Apocalypse Then, and Now

Joel Bellman

In February of 1982, when our biggest fear was still nuclear war, the New Yorker devoted three issues to a powerful and influential essay by the journalist Jonathan Schell, later published as the book, The Fate of the Earth. Portentously chaptered as “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” “The Second Death,” and “The Choice,” Schell sketched the looming apocalypse with incantatory power.

“The disparity between the cause and the effect of our peril is so great that our minds seem all but powerless to encompass it,” he wrote. “It is as though life itself were one huge distraction, diverting our attention from the peril to life.”

Meticulously laying out his case in sometimes paralyzing detail, Schell concluded: “Two paths lie before us. One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path—if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about—then we, in effect, become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken.”

Flash forward to 2019, where another Jonathan (Franzen), writing in the current New Yorker, addresses a different but no less perilous threat to the future of our planet. In What If We Stopped Pretending?, Franzen asserts that, “The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it.”

Then, in a nihilistic flourish redolent of Dante (“abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), Franzen, a novelist, adds, “If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

Against a doomscape that evokes a scenario out of the The Twilight Zone, the Democratic National Committee decided against holding a climate-focused debate, handing CNN a golden opportunity to seize the issue with a seven-hour marathon climate crisis town hall showcasing the various plans of the ten top-tier candidates.

I spent a good chunk of time watching it, and was mainly struck by three things:

  1. There’s a huge overlap among most of their plans, mainly because…
  2. Many of the candidates cribbed their ideas, with attribution, from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and …
  3. Maybe the DNC was right to decline the topic, at least in terms of audience appeal, since Inslee had been polling around 0.2% despite making the “existential threat” of climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, and the CNN climate special finished third behind the regular programming of Fox News and MSNBC, respectively.

The top five—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg—all broadly agree that:

  •   The U.S. needs to rejoin the Paris climate accord
  •   We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to reach a net-zero carbon imprint
  •   We should curtail or eliminate fracking altogether
  •   We should impose some form of carbon pricing or a carbon tax
  •   It will require economic incentives and regulation (Warren), international cooperation (Biden/Buttigieg), investigations and lawsuits against bad actors (Harris), and punishing taxation on fossil-fuel industry and nationalizing energy utilities (Sanders)
  •   Nuclear power is not a viable option until the waste issue is solved
  •   Impacted workers need to be retrained and assisted in the transition to green jobs
  •   The proposed costs range from $1.1 trillion (Buttigieg) to $16.3 trillion (Sanders)
  •   Everyone likes cheeseburgers and they would not be prohibited

My thumbnail assessment so far is that Warren understands the economics best and has the most thoughtful plan; Biden and Buttigieg rightly emphasize multilateral global efforts (since the U.S. only produces 15% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions); Harris is out of her policy depth and defaults too much to litigation; and Sanders is still struggling with basic economics, claiming he will save $400 billion annually by ending fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks, and that his $16.3 trillion plan will pay for itself in 15 years.

With the first round of climate campaign pitches out of the way, it’s time for a reality check.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2018, fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) constituted 80% of the primary energy production in the United States, and 79% of its consumption; nuclear is another 9% of production and 8% of consumption. Of the 11% of the consumption currently produced from renewable sources, solar contributed 8%, or 0.9% of total energy output, and wind, 22% or 2.4% of the total. In other words, last year wind and solar, which Sanders implies could and should completely replace fossil fuels within 15 years, currently stands at only 3%. Fully 44% of that 11% renewable contribution comes from biomass (e.g. wood, ethanol, waste), and 23%, or 2.5%, comes from hydroelectric, mainly those nasty old dams.

Numbers vary, but many scientists give us less than 12 years to change course before “irreversible” climate changes occur.

Franzen, writing in The New Yorker, has all but given up already. I’m not there yet. But I’m still not seeing any plausible plan to flip the mix from almost 90% fossil-fuel/nuclear energy to an entirely net-zero carbon and renewable-resource mix by 2050, much less 2035, no matter how many trillions they promise to spend.

Democratic candidates who truly see this as an “existential threat” must move beyond blank-check white papers and second-hand talking points and present plans they can actually put into action.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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