“There’s Plenty of Suffering that Can Be Prevented”

Climate journalist Kate Aronoff on how to process the UN climate report.

David Klion
August 13, 2021
Sicily Wildfires
Volunteers try to control a wildfire near Palermo, Sicily, on August 10th, 2021. Photo: Associated Press/Salvatore Cavalli

On Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a horrifying report warning that human-caused carbon emissions are rapidly heating the planet and causing flooding, wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather events that threaten human civilization as we know it—and that much of the damage is already irreversible. While none of that is new information, to see it presented so authoritatively and urgently can easily provoke despair. (Certainly it does for me, when I allow myself to really think about it.) But while despair may be an understandable reaction, it isn’t a helpful one, especially not when there are still disasters that can be avoided.

Recently, I spoke with
Jewish Currents Advisory Board Member Kate Aronoff—a staff writer at The New Republic, where she covers climate policy—about the report, its implications, and how we might deal with them in ways that are actually productive. Kate is the author of this year’s Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—and How We Fight Back, the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, and the co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in yesterdays email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

David Klion: What exactly is in this report that wasn’t already known?

Kate Aronoff: What this report spells out is the physical science basis for climate change as derived from 14,000 peer-reviewed studies over the last six years. The report’s more than 200 authors have spent years going over the most recent research and going back and forth responding to 70,000 comments. In the last two weeks, they put together the summary for policymakers, which puts the relevant data into a much shorter presentation that’s meant to be more accessible to policymakers and other laypeople. That’s about 40 pages, whereas the full report is almost 4,000 pages. So a lot of work has gone into this; it’s not so much new information as it is a synthesis that allows us to say with confidence that climate change is “unequivocally” caused by human activity—mostly the burning of fossil fuels. People who are deep in the field have known much of the information presented here for some time, but the report makes that presentable to everyone else and synthesizes that information in useful ways.

DK: So from the perspective of someone like you, it’s less that there’s surprising and disturbing new information in the report and more that it’s equipping you to make arguments you’ve been making with greater authority and urgency?

KA: Yeah, in a sense. The information is definitely disturbing. And while much of it isn’t new, the tone scientists who tend to underplay things take up in it—calling this “code red for humanity,” for instance—should be a wake-up call.

DK: Initial responses to this report, especially on social media, seemed to reflect some mixture of terror and mourning. Is that reaction warranted? Is it productive?

KA: I have kind of a funny lens on this, because I honestly feel pretty desensitized. But I think a big part of the blame lies with the way the report was presented by mainstream outlets like The New York Times or The Washington Post, which were really boiling down this 4,000-page report to the most doom-filled headlines you can imagine. The big takeaway of the coverage was that climate change is now irreversible, that we have passed the 1.5 degree temperature increase threshold. These are claims that have some basis in the report, but they don’t present the full picture.

Let’s start with the claim that climate change is irreversible. What this refers to in the actual report is that there is an amount of warming that’s already locked in—we’ve warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees Celsius already, and there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere for that to increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But that hasn’t happened yet, in part because we have forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

It’s true that we are going to live in a warmer world no matter what, but I think some of this coverage is so irresponsible, because it suggests we’ve reached a point of no return. The reality, according to the IPCC, is that every 10th of a degree translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount. There’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of suffering that can be prevented.

It’s really tough to absorb that the natural world as we’ve known it no longer exists. But there are many, many ways to keep things from getting infinitely worse, and to miss that is to miss the point of this report, which puts the ball for stopping ever-more catastrophic warming in governments’ court.

DK: It seems like there’s a thin line between, on the one hand, getting people appropriately alarmed about the scale of the crisis, and on the other hand, encouraging fatalism and apathy that ultimately help preserve the status quo.

KA: Yeah. There’s a frustrating cottage industry of climate communications focused on gaming out the best way to present people with information about this overwhelming existential problem. I think the much bigger issue is that there are few obvious institutions for people to get involved with to do anything about it. Of course people are going to be fatalistic about climate change if there’s not a natural path to acting on the knowledge provided by this kind of report in order to make policy change. Otherwise, what are people expected to do? So it’s been really exciting to see the growth of things like the Sunrise Movement and the DSA Ecosocialist Caucus, which gives people a way to talk about the overwhelming nature of the problem and to form a political community around it. When you’re just reading a really depressing spreadsheet, it’s hard to connect those dots.

