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The climate denial plague will return

As the pandemic was shutting down California and other states last March, I ordered copies of The Plague by Albert Camus and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Apparently many others did too. Somehow I’d never read either book and this seemed like the appropriate time. Other projects got in the way, but I finished The Plague around the time of the November election.

Camus’ novel is about bubonic plague overtaking a small North African city. The book is not particularly dense or difficult; it’s in the same category of low-complexity novels as Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s not a complaint. The power of such novels comes from their templates for thinking of society’s structures and human behavior during crises. A novel written a year after WWII was meant to be commentary on more than a hypothetical contagion. The Third Reich had just been defeated and there was no guarantee that fascism wouldn’t return some day.

Part of what made for exciting reading were the parallels to COVID-19. The early denialism among the public, the pussy-footing from politicians, the altruism of ordinary citizens (motivated by “comprehension,” not heroism, we’re told), and even some comments on wearing masks. But it wasn’t really the connections to the current pandemic that wore on me for the weeks after reading the book. My obsessive mind couldn’t stop thinking about the connections to the world’s current greatest emergency, the climate crisis.

The novel’s famous ending finds the protagonist doctor lamenting that even though everyone is dancing in the streets to celebrate the plague’s end, one day the disease might come back to “rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Cousins of the diseased rats who staggered through the beginning of the novel are still living in the sewers, perhaps ready to unleash destruction again.

This is an allegory for climate change too. More specifically, the politics of climate change. The fundamental crisis we’ve been dealt is the plague of climate denial. And to a lesser extent, the pest of climate apathy.

Climate denialism has propagated through America for the past ten to fifteen years, supported by massive private interests whose ideas metastasized to the media, academia, the classroom, and the leadership of one of the world’s two most powerful political parties. It infected virtually every sector of society. The extraordinary effectiveness and insidiousness of this bacillus denialicus has been well documented. And it has been, bar none, the biggest impediment to solving the crisis. See here for an intro to the topic. As civilization stares down a fever of droughts, crop failures, flooding, and (most importantly) destruction of the economy, climate denial has become the paralyzing disease that prevents us from enacting the straightforward policies that would be necessary.

For now, it seems that we’ve fought back enough of the denialism and the apathy, both nationally and internationally. We should allow ourselves some partying, as citizens did in the novel. Nationally, not only does the only major non-denialist American political party have narrow control of two government branches, at the same time they have an electorate that finally supports climate legislation. And internationally, the Greta et alia revolution has been a much bigger boost for government action than the Paris accords ever were. (I’m actually uncomfortable giving too much credit to Greta Thunberg--maybe it was just a simple zeitgeist thing. But who knows? I have no special insight into capital-H History.) For now, we might be in the clear.

But when a disease is tempered, it usually returns, rare exceptions like polio notwithstanding. The question is whether civilization will sufficiently decarbonize before the denialists regain political power.

So, should we expect a resurgence? There is no way of knowing, but here are three hypothetical scenarios for the year 2030 that are worth keeping in mind. I think about them often. They’re meant to represent the range of possible outcomes.

Scenario 2030-A (good). Solar, wind, and storage fall in cost even faster than predicted. Seeing that the gig is up, most of the facade denialists (who went along only because it was politically useful to them) stop disagreeing with facts. The true denialists remain virulent, but no one pays them any attention. In any case, political spending from “big green” has already eclipsed that of the petroleum mafia. Shocking research breakthroughs in the mid-2020’s put us on an unstoppable path toward decarbonizing industry, aviation, and even cement, which was not thought possible just a few years before. There is no serious opportunity for plague to return.

Scenario 2030-B (medium). The electricity and transportation sectors are more than halfway to being decarbonized, but not much progress is made in other sectors. Overall we decarbonize 40% by 2030 but it is clear that progress is about to stagnate. The public loses interest in climate change---wasn’t that something we solved way back in 2023? There is no political or business initiative taken in decarbonizing difficult sectors like industry and aviation, and agriculture emissions grow faster than anyone expected. The losers of the energy transition get a second wind, leading to fossil fuel propaganda’s massive resurgence. We’re still headed for disaster, just at half the speed. Polls show that a majority again believes that climate hawks are being “alarmist,” and we begin a renewed fight against the contagion of denialism.

Scenario 2030-C (bad). The 2022 midterm elections lead to Republican takeovers of House and Senate. Because (like it or not) America has the most influence on technology and global politics, this is the beginning of a severe setback. By 2024, the loss of America’s appetite is contagious among allies, especially right-wing governments and petro-states. Progress slows in China as well. Some other global crisis (another pandemic or war) pushes climate down the priority list yet again. Solar and wind continue their march (this is inevitable), but stall at about three-fifths of national electricity use by 2030, with similar results globally. With the sole exceptions of the EU and Japan, electric vehicles are not widely adopted. In most of the world, all other emitting sectors are more or less ignored. We have more work in front of us than ever before.

It’s impossible to predict, but none of these scenarios would shock me. And it’s useful to keep all of them in mind as we prepare for political changes in the next few years. My guess is that Scenario B is closest to what will actually happen. Clean power is broadly popular, and the economics have already mostly won on their own merits. (Yes, without subsidies. That’s been the case in many locations for many years. Please stop asking that.) But I’m not so sure, and bad precedents are everywhere; for example, one would have thought coal should have declined much more rapidly than it did.

This potential resurgence of the denial crowd is what I’m stuck on when I think of Camus’s story. I’ll be accused of stretching the allegory too far. Any attempted comparison between climate and the rest of the novel would be a stretch, but I think this narrow comparison is helpful. In the past two years there was finally a massive effort to fight back the diseased rodents of the climate denial community, from all of society---universities, activists, journalists, writers, some corporations, and of course climate scientists. And now we have a limited window before all the falsehoods return and spread.

But we don’t have to sit around and wait for a resurgence. Nor should we. We know the two requirements for maintaining immunity. First, don’t let anyone forget what we’re up against. Continue to write letters to the editor, share news with friends, press for divestment, participate in mass public protest, and contact politicians. Second, in the words of David Roberts, blitz blitz blitz in the next one to four years. The deeper we are into the energy transition, the harder it will be for civilization’s adversaries to reverse course.

We should revel in the current moment just as the townspeople in The Plague did after their victory over the disease. We should enjoy watching the climate sprint taking place in Washington. But let’s not get too complacent. Perhaps the day will come when, for the bane and enlightening of everyone, the climate propagandists will rouse up their rats again, and send them forth. We have the remedies and we need to be prepared.


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