The Earth is ablaze, apparently.
The New York Times recently published “Postcards from a world on fire,” a detailed accounting of climate change disruptions in each of 193 countries. Atop the multimedia version of the feature, a spinning globe spews flame and smoke, like the Twin Towers before they collapsed on 9-11.
Climate change reportage routinely declares we are destroying the planet, wrecking the Earth and imperiling the world, as if the entire geologic mass is about to go poof. The countdown is on for the number of years—50? 30? 10?—we have to save the planet.
These characterizations are not quite right—and overstating the consequences of a warming climate may already be undermining efforts to take needed action. A warming climate is undoubtedly changing the planet in ways dangerous to humans and other living things. But the Earth isn’t on fire, and the planet itself is not endangered. What we’re damaging is our own habitat, and those of other species. The planet will carry on one way or another.
“We’re riding this planet right now,” says Bob Bunting, CEO of the Climate Adaptation Center in Sarasota and former lead forecaster for the government weather agency NOAA. “It remains to be seen how permanent we are. The planet will evolve with or without us. The planet doesn’t care whether we’re part of it or not.”
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We tend to anthropomorphize Earth—“Mother Nature”—yet humans have only been part of the planet for a tiny portion of its existence. And the Earth has been as warm as it is now at least three times during the last 400,000 years, according to data from Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Species have come and gone, but a warming climate has never threatened the Earth itself. What's different now is record levels of carbon in the atmosphere, suggesting temperatures will eventually hit unprecedented levels. Whether humans will survive that is the real question.
It might seem like innocent hyperbole or dramatic license to say we’re wrecking the planet when we’re really damaging just a specific part of it that happens to be vital to us. After all, if we go extinct, the planet will cease to exist, for humans. At that point, who cares if it continues to circle the sun without us.
Yet existential alarmism is counterproductive when public support is crucial to addressing a problem as vast as climate change. Most people, if told the planet is on fire, can look around and plainly see that it’s not. Others may feel a sense of dread and think it’s pointless to do anything, if we’re really doomed.
Even people who know climate change is making floods, fires, droughts and storms worse can rightfully ask how urgent the problem really is and how much climate activists exaggerate. For all the people killed and displaced by freakish weather, there are many more who still don’t feel any direct impact from a warming planet—and might even think a shorter winter in northern climes would be welcome.
Most Americans recognize that climate change is a serious problem and many consider it a crisis. But that’s not the same as resolving to take action. Economists almost universally agree that one of the most effective ways to trigger a green-energy transformation would be to enact a carbon tax that makes fossil fuels increasingly expensive, and renewables ever cheaper by comparison. Yet that has proven politically impossible. President Biden is pushing for a huge green-energy transformation, but his plan doesn’t include a carbon tax, because you simply can’t win elections by promising to raise the cost of fueling cars and heating homes. In Washington state, one of the most liberal and environmentally aware, voters nixed carbon tax initiatives in 2016 and 2018.
Some voters say they’re willing to sacrifice to help deal with a warming planet, but that hasn’t yet translated into political action. Biden’s Build Back Better legislation includes several hundred billion dollars in green-energy investments, but that hasn’t passed yet, and may never. Aside from that, U.S. efforts to address climate change have been modest at best: tax incentives for electric vehicles, a bit of infrastructure funding, on-off-and-on-again increases in fuel-efficiency standards. Not much, given the scale of the problem.
Keeping global temperatures at manageable levels is going to be really expensive. The International Energy Agency says it will take $5 trillion in global energy investment per year by 2030. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates a total need for $131 trillion in global energy investment by 2050. If the U.S. contributed according to its proportion of global GDP, that would be $21 trillion during the next 30 years or so, or $700 billion every year above what we’re spending now. Some of that would be private investment, but it would require policy changes likely to increase the return on renewables while lowering the return on carbon. Hence the political barriers. It would also require some amount of taxpayer funding way higher than anybody is seriously talking about now.
Americans support higher taxes on businesses, especially oil and gas firms, to pay for climate stabilization. But they oppose higher costs borne by consumers. A 2019 Washington Post poll found that 51% of respondents opposed a $2 monthly tax on residential electricity to fund climate programs, and 71% opposed a $10 monthly tax. The recent uptick in gasoline prices, which never got much past $3.50 per gallon on average, shows how prickly consumers get when out-of-pocket costs rise for any reason. Inflation has torpedoed Biden’s popularity and dimmed the odds of Congress enacting his climate plans.
Plainer truths about climate change, and what’s at stake, won’t make it an easy problem. But realism will be essential to generating the public support required to move the needle. The damage we’re causing to our own ecosystem is becoming increasingly visible in jarring reports of killer storms and unquenchable fires and floodwater that simply won’t stay where we command it to. Eventually, that may be enough to compel action. Exaggerating a reality that’s already bad enough may slow our reaction time rather than speeding it up, since separating fact from fiction always entails delay.
Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.