DK: You wrote a piece in The New Republic after the report came out accusing Democrats of “climate denial.” Where do you see the Democrats falling short with regard to the climate crisis?

KA: Right now, what we’re seeing from the Biden administration is lip service to the idea that climate change is an existential threat; several members of the administration have said that they want to keep warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But there’s a real disconnect between that kind of language and what is actually happening, and the kinds of fights they’re willing to pick. What you often see from Democrats across the board is this idea that climate policy is something that’s purely additive—that if we just invest money in building more renewables and electric vehicles and transmission lines, that will take care of the problem on its own. It’s as if, magically, if you make those things cheap enough, they will out-compete the types of vehicles and power sources that are fueling the problem. There is a real reluctance to take on the fossil fuel industry, or to name oil and gas as things that need to be taken out of our energy system very quickly.

In some cases, we’ve seen very real progress in terms of what the White House and some Democrats in Congress are asking for—in making climate a jobs issue, framing it as an investment project that will make people’s lives better. But it’s still a third rail to talk about a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry. There’s been so much evidence over the last several years that we need to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and simply building more green things won’t do that.

Right after the IPCC report came out, the administration called on OPEC+ (OPEC and other major oil producers that coordinate with it) to start pumping more oil to bring down gas prices. It’s not new for a White House to care more about cheap gas than the climate, obviously. But an administration that says it’s taking an all-of-government approach to tackling the crisis can’t continue pretending those two positions can coexist.

DK: I think conscientious people are aware that we need to drive less, take fewer flights, eat less meat, and so on. But beyond all these individual consumer choices, what exactly can we reasonably demand of the Biden administration and our dismal Congress that they’re not doing and plausibly might do?

KA: In the short term, there’s a pretty limited range of things to be asked for. One thing I think is tremendously important, and that there’s some disagreement about on the left, is setting a clean energy standard through a reconciliation package now that the bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed the Senate. That’s worth calling your elected representative about, and demanding especially that “clean” not include fossil fuels. We also need to establish a Civilian Climate Corps, loosely modeled off the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which would create living-wage jobs for folks to do low-carbon work all around the country. It’s important that this isn’t just a glorified AmeriCorps program—it shouldn’t just be an expansion of an underpaid workforce that already exists, but instead a really strong program that can extend into the future and give people a path toward unionized jobs. We need to fight for every sort of climate line item to be as big as possible, and to ratchet up the amount of climate spending that makes it in.

DK: Are there policy changes that people in cities like New York can be pushing for on a more local level to ameliorate climate change in a significant way?

KA: We’ll have to see what the next legislative session looks like with Andrew Cuomo gone!

DK: It’s pretty exciting! Nice to get a little bit of good news for once.

KA: It’s so good. Cuomo did the classic establishment Democrat thing: There was a bill passed in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which set a goal for New York to reduce its carbon emissions. Since then, for two years, Albany has not passed any climate legislation, despite having many options available to it. For instance, they could stop the state from approving new gas-fired power plants unless they can prove that the power can’t come from any other source. The Climate and Community Investment Act would levy a modest carbon fee throughout the state and raise revenue to invest in green projects. The Build Public Renewables Act would require the New York Power Authority, our existing public power provider, to build up renewables.

DK: Last thing: The Jewish Currents staff put out a podcast this week about mental health in the context of, among other depressing developments, the climate disasters we’ve been seeing all summer. Do you have any advice for those of us who want everything you want, but are experiencing existential despair right now? How do you cope?

KA: Well, my first piece of advice is to get a good therapist. Second, I think there’s something to be said for not taking in all this information and grappling with it alone. A real benefit of organizing, besides the fact that it can hopefully change some of these things, is that it gives you like-minded folks to talk to on a regular basis about this and not feel like you’re just sitting behind a computer reading a really depressing PDF.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.