The Message That Matters: Climate Change is Going to Be an Unprecedented Disaster
Kelsey Piper’s June 13, 2019 article for Vox makes two accurate points, one of which is worth making. The point worth making is that climate change is going to have devastating effects on humanity. The other point is that many people — dozens, hundreds, perhaps more — have at various times and places made statements about the impact of climate change which overstate the threat and the likely outcomes.
Ms. Piper’s article, though true and correct, will prompt people to draw wholly erroneous conclusions. She correctly points out, with specific examples and well-sourced rebuttals, that somewhere at some time someone has almost certainly overstated the dangers of climate change. Unfortunately, that statement would still be 100 percent accurate even if anyone had ever said, as they have, “Climate change will kill us all.” Obviously, “climate change will kill us all” is a false statement no matter when, where, or by whom it is said for the simple reason that, in the few seconds since I typed those words, at least one human being has died of causes unrelated to climate change. Does that make it in any way meaningful to say, therefore, that “climate change will kill us all” is an overstatement? Of course not, and no grown-up would say so.
Ms. Piper’s article concludes with this statement:
Climate change won’t kill us all. That matters. Yet it’s one of the biggest challenges ahead of us, and the results of our failure to act will be devastating. That message — the most accurate message we’ve got — will have to stand on its own.
Here is the equivalent statement as it might have been put by a rabbi writing a circular to be distributed to the 9.5 million Jews living in Europe in 1939:
The Nazis won’t kill us all. That matters. Yet the Nazis are one of the biggest challenges ahead of us, and the results of our failure to act will be devastating. That message — the most accurate message we’ve got — will have to stand on its own.
This should make clear how utterly asinine and harmful it is to publish an article in 2019 that says “Climate change won’t kill us all. That matters.” Because it doesn’t matter. If there were ever a thing that did not matter, it’s the undeniable truth that between now and the date the last human being dies, there will be at least one human who dies from something other than climate change.
What Ms. Piper does in her article is give completely terrified, doubtful, reality-averse parents a source to point to and say, “See? It won’t kill us all.” It’s not hard to imagine the follow-up to that sentiment. It goes something like, “So we’re good, right? There will be some unpleasantness due to climate change, no doubt. Somewhere, people will starve. But I’m sure my kids will be fine. My wife’s pregnant again, actually. Isn’t that great?”
There is an unquestioned need to maintain a positive outlook. Humans can’t survive long without without one. With children, in particular, it’s essential. It would be utterly wrong to tell an eight-year-old today anything even approaching the truth about what their future is going to be like as a result of their parents’ failure to halt anthropogenic global warming. But adults cannot go around saying things like, “It won’t kill us all. The dangers have been overstated.” Not to other adults. It doesn’t matter that that statement is 100 percent true, because its effect is to legitimize a viewpoint that is not based on reality. It’s just a fantasy we tell kids so they don’t cry all night. It’s a fairytale. When you say things like, “We’re not sure about the extent of climate change” or “We’re working to fix it,” you should expect to be treated the same way you would be if you had just said, seriously and in broad daylight, “Santa Claus is going to bring my son a new planet for Christmas.”