Oh the Ice Will Split and the Cities Be Hit

Antarctic ice

Friday

There’s more bad news on the climate change front. According to the most recent on-line issue of Nature, the Antarctic ice sheet is much less stable than scientists once thought. This means that

continued growth in greenhouse-gas emissions over the next several decades could trigger an unstoppable collapse of Antarctica’s ice — raising sea levels by more than a metre by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500.

Yesterday I taught Perdido Street Station, China Miéville’s remarkable Victorian steampunk fantasy-sci-fi novel. What with the environmental news, I couldn’t help but focus on his description of the hydrocarbons being poured into the air. The narrator, an angel who has been stripped of his wings, is horrified when he turns a river bend and suddenly comes upon the polluted city of New Corbuzon:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirty into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in.

The description sounds as though it has been inspired by Dickens’s description of Coketown in Hard Times. We see in the angel’s reaction some of the fatalism that GOP politicians have succumbed to: they believe that nothing can be done and so we should do nothing. We are being sucked inexorably into our doom. The angel asks a topographical question that functions as a metaphor for this future:

How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveler?

It is too late to flee.

Luckily, in our case it’s not yet too late to flee. According to one of the co-authors of the study, there’s room for hope:

The good news, he says, is that [the study] projects little or no sea-level rise from Antarctic melt if greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced quickly enough to limit the average global temperature rise to about 2 °C.

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine says that this goal is within reach. He adds, however, that we will keep the temperature rise down only if the next administration doesn’t undo President Obama’s climate change progress. Chait sums up what has been accomplished so far:

[The] rise could be mitigated if the political response under way worldwide continues. And things are happening. China is reducing the carbon intensity of its economy very rapidly. Innovators in the private sector, responding to signals from political leaders who have committed to carbon reductions, have brought down the cost of clean energy nearly to parity already, and the cost curve is continuing to head downward.

Surveying the political landscape, Chait concludes,

It sounds partisan to say, but it remains true: The fate of humanity rests to a very large degree on keeping the Republican Party out of power for as long as possible.

Previous Posts on Climate Change:

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

 The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviordirectly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

I’ve also written a couple of articles on the emerging genre of eco-lit:

Literature and Climate Change

A Talk with a Cli-Fi Activist

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

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