There is really no such thing as a post-apocalyptic story. Someone, after all, has to survive to tell the tale. An apocalypse must be incomplete to be interesting: cockroaches don’t present much opportunity for character development.
And yet, this is how we sometimes talk about climate change: we’re doomed, the apocalypse is coming, the end of the world is nigh. Don’t get me wrong: climate change is an overwhelmingly horrific thing. It will lead—it already is leading- to massive economic damage, desperate refugees, and the loss of things we love. But it’s fundamentally different from an asteroid impact or zombie plague, and I think it’s important to understand why.
I do understand the urge to catastrophize. My last name is Marvel, and if you make a joke about its resemblance to a certain mass entertainment conglomerate, you will definitely be the first person to ever do so. But to support the family business, I’ve seen a fair number of superhero movies, and I understand the stakes are high. Movie supervillains are never trying to make sweeping changes to the tax code or reform the regulatory state. They’re trying to destroy the entire universe and murder every single one of the good guys. The assumption seems to be that audiences simply won’t care about anything less that total destruction.
I believe that it is possible to care about something without believing it will destroy all life in the universe. I know my own personal bar is set substantially lower. But it’s true: climate change is a unique problem, and it’s incredibly hard to talk about. I think there are three reasons for this.
First, climate change isn’t a supervillain. It’s worse. Villains, after all, clearly explain the havoc they’re about to cause, usually to the hero they’ve just captured. If only our climate projections could provide such certainty. Unfortunately, sometimes the best information scientists can provide comes hedged with caveats. For example, under current emissions trajectories we might exceed the two degree warming limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as the 2030s, or as much as a generation into the future. What should we do with this information? This uncertainty can lead to paralysis and confusion. Humans are terrible at thinking about probabilities, as every weather forecaster on the receiving end of abuse for being “wrong” well knows.
Second, the climate apocalypse will not come for us all, at least not all at once. A large body of research demonstrates that the people who will suffer the most from a changing climate will be those who did the least to cause it. Wealth may still buy security, even in a warmer, more chaotic world.
Finally, a climate apocalypse may well be on the way, but it competes for attention with our own personal apocalypses. At the risk of this column resembling a Smiths song, I would like to point out that we all, eventually, are going to die. I would prefer not to, of course. And perhaps by the time I am elderly we will have developed sufficiently advanced technology to become immortal. But I think I would probably prefer the sweet embrace of death to spending eternity with the kind of tech billionaires who could afford it.
The point is, climate change is staggeringly fast on geological timescales, and relatively slow in comparison to a human lifetime. Given the poverty, racism, and inequality in the world, climate change is seldom anyone’s number one problem. Until, one day, it is.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. We make vital decisions under uncertainty all the time. There was a 50 percent chance of rain on my wedding day, but I couldn’t choose to get half married. And we can understand the unfairness that climate change will exacerbate, and work toward a more just society. Finally, we have the tools—science, policy, technology—and the creativity to imagine a better world that outlasts our own lifetimes.
Look, I hate to break it to you: we are doomed. That has nothing to do with climate change, and everything to do with the simple fact of being alive. But we have a choice about what to do to this wonderful place we inhabit for a short, miraculous time.
I don’t think climate change will destroy the actual planet or make the human species go extinct. But, you know what? I believe we can aim for something a little bit better than “not doomed.” If, at the end of the day, the most positive thing I can note in my diary is “FAILED TO GO EXTINCT,” then that was probably not a good day. There is space for action between “everything is fine” and “we’re doomed.” That space is shrinking fast, but the gap is not closed yet. It shouldn’t take an apocalypse to make us do the right thing.