Current Affairs

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What Will Future Historians Think of Our Priorities?

While Queen Elizabeth II’s death was taking up most of the news, scientists were issuing a dire new warning about climate tipping points. Is anybody listening?

Today’s New York Times is filled with news related to the death of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. Most of the front page is devoted to mourning the monarch, and inside the paper there is a lavish spread devoted to remembering her. The level of attention in the United States may seem disproportionate given that this country staged a revolution to free itself from the British monarchy, but as the Times reminds us, Americans have a peculiar fascination with the Royal Family

Far be it for me to question this, and I would never trivialize the significance of a wealthy British lady’s death. My personal conviction may be that all monarchy is illegitimate, but I am happy to give a few days of respectful silence before throwing rhetorical eggs at the new king. 

However, I did notice when reading today’s Times that with all the space devoted to  remembering the Queen’s life and assessing her legacy, another story did not make the front page. Buried on page A20 was the story “Failure to Slow Warming Will Set Off Climate ‘Tipping Points,’ Scientists Say.” 

The story is unbelievably alarming. It reports on the findings of a new article published in Science1 warning that if the world exceeds 1.5 C of warming, we may set off utterly catastrophic climate tipping points that cause untold human suffering and ecosystem collapse. This is significant in part because we are set to blow through that level of warming, as this graph from the Climate Action Tracker shows: 

In the United States, while the Biden administration recently celebrated the passage of a “climate bill,” the bill actually both expanded new fossil fuel production and did not try to meet the U.S. Paris Agreement target, meaning that it is better discussed as a disastrous surrender that affirms our unwillingness to meet our international obligations: 

The new Science study explains what the possible consequences of this failure could be, warning of “substantial sea level rise from collapsing ice sheets, dieback of biodiverse biomes such as the Amazon rainforest or warm-water corals, and carbon release from thawing permafrost.” As the Times summary explains: 

“[E]ven at the current level of warming, about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, some of these self-sustaining changes might have already begun. But if warming reached above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious of two targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the changes would become much more certain. And at the higher Paris target, 2 degrees Celsius, even more tipping points would likely be set off, including the loss of mountain glaciers and the collapse of a system of deep mixing of water in the North Atlantic. The changes would have significant, long-term effects on life on Earth. The collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, for example, would lead to unrelenting sea level rise, measured in feet, not inches, over centuries. The thawing of permafrost would release more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, hindering efforts to limit warming. A shutdown of ocean mixing in the North Atlantic could affect global temperatures and bring more extreme weather to Europe. … Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the researchers, said the team had “come to the very dire conclusion that 1.5 degrees Celsius is a threshold” beyond which some of these effects would start. That makes it all the more imperative, he and others said, for nations to quickly and drastically cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to curb global warming.”

Again, I am sure the death of a 96-year-old foreign monarch is emotionally meaningful to many millions of people in this country. But surely this dire warning should also be front-page news. When George H.W. Bush died, the Times spent day after day printing glowing tributes that glossed over his various crimes. But they did at least find some column inches on the front page for the headline “EMISSIONS SURGE, HASTENING PERILS ACROSS THE GLOBE,” even if a photo of Bush’s funeral took up 5 out of the 6 columns on the front page:  

When you dig back into history, you find that people in past generations often had a warped sense of moral priorities. The burying ordownplaying of climate news calls to mind for me the way the New York Times covered the Holocaust. I was shocked when I went back and read the Times archives from the early ‘40s to find that the Holocaust wasn’t unreported, it was just considered unimportant. In November of 1942, for instance, page 10 featured the headline “HIMMLER PROGRAM KILLS POLISH JEWS: Slaughter of 250,000 In Plan To Wipe Out Half of Country This Year Is Reported.” The Times said that “old persons, children, infants, and cripples among the Jewish population of Poland are being shot, killed by various other methods, or forced to undergo hardships that inevitably cause death” in “the first step toward complete liquidation.” Meanwhile, the edition’s front page featured headlines like “EXTORTION CHARGED BY MAYOR IN ROW OVER STIRRUP PUMPS” and “TWO THANKSGIVINGS FOR PACIFIC TROOPS.” This indifference to the fate of European Jews was translated into policy, with the U.S. turning away Jewish refugees as they fled Nazi persecution (supposedly fearing they were a “threat to national security”). It was the job of the media to try to get people to care, and they failed, instead telling their readers that a “row over stirrup pumps” was more significant.

Outright climate change denial is rarer than ever these days, because it’s hard to say global warming isn’t happening when English villages are bursting into flames or when it hits 116 F in Portland. Instead of denial, we get distraction. Climate change is depressing and overwhelming and news about it doesn’t get as many clicks. But distraction is deadly: we have a crucial obligation right now to treat the climate crisis as the emergency it is.

There are those who are working very hard to convince people not to do anything about climate change. I am, to my shame, a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and they consistently tell their millions of readers that the “costs” of addressing climate change are far too high and we should relax and let the free market incinerate the planet. Just today, the paper ran an utterly deranged piece that begins: “Anyone who still thinks climate change is a greater threat than climate policy to financial stability deserves to be exiled to a peat-burning yurt in the wilderness.” The Journal’s editorial board has just declared that Europe’s efforts to switch to renewable energy are all “folly,” that solar and wind energy are “too unreliable to power advanced industrial economies,” and that the new British prime minister, Liz Truss, is to be praised because she “wants to scale up gas drilling in the North Sea and introduce shale-gas fracking in the north of England.” 

It is the job of those who actually understand the peril that we face to keep the climate crisis on the agenda, and to fight those who countenance resignation or who want to talk about frivolous nonsense instead. We have a moral obligation to future generations to do our best to phase out the use of fossil fuels and mitigate the catastrophic consequences that are being produced by our use of them. Assuming there are future historians, they may wonder why we spent more time mourning a famous old rich lady than discussing the experts’ warnings about the peril we were in. 


  1. Article requires an American Association for the Advancement of Science account to read, part of the vast network of barriers, both paid and unpaid, that make vital knowledge less accessible 

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