mutants and feral ghouls that are apt to swarm against any signs of civilization.
Obviously, that’s untrue; it’s called science fiction for a reason. It’s a way to escape the mindless terrors of my childhood, and I embrace it.
Although that’s part of the trouble: My terrors were as far from mindless as is imaginable. I distinctly remember the damage radius (and likely impact error) of a Soviet warhead, and why hilltop residents were less apt to survive than those in valleys. We were all educated on the immediate consequences of a nuclear exchange; we knew which cities would be targets and which might escape, where all the local missile silos were and why we wouldn’t want to be near them. Surviving the initial strike would have been the least of it: the horrors of nuclear winter and radioactive water and food supplies, of dying slowly from something we couldn’t see, of running low on iodine pills and anti-radiation medication…
And we’re expected to be afraid of something called “Climate Change”? They can’t even specify whether it’s going to get warmer or colder; they’re saying more extreme, but there’s a chance for more stable that’s actually scarier — ice ages, I’ve heard, are pretty stable, but they’re not all that comfortable. My point is, it all seems pretty nebulous to be of any real, personal concern. The word “seems”, though, is where the trouble lies.
Let’s put it a different way, and see if that changes anything: Half the country lives in low-lying cities on the coast. When this hits, we’re talking about relocating the homes of a hundred million people. Anyone who’s retired to an ocean-view condo in Florida is going to have to worry about their foundations… and, since they’re retired, all they can do is worry; who has the money to fix them? New Orleans will sink into the swamp — again; that’s no surprise. New Orleans has burned, been wiped out by plague, and sunk into the swamp a dozen times now; it’s nowhere near its original location. But Houston, where between hurricanes they keep rezoning emergency flood canals into industrial parks, is already sinking due to the mass subsidence of the whole region; add in sea level rise and it’s going to be on the bottom of the Gulf before long.
Every coastal city will lose its low-lying areas — except the rich ones like New York, where they’ll probably just add concrete to the whole island and cut second-story front doors. We’ll have a housing crunch like none in history, and because of the way we’ve designed city access there will be no place for new construction. It’s tough to buy a house today, but watch the price multiply by ten while available real estate is cut by two thirds and you’ll see a true shortage. What’s worse is, when whole neighborhoods get flooded out, we’ll see the resurgence of long-gone plagues that sanitation had prevented — cholera, typhoid, dysentery. Tens of millions will die from diseases we eradicated a century ago.
And that’s just over the next thirty years or so.
I gotta tell ya, none of that worries me much. The reason is, it’ll happen gradually; high-rent districts in some cities will become low-rent and low-lying, and then they’ll flood out, some developers will buy vast swathes of now-uninhabitable coastal swamp and truck in concrete by the acre… and presto! New, slightly higher cities! Hurricanes will get worse; new housing will be built hurricane-resistant and eventually hurricane-proof. Yes, it’s a problem; it’s a huge, complex, nasty set of simultaneous disasters all across the world that’ll hit the poor hard and the rich not at all.
So… life as usual, really. From an historical perspective, at least.
Food prices will soar. Another Dust Bowl could hit the midwest; the banana could go extinct (again); fisheries will get all fouled up. The price of a good steak will approach the stratosphere as grazing land gets scarcer and more expensive. Texas Roadhouse, Longhorn, and Outback will all go bankrupt, and we’ll all be eating soyburgers. …Yeah, OK; I feel that a bit.
The Washington Monument will be in a tidal pool. The Statue of Liberty’s foundations will be half underwater. …No; people will fix those. Not worried.
Southern California will be in a perpetual drought, and will need to import all its water from Colorado. …Already happened. Now Colorado is drying up, and who’s to blame? The people who filled in Tulare Lake and turned it into some of the most productive farmland in the world — at the expense of creating perpetual drought in southern California. Of all the things in the world that could make me want to burn more coal rather than less, this is close to the top of the list. We’ll float the coal plants just off the California coast so the ashes drift down on L.A. and call it justice; how’s that?
An unbiased reader might easily mistake this for me not caring. It’s more that I’m trying awfully hard to care and getting disappointed with the results. I’ve been spoiled for disasters all my life, and this one has me yawning.
This is not because the global impact of climate change will be less than catastrophic. Unreal sums of money will change hands in mitigation, which, because it will be undertaken by governments, will be inefficient and ineffective. Hundreds of millions of people will be impoverished, get flooded out, burned out, or be-hurricaned. Cholera and typhoid fever will sweep through the coastal cities, killing untold numbers — especially down in the Gulf, because those states are run by climate change deniers. It will be very bad, and it will happen during my lifetime. Hell, look at Mobile today and you’ll see it’s already begun — and Houston, and New Orleans.
I’m bored by it because it doesn’t seem real. Thermonuclear detonation? Seems very real. Notice that word again: “seems”.
And then we ask the telling question: Which is more likely: Climate change killing half of America, or a nuclear war?
Nuclear war is still scarier. You know why? Climate change is unavoidable. It is definitely going to happen; we’re past the point where we can stop it. When the coastal cities sink into the muck, those of us on dry land can watch, nod sagaciously, and say “I knew it.” No sense worrying about things that are certain. Inbound nukes, you never really know.
China just tested a missile delivery system the other day. It went into orbit, circled the planet, then launched its smart-targeting payload. It can strike anywhere, and because the projectile is guided rather than ballistic, it can’t be stopped by anything we presently field.
COVID-19 shows none of the markers of having been genetically engineered. But you know that, in some lab somewhere, an overzealous corporate research team has developed a super strain of it to pit their antitoxins against… and maybe their ventilation system was installed by the lowest bidder on the Monday morning right after the Superbowl.
Inflation is running around 6% at the moment, except that durable goods and housing costs are increasing rather more than that. Food costs are rising, but inflation numbers don’t take into account the added price of home delivery. Adjust for modern market conditions and you’ll find that we’ve been watching double-digit inflation for the past three years, and it’s still on the rise.
All of these things scare me. Climate change? Not really, no. I’m just never going to move to the coast.
Perhaps it’s time we consider rebranding.
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