The New York Times Sunday Review devoted its entire front page to unembarrassed, literal climate panic. It’s right there in the headline, over a blood-red background: “Time to Panic.” The subhead: “The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.”
It was penned by New York magazine’s literary editor David Wallace-Wells, who is evidently trying his hand at apocalyptic fiction. He previously tried to instill panic in the population with his alarmist piece in the summer of 2017, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Now he’s imported it to the paper, 3,000 words of it.
The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.
In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report -- “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it -- detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
Wallace-Wells was happy that the U.N. report gave everyone permission to panic:
...It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.
This, to me, is progress. Panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable, for several reasons.
He began a parade of horribles:
As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as 2050....And there would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.
....So being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand. Perhaps the only logical response.
Yet even he is wracked with guilt about his own lack of faith.
I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself.
Not not even the radical Green New Deal goes far enough for Wallace-Wells.
The Times treatment of the story buried internal contradictions. An accompanying graphic “From Panic to Progress,” included the aftermath of the meltdown at Three Mile Island and noted it “hurt the industry and raised public apprehension about nuclear power,” as a good thingm even though nuclear energy is carbon-free and produces no pollution. Isn’t drastically reducing carbon emissions the whole point?
Wallace-Wells concluded with three cheers for stoking fears.
But the longer we wait, the worse it will get. Which is one last argument for catastrophic thinking: What creates more sense of urgency than fear?